The most important distance

A famous golfer once said the most important distance in golf is the six inches between your ears. I was reminded of this yesterday, as I watched defending Masters champion Jordan Spieth play so beautifully to take a five shot lead going into the final nine holes of The Masters only to get in his own way for three holes – numbers 10 – 12. This is to take nothing away from the winner Danny Willett who played brilliantly and was his own story deciding to play after his first child (a son) was born early and not on the due date which was the day Willett won the tournament.

Spieth made a few bad swings to start the back nine bogey and bogey and then walked to the 12th tee box, a tantalizing short par three hole over water with the water angled back to consume right fading shots. With the frustration from two consecutive bogeys lingering in his head, he proceeded to hit the one golf shot he shouldn’t, fading it too much into the water. That was the first mistake, but was compounded when he dropped closer to the hole rather than in a designated drop area, which was his choice.

From there, he did what many of us less talented golfers do and hit it short into the water again. The next shot wound up in a sand trap and eventually he putted out for a quadruple bogey seven. To his credit, he birdied two of the next three holes, and almost another, which would have made it more interesting had it fallen in the hole. But, when it missed, what little momentum he had regained had ebbed. Willett made five birdies and no bogeys (or worse) on this fine day of golf to win.

The space between our ears is where things are accomplished or not. We all make mistakes and get knocked down. How we react is what matters. In most cases, Spieth has and will again react well. A more famous and equally talented golfer has had this issue haunt him more than others – Greg Norman. On this same course, Norman let a six shot lead slip away and lose to Nick Faldo, one of the announcers in the booth yesterday.  He also has lost in several playoffs, with others making wonderful shots to beat him or his letting his inner voice get the better of him. To Norman’s credit, he has won two British Open titles and numerous other tournaments, but he could have won more major titles except for this albatross.

It should be noted Nick Faldo had this albatross early in his career, but overcame it. The British press can be cruel and called him Nick “Fold-o” as he collapsed under pressure in key tournaments. He later learned how to perform his swing better under pressure and won six major tournaments, evenly divided between three Masters and British Open titles. Like Norman did in other tournaments, Faldo found a way to win when the mistakes were magnified in big tournaments.

I once read an autobiography by the famous Dodger pitcher Orel Hershisher, who was renowned for pitching under pressure. When asked, he said he deals with perfection of the moment. He starts out wanting to throw a no-hitter, and when they get a hit, he tries to throw a one-hitter. He would shake off mistakes better than anyone and concentrate on the next batter. This sounds easier to do than it is. I can attest I found it hard to do this growing up as an athlete. I did find the more I had practiced, the calmer and more confident I felt. So, I was able to handle stress better in those occasions.

But, the real key is how do you respond when you mess up, be it golf, sports or life? Like life, golf is managing your mistakes. Even for the best of pros. Spieth will win more major championships, because he is talented and tenacious. He will also learn from his “thirty minutes of bad shots” as he called it. We must do the same in life. We must be accountable for our mistakes as Spieth did after the round. Because they will happen to all of us, even one of the best golfers in the world.

16 thoughts on “The most important distance

  1. The best I have ever seen at putting the past behind her was Chiris Evert. She never obsessed about the poor shot or the dropped game. She always played the next shot. And she played superbly when ahead — which is very difficult to do, as I am sure you know. That may have been part of Spieth’s problem: he could see himself putting on the green jacket again before it was his to put on!

    • I agree on both points. I once was asked to substitute for a hurt player to shoot his free throws at the end of a game. I made the first to tie the game, but missed the second as I briefly thought of being mentioned in the paper.

      Ironically, Evert and Greg Norman dated for awhile a few years ago and he actually did pretty well as an older player in the British Open. To bad, he did not have her grit and even temperedness.

  2. I wish I had control over the space between my ears. But I can start a defeating though loop that seems to get worse the more I recognize that I need to stop the pointless spiral.
    I agree – the stuff that happens in your head is the most important part of any activity.
    My best effort are when I’m not thinking about anything but what I am doing in that moment. I’m not thinking about what the outcome will be, I’m not thinking about what other people will see or feel, I’m not thinking about anything but that moments action. They call that flow. And its where all my best efforts happen.

    • This is a great definition of that self defeating thought loop. Here is a good example – when I have had these insecurities standing over a golf ball, very few times have I stepped away and refocused only to regret it later. Great comment.

  3. I know very little about golf but your mention of Oral Hershisher reminded me of an error streak by a LA Dodger player (darn, I can’t remember his name) I witnessed many years ago. The poor guy kept throwing wildly to first in an attempt to throw a runner out. The ball would usually end up in the bleachers. It went on for months, I think. He just couldn’t fix whatever was going on in the six inches between his ears. I felt so sorry for the guy… even though I wasn’t a Dodger fan.

    • Janis, I remember that. I am blanking on the player but will look it up. Ironically, Ian Baker Finch who was announcing yesterday on the 17th hole had to quit professional golf after winning the British Open. He started duck-hooking the ball into the crowds and could not get over it.

      • Janis, there were two famous players who had this problem, the first of which was a Dodger, Steve Sax. Sax eventually overcame his problem, but the problem is now called the “Steve Sax Syndrome.”

        The other was Chuck Knoblauch when he played for the Yankees. He eventually was moved to left field to continue his career.

        I remember how painful it was to watch Sax. Everyone was pulling for him, even the opposing team as most people do not want to win that way. Keith

      • I reacted the same way in his name popped up. As an competitor and fan, I always preferred for my team to win with both playing their best, not because of errors.

  4. Note to Readers: The most difficult thing I have had to watch was Jean van de Velde in the British Open. It all unfolded in slow motion with the announcers asking aloud what is he doing. He was teeing off on the last hole with a four shot lead. In a series of bad shots and bad decisions that kept compounding the problem, he shot a quadruple bogey eight on the par four. He courageously made a long putt to score the “snowman” as an 8 is often called, that got him in the playoff, but he did not stand a chance with his damaged psyche and lost to Paul Lawrie.

    • Kim, I understand. There are many metaphors in sports. My kids were not that interested in sports, but were in music. So, I was delighted they ended up in bands and choruses at school, as being part of a group working toward a goal is a great life lesson. Thanks, Keith

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