“The hair on my arms and neck and legs were standing straight up walking to 17 green,” Thomas said afterward, “and to have to play five to eight yards for adrenaline just because of the fans and the moment on 17 and 18 and other holes, it's stuff that's so hard to explain.
“But it felt great,” he added. “I mean, that's why we all play. That's why we all do this.”
He’s not the only player who claims to live for the sweaty palms, dry mouth, and labored breathing.
Two-time major winner Zach Johnson told PGATOUR.COM, “I relish those opportunities. That’s really why I work, what I prepare for; if you’re a human, you’ve got to accept that you’re going to have every kind of emotion and nerve, so you’ve got to go back to what you can control. For me, like Mo says, I can control where my eyes go, where my feet go, what I eat, what I drink, when I speak, and that’s what I focus on, and ideally the ball kind of gets in the way.”
Pickens advises his clients to take emotion out of the equation, so much so that he advises juniors to watch TOUR events with the volume off (“The commentators always want to inject drama”) and doesn’t call majors by their names. Instead of saying, for example, “I’ll see you next week at the Masters,” he will say, “I’ll see you next week at Augusta National.” He also tells them that they’re not “in contention” until the last three or four holes of a tournament.
“The weight of contention causes a player to use up a lot of energy,” he said. “And we’re not going to try harder because the media is going to label it a major, or the FedExCup. I want them to trust their routine. I don’t really want them involved over the ball; I want them involved behind the shot, and talking with their caddie, but once they walk in, I want the pre-shot routine to hit the shot for them. Can they trust that and just focus on execution?
“I’m going to set the putter like this, I’m going to do my feet, I’m going to take one look, another look” – Pickens snapped his fingers – “and the ball’s gone. If you can focus on that process and not the results coming from that process, then you can take a lot of the emotion out. The emotion is what causes you to push putts, or pull putts, or duck-hook shots.”
If there’s a mantra Pickens tells his players, it is this: Be where your feet are.
Staying in character, forgiving failure
After making a 30-foot birdie putt to shoot a final-round 66 at the 2015 Open Championship, Zach Johnson came into the St. Andrews locker room and was still very much in game mode. His eyes had the faraway look of someone who is there but not there. With the possibility of overtime looming – he would win a four-hole aggregate playoff against Marc Leishman and Louis Oosthuizen – Johnson was in an altered state, like an actor refusing to break character.
“I was glazed,” he said of that moment, when it sunk in that he’d reeled in none other than Jason Day and Jordan Spieth, who started the day well ahead of him, and was now tied for the lead. “I was like, OK, I’m going to get a small bite, I’m going to go to the range, I’m going to go putt.”
Leishman missed a short birdie putt for the win on 18, necessitating the playoff.
“I was going to prepare as if I was starting another round, which was probably the best thing I could have done,” Johnson said, “because I was mentally prepared and birdied the first two holes of the playoff and put myself in position that was hard for them to come back from.”
When a player does break character, like Scheffler letting his guard down on the 18th green at Augusta, it can be an odd spectacle. “There’s no way he four-putts if he keeps himself in the frame of mind he’d been in the whole time,” Pickens said, “but he knew he was going to win, and lost his edge on that green.”
Even mental giants can fall apart. Johnson was already a major champion after winning the Masters two years earlier but got flustered after locking himself out of his bus before the final round of the 2009 Wells Fargo Championship. Although he began the final round in the lead, he shot 76 and tied for 11th.
“The digital keypad thing was not working,” he said. “I got back to the course and just rushed through everything. I parred the first hole, and No. 2 was a par 3 that was a 7-iron, and I was hitting my third shot from like 75 yards. I made a 6 without a penalty shot. It was not good.”
How did Johnson respond? He won two weeks later at the Valero Texas Open.
Which brings us to Smith, who on the first playoff hole of the first FedExCup Playoffs event a year ago pumped his drive into the Hudson River. Finau won, commencing his current run of form, but for Smith, the heartbreaking finish, especially the right miss with the driver, looked disturbingly similar to his miscue off the tee that sent him into the trees in Memphis two weeks earlier.
Those failures, though, merely set the stage for a career season in 2022. Smith shot the lowest score in TOUR history (in relation to par) to beat world No. 1 Jon Rahm at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, then won THE PLAYERS and The Open to rise to No. 2 in both the FedExCup and world ranking. The Australian was positively electric as he made four straight birdies to start the back nine Sunday at THE PLAYERS and five in a row at the turn in The Open, his back-nine scores in those two victories adding up to an eye-popping 62.