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The psychology of winning – and losing

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What appeared to the naked eye to be a heartwarming story of good guy Jerry Kelly’s return to the winner’s circle after a seven-year absence offered us also, upon closer inspection, a fascinating look at golf’s most looming boogie man – the psychology of winning.

A wise writer friend once told me his favorite sport to write about was boxing. I asked why. “Because it’s basic,” he said.

By that, I think he meant that all the qualities that go into a great competition – strategy, fortitude, adversity, talent – are all on obvious display in the ring. There’s no hiding behind the old “I have to watch the film and then I’ll get back to you” cliché, or long, drawn-out conclusions littered with TV timeouts. Fifteen rounds, three minutes per round, and have at it, boys.

Golf is the same way. We have the competitor visible to the naked eye, not hidden behind pads or helmets. We have the task in front of him laid out – 440 yards of green grass. We see the ball, and his swing, and we watch him handle the pressure. He either succeeds or he fails and we’re there for all of it.

Which brings us to Charles Howell III.

After another tragic stumble down the stretch, we’re left to wonder about Howell’s ability to psychologically handle the toughest moments in golf – the winning moments. Understand, the kid shot 68 on a Sunday in New Orleans. He put himself into position to win the Zurich Classic with six excellent birdies in his first 14 holes.

But an errant drive on 15 led to a bogey. A conservative play on 16 led to a par on a birdie hole. An outright three-putt betrayal by his putter on 17 led to a bogey. Even the par-5 18th, a birdie hole, couldn’t be birdied by Howell, and his two-over tally for the final four holes left him still with just two career wins in 260 starts. For a player with his magnificent golf swing, you start to wonder why this keeps happening to him. It happened at the Sony Open in Hawaii in January, too, when he failed to close hard down the stretch and let Zach Johnson take home the big cardboard check.

What is it that separates the winner’s mentality from the loser’s mentality? Is it an inner belief? A superior technical approach? A burning desire to be better than everyone else?

Kelly was enduring a similar streak of woe, not having won since ’02. But given an opportunity to play himself out of it – bogeys on 8 and 10 – he rallied with birdies on 11 and 14 for a two-under finish on his final eight holes. Despite seven years without capturing that winning feeling, something inside of Jerry Kelly made his body perform as it needed to down the stretch. Pars on 15, 16, 17 and 18 brought him the sweet relief of victory, and Kelly, one of the most ebullient players on the PGA Tour, celebrated with gusto, leading the Dixieland band off the winner’s ceremony with a dance and a smile.

Maybe Kelly’s personality had something to do with his ability to close when he had the chance. He likes to think of himself as a bulldog, but he was also able to separate from the pressure when he needed to. His walk up to the 18th green could have been a solemn ceremony of concentration, two putts still needed for the win. Instead, Kelly engaged the crowd, and applauded their way. Then, when he got in front of the grandstand, he rubbed his belly in exaggerated fashion, as if to say: “You guys done fed this Cheesehead WELL this week!”

It was a human moment, and an endearing one. When he left his 18-footer some three feet short, things got tense. But Kelly chuckled, then knocked in the winner. Was his ability to relax and be himself the difference between winning and losing?

To Howell’s credit, he faced the media afterwards, and took a live interview with CBS. Always an accessible sort, Howell laid it on the line: “I don’t know what to say. I didn’t finish it off … I played a lot of good holes, but wish I could have finished it better.”

He went off into the Sunday evening, still searching for that elixir. That’s the beauty of sports. His search will play out in front of our eyes, and we may well see him find it yet.

Scorecard of the week

71-67-67-72 – Morgan Pressel, 277, 15-under, tie-7th, LPGA Corona Championship.

I feel I know Morgan Pressel – in detailed ways I never imagined. For this, I have to thank an absurdly addictive website called athletetweets.com. Yes, a website where you can keep up-to-the-minute tabs on athletes who “tweet,” or use the ridiculous social networking tool Twitter. Thanks to this, I know that Morgan Pressel did the following this week during the LPGA stop in Mexico:

Followed the Detroit Red Wings-Columbus Blue Jackets Game 4 online in her hotel room.

Worried that her online access was slow, and she was missing key action from her beloved Red Wings.

Used her high school Spanish to hold a 20-minute conversation with the man who drove her to the golf course.

Tried to kill Saturday night by doing Sudoku, claiming it “addictive.” And yet, an hour later, our protagonist gave up, and said she was headed to sleep.

Wondered why Americans obsess on drinking bottled water in Mexico, since dishes are washed and lettuce leaves are cleansed in tap water.

Urged her LPGA Tour friend, Meaghan Francella, to also tweet.

