Brotherhood of the slump
Breaking a prolonged drought isn’t easy, but these TOUR pros found their way back
February 18, 2020
By Cameron Morfit, PGATOUR.COM
Breaking a prolonged drought isn’t easy, but these TOUR pros found their way back
Jordan Spieth is working through one. Brendon Todd just came out of one. And Henrik Stenson survived one so severe it compelled him to practice hitting shots blindfolded.
Behold the slump. The drought. The long, dark night of the soul.
Just how lost can you get and still find your way back? The good news for Spieth is recent victories by Tiger Woods (ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP), Todd (Bermuda Championship, Mayakoba Golf Classic) and Stenson (Hero World Challenge) hint at the answer: pretty spectacularly lost.
If you’ve noticed a trend of shocking career comebacks on the PGA TOUR lately, you’re not alone. Andrew Landry said it best after missing seven of his first eight cuts this season before winning The American Express in mid-January. “It’s crazy,” Landry said. “This is the wildest game that you can play. That’s why you just got to keep grinding it out.”
Although painful for the players involved, these fallow periods may be the most relatable thing about the TOUR. Most of us will never uncork a 350-yard drive or birdie the 17th at TPC Sawgrass with the cameras rolling, but everyone can relate to a demoralizing dumpster fire of failures, be they screenplays or jobs or relationships.
Such is life on TOUR when the missed cuts are piling up, but to come out the other side is to tap into the willpower that has fueled breakthroughs in all manner of human endeavors. It’s Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young climbing up from seventh on the BYU depth chart, Susan Lucci winning the Emmy after 19 nominations, and Kathryn Stockett’s “The Help” turning into a blockbuster book and movie after the manuscript was rejected 60 times.
“I kind of lost my game midway through 2001,” recalls Stenson, who at his lowest hit balls while blindfolded on a driving range in Dubai, a scene straight out of the Karate Kid’s playbook. “It’s mental, it’s technical. Does the chicken or the egg come first?”
He was down to 621st in the world after missing the cut at the 2003 Deutsche Bank SAP Open TPC but won the TOUR Championship and FedExCup 10 years later, rose to third in the world, and captured The Open Championship in a thriller in 2016. This redemption story follows him to this day and came up again in December after he won the Hero World Challenge by one over Jon Rahm.
“I think professional golf – you have to make a decision that you’re going to deal with the ups and downs, and there are going to be more downs,” Charles Howell III says. “But that’s the case with any profession. In golf especially, you have to understand that and keep fighting through it.
“In a case like a Brendon Todd,” he adds, “it would have been understandable just to quit, but as soon as he quits, then there’s no comeback story, right? The guys that can muster through it the longest have the greatest chance of doing it. There’s financial issues. There’s family support and pressure. You want to be out there providing, doing something productive as you leave your wife at home raising the kids. There’s a lot more that goes into it than just the golf.”
Stenson reported feeling almost a sense of pride as he followed the news of Todd’s comeback. Similarly, the Swede said he was “delighted” when Danny Willett, who won the 2016 Masters before plummeting to 462nd in the world, won Europe’s BMW PGA Championship last September.
The brotherhood is strong among those who have slumped and survived.
How did Stenson come back? He leaned on his mental coach, Torsten Hansson; his swing coach, Pete Cowen; his wife, Emma; and, ultimately, himself, tapping into a vast well of perseverance.
To use a term popularized by Angela Duckworth’s 2016 bestseller, he showed grit.
“I had help from my team,” he says. “I had support from my wife and my family and everyone around, but at the end of the day you’ve got to push through yourself.”
Stenson has always pushed through. He recalls being asked, as an amateur, to lug around a sand bag to train, and to this day wonders if he was the only one to actually do it. He also wasn’t quite sure why he was being asked to do it. Nevertheless, he did it.
Hansson was the one doing the asking that day, circa 1994. The reason, he says now, was to build higher oxygen uptake in the muscle cells in Stenson’s legs.
