Breaking the Slump

I was reading Newsweek (on my Kindle, for a $1.49/month) and there was an article about this book. It looked cool, so I bought it (also on my Kindle, for $9.99). All this, in a 4 minute span while sharing a cup of coffee at a local coffee shop (Sip) with Gail. Like I said, the Kindle is transformational. It was my aha moment, as Steven Johnson discussed in the WSJ.

At times, I’ve voiced displeasure with the reporting of Jimmy Roberts. So it may come as a surprise that I purchased a book written by him. But hey, it’s about golf, and this topic of the slump really, really interests me. Actually, the whole synchronized interaction of physical, intellectual, and emotional that golf requires is what interests me. Johnny Miller puts it best:

“There’s no game that’s ever been invented that exposes someone’s choke point like golf,” says Miller. “It highlights all your weaknesses, mental and physical, and choking can really be part of a slump. It’s the most interesting thing about the game.”

I agree strongly, especially after watching Kenny Perry break down just a few weeks ago at Augusta. A buddy of mine was discussing this the other day and says (I’m paraphrasing) “any competent professional could go par-par or par-bogey and just win it.” He said it with disdain, as if Kenny Perry was some big loser not worthy of my buddy’s sporting attention, as if golf were not worthy of his sporting attention.

This is a common perception of the casual fan and reflects a fundamental lack of understanding of the game. Here’s the deal: it does not matter how proficient your golf skills are, you are NOT in control of how your body and soul react on the golf course when the pressure is on. You can’t control it, you can only hope to contain it! Kenny couldn’t contain it this year at Augusta, Phil couldn’t contain it a few years ago at Winged Foot; and countless others have had Van de Veldeian breakdowns with apparently no explanation other than “they choked.”

And Jimmy Roberts helped me understand this a little better. For that, I’m grateful. So I’m a fan of Jimmy now. In this book he talks to 18 people about their slumps; each one has a chapter devoted to them. Fifteen are current or former PGA Tour professionals, one is an Olympic figure skater (Dan Jansen), one is a former POTUS (George H.W. Bush), and one is a former LPGA player (Dottie Pepper). Each chapter was enlightening to varying degrees.

The Norman chapter was great. In 1991 he had gone two years without winning after dominating the world stage for most of the 1980’s. He pulled his car to side of the road near his home in Florida and had a long talk with himself:

“And I said to myself, ‘What the f&%# am I going to the course for?’ I said, ‘What are your intentions? What do you want to do? Do you want to get better? Do you want to get out of this thing? What’s your attitude?’” Norman says he sat there for perhaps forty minutes just staring at the clouds and talking to himself. “I swear I could take you to that spot today. It was on Hood Road.” Then he put the seat up, continued on to Old Marsh, and, for the first time in a long time, practiced with “a free mind.” It was an epiphany.

He went to win a bunch more in the mid 1990’s, but it was a cursed career, which Norman has come to terms with:

“I always address my career not on my successes, but on my failures,” he says. “I’ve got this little thing written on my desk, and I can’t remember who the quote came from, but it says, ‘Show me a path with no obstacles, and that path will lead you nowhere.’” This is classic Norman, who has always been Don Quixote—occasionally tilting at windmills—on an endless trek to find answers, and not just about golf. “If I had a different thought than somebody else,” he says, “I always wanted to know why I was right or wrong.”

This tortured career was nothing compared to that of David Duval. By golly, did he drop off the face of the earth or what? It seems like neither Duval or Norman really stood guard over their confidence. Here is what Duval says:

“The thing I feel like I learned the most through anything,” he says, “is that the most precious commodity in golf that needs to be guarded is your confidence. By far, you’ve got to protect it at all costs. Losing friends, losing whatever—you’ve got to protect your confidence.”

You just can’t let negative thoughts creep in. It means the end of your golf career basically.

The Dan Jansen chapter was the best of them all. He choked horribly in two Olympic Games, but finally won gold in his final race. He did so by convincing himself that he “liked the 1,000 meters.” He had always had all the talent, so he basically talked himself into the confidence he needed for the victory. Now he is a golf junkie and he relates his experiences back to golf. Enlightening and interesting stuff.

The Johnny Miller and Dottie Pepper chapters were solid. And Jimmy Roberts proved himself to be a pretty serious golf junkie. I’m looking forward to NBC’s golf coverage, but we really don’t get Johnny Miller and Jimmy Roberts back until The Players on May 9th and 10th and the US Open on June 20th and 21st. Oh well, I’ll sit tight.