Here's a trick for you: say your own name out loud. Now say it again. Again. Again. Keep saying your own name, over and over again. (Use your discretion if you're reading this at work or in a public location.) At some point, the sound of your name will cease to be your name; it'll just be a collection of syllables strung together.
That point right there, that moment when your own name sounds strange to your ears: that's the moment where golfers lose tournaments. That's the moment where they lose focus, where they let their mind wander. And that's the moment putts skid off the edge of the cup, approaches skid off the edge of the green, drives skid off the edge of the earth.
Phil Mickelson is the most recent high-profile victim of focus loss; his missed three-footer on 11 at the Open Championship last week may well have cost him the tournament. It's not just the lost stroke on that putt, of course; it's the lost strokes that come from trying desperately to regain that focus, grasping at whatever shards of hope you can as you try to straighten out.
"I just let my mind slip," Mickelson told Charlie Rose earlier this week. "I started thinking ahead instead of focusing on the putt…I started thinking about the 12th hole when I was playing 11. I've got to work on my focus. Missing a 3-foot putt is not a technical thing, it's more of a mental focus."
So how do you regain that focus? Heck, if I could tell you that, I'd be writing this from a private jet, getting chauffeured from tournament to tournament to serve the splintery psyches of pro golfers. (Still willing to do that, by the way, golfers.)
You watch Phil on the course, and he's an absolute fan's dream. He nods, he shakes hands, he hands out balls to the gallery as he walks off greens. At 2009's Tour Championship, a young girl in a wheelchair was watching the play from a little bluff overlooking the 15th tee. Mickelson teed off and began walking up the fairway. A course marshal came over to the little girl holding a signed glove. "Phil wanted you to have this," he said.
Same tournament, different hole: Tiger Woods was walking down the fairway of 18 when a young boy shouted "Hi Tiger Woods! Hi Tiger Woods!" Woods looked the kid's way and gave him a silent, barely perceptible "'sup" nod. Everyone around the boy reacted as if he'd gotten a blessing from the Pope himself, so deeply ingrained was Woods' reputation for indifference to the galleries. (Full disclosure: the kid was my son. We both have our ways of getting under Woods' skin.)
Anyway, the purpose of the comparison is not to draw favorites, but distinctions. Woods, at least the pre-hydrant version, has a tunnel-vision focus that doesn't let any input not directly relevant to the next shot into his range of analysis. Mickelson approaches golf as a community sport, one where he's appealing to, and riding the affections of, the gallery. Purely from a golf perspective, Woods won more tournaments, but Mickelson connected more with the fans. It's up to you to decide on whose side you stand.
This emphasis on focus, the way mind and body must combine in perfect precision, is why Sunday afternoons are so much fun to watch. Anybody who slags golf as nothing but slapping a little white ball across the ground has absolutely zero understanding of the mental acuity needed to play at the highest level.
(Aside: One of the complaints leveled against golfers, particularly the ones who get all diva-like at the sound of one camera snapping, is that if baseball players can hit 100-mph fastballs in noisy stadiums, why do golfers need silence with every shot? The answer is that it's not the noise that's the issue, it's the consistency of the sound. Constant noise isn't any more of a problem for concentration than silence. If you want to really wreck an opposing free thrower's concentration, don't scream your head off, stay dead silent until he's about to shoot and then scream. That's what's disruptive.)
As is so often the case, no matter how many technological improvements in equipment we see, Bobby Jones was right: golf is still about those few inches between your ears. If, at next month's PGA Championship, some poor soul is standing over an easy putt with the major on the line, don't hope that he understands what he's putting for. Hope, for his sake, that he has no clue.
Oh, you can stop saying your name now. You'll remember what it means soon enough.
- Tiger Woods