Horses for courses theory just another challenge to be overcome
Competitive edge is what inspires top golfers even if the course isn’t to their particular liking
Graeme McDowell watches his shot from a bunker on the third green during a practice round for The Players championship at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. Photograph: John Rouxa/PA
I saw that look in my fellow traveller’s eye last Monday when I told him my final destination was Jacksonville, Florida. Or more specifically the TPC Sawgrass at Ponte Vedra Beach just south of the main city in north east Florida.
He was going somewhere more mundane in north east England that promised similar grey-covered skies to home and below normal temperatures for May. The opposite of the image that Ponte Vedra Beach conjured up for him, one of soft sands, blue skies and muscle loosening warmth. How exotic he suggested, obviously a golfer.
Of course he was right and it would have been wrong of me to crack his rose-tinted glasses and point out the reality of a long transatlantic trip, connecting to yet another golf tournament.
The bottom line with professional golf is that although your destination may well sound and actually be an alluring location the enjoyment of your stay tends to be based on your performance. I suppose the art of longevity in the globe- trotting world of the golfer is to try to enjoy where you are despite what happens on the golf course.
But the chances are after a couple of decades on tour there are only two places you really want to be; home and away only if playing good golf. With the standard of courses on the PGA Tour today, you are normally guaranteed pristine playing surfaces.
Tees, fairways and greens are manicured and primed for the tour event and unless there has been extreme weather the chances are the course will be in perfect condition. Uncharacteristically this week, the Sawgrass greens are showing the signs of having endured a tough winter. It tends to be the inspiration of competition that gets these golfers going and not specifically the golf course.
Golf is played by memory as much as it is with a honed swing and a flexible golfing brain. The return to a certain course may invoke good, bad or mixed memories of previous experiences. With the seasoned professional there is the dilemma of choosing to play on a course that has in the past not yielded too much success. That can spur the head-strong player to embrace the challenge of attempting to break the bad-record cycle. When discussing the schedule, a frequent topic amongst the golfers’ teams of coaches, managers, caddies, psychologists and physical trainers is often the argument of ‘maybe its time to stop banging your head against the fairways of a course that has not seemed to have fit your eye in the past and take a break’.
But the one thing that motivates sportspeople is a challenge, so the mere suggestion of what may be perceived as giving in instead of an energy-saving sense, is enough to warrant another go at a course that has been historically difficult to deal with. Who can criticise another attempt to erase bad memories and try to play the course with a rare talent uninhibited by bad memories?
I know Pádraig Harrington used to struggle with the poa annua greens at Wentworth in May and therefore opted to give the flagship European event there a miss. When your playing options diminish with form, a player can be grateful to have a big money event to play in no matter how the greens wriggle and jiggle in the springtime.
In so far as golfers are blessed with a talent to play a very difficult game they can also treat that talent as a curse that will not leave them alone in the pursuit of realising that gift once again. Many people look at past champions like Pádraig and wonder how a three-time Major champion of just over half a decade ago can lose form like he has of late. The reality is that it is very difficult to dominate in golf for a long period of time despite the fact that you can stretch your golfing career over two decades unlike most sports where the life cycle is much shorter.
The problem with the longer playing span for a talented and successful golfer is that once you have enjoyed so much hard-earned merit in the early years it is almost torture trying to adapt to a less auspicious performance knowing what you have been capable of in the past.
No matter how talented the modern golfer is they also tend to be extremely hard- working. So, if anything, the likes of Pádraig and Darren Clarke are working even harder than they did as younger men in an effort to regain the glory of their former years. This can lead to even more frustration and physical exhaustion in search of the elusive combination of rare talent with scoring acumen. Realising when less is more is the most difficult reality for a talented and diligent golfer to accept.
As I wandered around the Stadium Course at Sawgrass, Ponte Vedra Beach in preparation for the richest event in golf, The Players Championship, I was reminded of my player Ernie Els’ track record here which by his own admission has been average. It’s hard to see why, with his superior ball-striking.
Nothing lasts forever, form or lack of it. That is the only way to approach our challenge in this year’s Players.
I am seeing the beauty of Ponte Vedra beach, I hope the traveller with whom I crossed paths last Monday in Dublin airport is seeing the bright side of north east England.