Was bummed that she woke up at 5:30 am and had a later tee time. At this point, our heroine had to go to the gym, because if she stayed in her room, she would just online shop.

Exulted in her Red Wings’ sweep, urging us all to “break out the brooms!”

Had enough? I know, I know.

The level of intimacy is both maddening and fascinating. I will now know Morgan Pressel, one of the best female golfers in the world, only as the Red Wings Fan/online shopper/early riser/Sudoku-puzzler/elementary Spanish-speaking tweeter. Plus, now Francella’s scorecard becomes an object of interest. Perhaps Francella should stop tweeting and start making putts, as her 78-77 weekend dropped her to a tie-68th.

Pressel is a multi-tasker. While Lorena Ochoa was adding to her legend in her home country with yet another win, Pressel was able to tweet all week and still post a top-10. Tweet away, Morgan. Sadly, I’ll still be following. Maybe I should try reading a book, or spending quality time with the family. How’s that for a concept?

Mulligan of the week

• Sure, we could stay on the golf course and say Rory Sabbatini’s missed 20-footer for eagle and then missed two-footer for bird on 16 calls out for a Mulligan of the Week. Staying on the golf course, however, is antithetical to this column – especially when it’s just another tour stop, sans Tiger and Phil.

Instead, we turn our attention to the off-course news that native Louisianan David Toms has invested in a restaurant in Shreveport called Bistro Byronz. Apparently, there is another Bistro Byronz open in Baton Rouge, and it’s quite successful. So, good for David Toms. Right?

Not so fast. I wish the man nothing but the best, and in this economy, we should applaud anybody pumping some dough into the local market, but anytime I hear that an athlete is investing in a restaurant, I want to call my broker and weep. That is, if I had a broker. My 401(k) is aching so badly, brokers stay away from my portfolio as if it’s radioactive.

Back to Toms. The athlete-restaurant landscape is littered with carcasses. For every Don Shula’s Steakhouse, there are names like Larry Bird, Lawrence Taylor, Johnny Unitas and Jim McMahon as athletes who learned that investing in a restaurant isn’t as easy as throwing on a chef’s hat and shouting “BAM!” when you sprinkle some spice on a dish.

New rule: Athletes with leftover cash should only invest in failsafe ventures, no matter how unromantic. We’re talking coin-operated laundries, toilet paper and deodorant. These things never go out of style, my friends. So, let’s take David Toms’ investment in a restaurant and … give that man a mulligan!

(David, of course, I jest. Wishing you the best, pal. Bon appétit!)

Broadcast moment of the week

“You gotta go get it!” – Gary McCord, CBS, pleading for Charles Howell III to drive the short par-4 16th.

“Come on, Gary … strategy rules.” – Nick Faldo, CBS, contrasting McCord’s opinion, endorsing Howell’s lay-up.

Yeah! McCord and Faldo go MMA in the Bayou!

Well, not totally. But still, that was a spirited give-and-take between the Mustachioed One and the Stiff Upper Lip. Keen memories will recall the duo had a similar smack down at Oakland Hills during last year’s PGA Championship, when Faldo questioned Sergio Garcia’s line of fire at the par-4 16th, a hole Garcia wound up gagging en route to Padraig Harrington’s second consecutive major and third overall.

This one goes to McCord. Howell had just made bogey on 15 to move from a one-shot lead to a tie for the lead, and his lay-up looked tentative. Somewhere, somebody once said that sports rewards aggression. Then again, golf also rewards lay-ups. Sometimes. (See Beck, Chip.)

As Peter Kostis then adroitly pointed out, a Howell lay-up put pressure on his short game, which, as Kostis said, is a weakness for Howell. And we wonder why he has only won twice with that golf swing.

When Howell flew his second shot over the green, then had to scramble for a par, failing to gain a stroke at a birdie hole, Faldo sighed: “Gary, you’re always right.” Faldo’s molars are still feeling the pain of the grind from that statement.

Where do we go from here?

• Here comes the varsity. Phil, Tiger and even Sergio – can we call him varsity? – come to Charlotte, N.C., for the suddenly chic Quail Hollow Championship. In a very short time since its birth in ’03, Quail Hollow has become a marquee regular-season tour stop, somewhere along the lines of the Memorial and Torrey Pines. Basically, that’s code for “Tiger plays it.”

Of course, Quail Hollow did itself no disservice by rolling out the plushest amenities of nearly any tour stop. Players’ wives are treated like First Ladies, caddies get catered meals, and each player is feted as if he were the Sultan of Brunei.

Let’s see how Tiger handles his post-Masters funk. After all, we have the Players Championship the week after, and then the countdown to Bethpage begins.

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