“I said, ‘A golfer does not run, he walks,’” Hansson explains via email from Sweden, “and it is not the same muscle cells used when you run and walk.
“When people come to me and ask for help to reach high goals,” he adds, “I test their beliefs in two areas. First, are you willing to fully do the part of the job that is not always so fun? And second, do I have your loyalty to the training program you will get from me? That will, the conviction, the determination to do the job – I’ve worked with Navy Seals and mine-clearing divers and deep-sea divers for 22 years, and I’ve only seen a few with the same compelling power (as Stenson) to get out of a difficult situation.”
Todd also dug deep. Ranked 2,043rd in the world after missing the cut at the 2018 Barracuda Championship, his blindfold moment came as he read a book by Major League Baseball player Rick Ankiel, who had battled the throwing yips. He delved into another book by former touring pro Bradley Hughes (“The Great Ballstrikers”) and hired Hughes as his swing coach. Finally, he enlisted Ward Jarvis -- a former TOUR caddie and now a golf performance coach -- who had overcome a stuttering problem, as his de facto sports psychologist.
“I just had a feeling we would connect with our journeys,” says Jarvis, who contends that in bad golf, like stuttering, thinking can get in the way. “The answer isn’t to try harder. Let go of the natural desire to want to control the outcome.”
“It’s unbelievable,” Harris English, a teammate of Todd’s at Georgia, said after finishing fifth at Mayakoba. “This game can go away from you so fast.”
Added runner-up Vaughn Taylor, “Not many guys come back from that deep. It’s amazing. I think the whole TOUR is in awe. The scars in this game run deep. It’s a testament to his mental game.”
How did he get all the way back? As with Stenson, Todd had help from his team but relied most on the guy looking back at him in the mirror.
“You have to enjoy the process,” he says. “I enjoy golf, so there was no reason not to keep pursuing it just because I was failing. Every single athlete has a slump. Whether you’re an electrician or a nutritionist or a banker, you’re going to have ups and downs.”
Woods’ comeback was perhaps even less likely. With his body disintegrating, he made just seven starts in 2014, none in 2016, and one in 2017. He played infrequently, winced in pain, and signed for shocking scores: an 82 at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, an 85 at the Memorial Tournament presented by Nationwide. Four back surgeries and four knee surgeries had taken their toll.
Back-fusion surgery in 2017 allowed him to play mostly pain-free for the first time in years, and he began one of the most thrilling comebacks in all of sports. He performed last rites on his slump with his rousing victory at the 2018 TOUR Championship, and tacked on yet more indelible victories at the 2019 Masters and ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP.
Woods, who turned 44 in December, had been through so much between his five-win season in 2013 and his TOUR Championship victory at East Lake five years later, tears crammed his eyes as he walked down the 18th fairway trailed by a large and delirious throng of fans.
“I can’t believe I pulled this off,” he said.
He wasn’t the only one.
“I was there the week after his first surgery and sat with him and talked to him, and there was a lot of uncertainty around everything,” says friend Notah Begay III. “Having watched the last, what, two years, has been, for me, kind of an exercise in astonishment.”
Belief, in fact, is central to the slump and how to kill it. Woods, who is now self-coached, has admitted there were times in his comeback in which he “hit the big ball before the little ball,” but there was a spark that never died. The same goes for Stenson and Todd.
“You know it’s in there,” says Gary Woodland. “You just have to find it.”
Spieth is searching for it now. He’s made 60 worldwide starts since his last win, the 2017 Open Championship. He left Royal Birkdale ranked second in the world, but last month fell out of the top 50. A final-round 67 helped him finish in the top 10 at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, which moved him up to 49th to qualify for the World Golf Championships-Mexico Championship. He dropped out of the top 50 after a T59 finish at The Genesis Invitational as he continues to search for his best form.
In one stretch, Spieth made 18 consecutive starts without a top-10 finish. It would’ve been easy to panic – and Spieth admits to dealing with that sensation – but he’s trying to focus on the task at hand.
“I think last year I did a good job of staying patient with myself recognizing that it's part of the game and trying to just kind of take each week to make little improvements and then wait until the offseason to try and nail things down and regroup for the next season,” he said recently. “So I kind of feel blank-slated here. … I'm almost approaching it like I did in 2013 where I was kind of hopefully ready to kind of bounce back to where I've been in the past. That doesn't mean it's going to happen right away, but kind of build to that. …
“Big picture, I have a really good frame of mind which should allow me to build some patience into getting my game where I want it to be.”
Todd was a four-time All-American at Georgia, where he was nicknamed “Grease T” for his ability to get up and down from anywhere. He won on the Korn Ferry Tour in 2008 but missed 13 cuts in 13 starts on that circuit in 2010, just two years later. That was the first slump.
He came back and won the 2014 AT&T Byron Nelson but changed his swing in part to create a higher launch angle. The move backfired as he developed a big right miss that got in his head for the next three years, and gradually fell off the TOUR. Slump No. 2 was on.
“For a lot of golfers, mentally it’s feast or famine,” Begay says of such dizzying freefalls.
By late 2018, when Todd parlayed his Past Champion status into six starts and six missed cuts, he and his wife, Rachel, had experienced so much famine they started to think about life after golf. They set up a meeting to talk about potentially franchising a Your Pie pizza restaurant.
“It wasn’t that we were running out of money,” Rachel says. “It was, we need to look into other options, what would be best for our family. Our financial advisor came and sat down with us.”
Suffice it to say they never got into the pizza business. Todd shot a 61 to Monday qualify for The RSM Classic as the holidays approached, marking the beginning of his comeback.
All of which underlines an important point: Because wives endure the highs and lows, too, how they react to a slump matters, too. Rachel’s brother played at Auburn, but she hardly considers herself a golf expert. She cares for their three kids and encourages Brendon however she can. If that meant letting him dig his way out in 2018 like he’d done in 2010, then so be it.
Emma Stenson met husband Henrik through junior golf. A member of Sweden’s national team, she also played for South Carolina and entertained thoughts of turning pro. While she never did, her intimate knowledge of the game has helped Henrik endure his share of ups and downs.
Was he ever tempted to quit? Well …
“I think we were at the kitchen table at home back in Sweden,” she says, “but it’s not an option to quit when you have the talent he has. He’s always had to work hard at it; he’s not like some of the boys who just go out there and it happens for them. Maybe when you’re in the best part of your career, you can do that, but Henrik has to work for it.”
That’s not unusual on TOUR; having veered away from team sports, golfers and especially pros sign up for a lifetime of self-reliance. They are wired for the grind.
“When the going gets tough,” says Kevin Streelman, who failed to get through Q School a handful of times before reaching the TOUR, “we’re able to dig pretty deep.”
Provided, Emma Stenson adds, that the family is OK with it. She and Henrik didn’t have kids until 2007, which was well after his first slump had come and gone.
“Henrik,” she says to her husband at an adjacent table, “when was your second slump?”
Stenson smiles; he’s known for his Open win, yes, but also his slumps. “In 2011 was my second worst year,” he says. “I dropped to about 235 or 240 in the world at the end of ’11.”
By then they had had two of their three kids, and everyone was in it together.
“I think it’s a lot about staying neutral,” Emma says. “You learn as a family member to protect yourself from being hurt. You do it because you have to do it, and I played golf myself, so I think that helps. ‘OK, suck it up, let’s move on.’ It’s such a hard game.”
The game is lonely. The game is cruel. The game is like life itself.
“You keep on going,” Henrik says. “If you do the right things and you’re strong enough to stick it out, you’re going to get rewarded. It’s the same in anything.
“Life is like the stock market with all those ups and downs; you’ve just got to keep on going.”