• Winning on the PGA TOUR: It’s a wild ride

    Weather, water, and consequences can make back nine on Sunday the most nerve-jangling two hours in sports
  • PGA TOUR – The CUT

    Analyzing dramatic finishes on the PGA TOUR

  • In This Article
  • Rory McIlroy was Mr. Clutch as he shot final-round 62s for his first and 21st PGA TOUR victories, at the 2010 Quail Hollow Championship and this year’s RBC Canadian Open, respectively.

    But as he took 36 putts for a final-round 70 and solo third at last month’s Open Championship, his majorless streak reaching 31, the hole went from grain silo to a toe ring. Each miss was felt across the Old Course and in living rooms around the globe. Had he wanted it too much? Gotten ahead of himself?

    “I’m only human,” McIlroy said. “I’m not a robot.”

    Sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes you’re the bug, as the song goes. To be sure, Mark Knopfler wasn’t crooning about the intense, pressure-packed process of trying to close out a tournament on TOUR, but he may as well have been. Even Tiger Woods has been bruised by what might be the toughest – and most entertaining – challenge in sports. While athletes in other arenas face their opponents in an enclosed space for a predetermined amount of a time, a golfer must grapple with foes both visible and not, from the forces of nature to dozens of players spread across acres, not to mention his own emotions, which can present the biggest challenge of all.

    “I cried like a baby this morning,” Masters champion Scottie Scheffler said that Sunday evening in April, adding that he had required an emergency pep talk from his wife Meredith before the final round. “I was so stressed out.”

    Keep in mind, that’s the winner talking; you can only imagine the inner chaos of everyone else.

    Feeling overwhelmed is hardly unusual for elite golfers, and this season has underlined the point. We’ve seen comeback winners like Luke List from five back at the Farmers Insurance Open; Cameron Smith from four back at The Open; Justin Thomas, seven back at the PGA Championship; and Sam Burns, also seven back at the Charles Schwab Challenge. What calamities paved the way for those victories? Doubles. Triples. Out of bounds. Water. Putters gone cold. Leaders in disarray.

    Some players, including Nos. 1 and 2 in the FedExCup, have straddled both sides of that line.

    Scheffler was red hot in winning four of six starts, but just three starts after his Masters win, he was the one who opened the door for Burns to win at Colonial by failing to make a birdie and shooting 2-over 72 in a windy final round.

    Smith has authored back-nine birdie binges at famed layouts both modern (TPC Sawgrass) and historic (St. Andrews) to win two of the game’s biggest titles in 2022. But while he birdied the island green on Sunday at the Stadium Course by bravely squeezing his tee shot between the hole and water, he fell victim to another of golf’s iconic par-3s, Augusta National’s tiny 12th, at the Masters. Taking dead aim, he went for another perilously tucked pin, but missed right and found Rae’s Creek, making triple to take the pressure off Scheffler.

    Cameron Smith’s winning highlights from THE PLAYERS
    • Extended Highlights

      Cameron Smith’s winning highlights from THE PLAYERS

    “The main thing they’re dealing with is cognitive overload, a lot of thoughts coming in,” said sports psychologist Morris (Mo) Pickens, who works at the Sea Island Performance Center, and whose clients include Zach Johnson, Keegan Bradley and Davis Thompson. “Man, if I win this, I could be set for two years or five years if it’s a major or whatever. They’re battling.”

    Players unwittingly speed up or slow down, and may also experience shallow, fast breathing; racing thoughts; sweaty palms; and loss of sensation, aka “spaghetti arms.” In those moments they are at their most vulnerable, but such is golf on TOUR, where the stakes could scarcely be higher.

    And don’t look now, but TPC Southwind, home of this week’s FedEx St. Jude Championship, which will kick off the three-week FedExCup Playoffs, leads the TOUR in water balls each year. This is where Robert Garrigus, with a three-shot lead, triple-bogeyed the 72nd hole in 2010. It is where the trophy was surely bound to go to either Bryson DeChambeau or Harris English in the final group last year – until they started pumping balls into the drink and fell down the leaderboard. That led to a three-man playoff between Abraham Ancer, Hideki Matsuyama and Sam Burns – who was so far behind when he finished his round, he said he almost left the property. Smith had a chance to join them with a par at the final hole, but his bold play from the right trees ricocheted off a trunk and went out-of-bounds. After two hours of total chaos, Ancer ultimately won.

    Much of the struggle plays out internally, but visibly. Mito Pereira, a TOUR rookie after winning three Korn Ferry Tour events last year, was one hole away from winning the PGA Championship before his fairway-finder swing with a driver produced a slice into the creek on Southern Hills’ finishing hole. Sahith Theegala found the fairway bunker on the 72nd hole of the Travelers Championship and made to his own double-bogey from a fairway bunker, opening the door for Xander Schauffele. (Theegala admitted he went for too much with his second shot, which didn’t get out of the sand.)

    Adam Scott, a 14-time TOUR winner, was on the brink of collapse when he hit his second shot into the water at THE PLAYERS Championship in 2004, but he got up and down to save bogey to secure the title. He wouldn’t be so fortunate at the 2012 Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, where he finished with four straight bogeys to lose the claret jug to Ernie Els.

    “It was the same nerves and the same focus on controlling your thoughts,” Scott said. “But, obviously, Lytham was worse because it escalated. It was like, Oh, I’ll get a par here, and then a couple good shots and then a three-putt. Then a good drive, but I pulled an iron. It just never really got under control.

    “But when it was just the last hole at THE PLAYERS,” he added, “I just needed one good shot, whereas at Lytham I needed several. It wasn’t panic, but it’s easy to get flustered when it’s topsy-turvy. It’s a wild ride.”

    The burden of the lead

    To err is human. To err in front of the world is to play golf. Jean Van de Velde triple-bogeyed the 18th hole to fall into a playoff at the 1999 Open Championship, then lost the playoff. Phil Mickelson doubled the 72nd hole to lose the 2006 U.S. Open. Arnold Palmer lost a seven-stroke lead, then an 18-hole playoff, at the 1966 U.S. Open. Two of the three are Hall of Famers.

    Scott Piercy, five ahead of Tony Finau with 10 holes remaining at the 3M Open last month, dropped five shots in the last six holes – a bad lie in a bunker led to a triple bogey on 14 – for a 76 and a T4 finish. Finau won. Piercy gave him a hug, a reminder of their long friendship going back to the old Ultimate Game in Las Vegas, and the fact that it often evens out in the long run.

    Tony Finau roars back to win at 3M Open
    • Round Recaps

      Tony Finau roars back to win at 3M Open

    Finau, of course, had been on the other side, with 10 career runner-up finishes that left many wondering why he didn’t win more often. After he won the Rocket Mortgage Classic a week after the 3M Open, his third victory in 12 months, those queries suddenly felt short-sighted. That’s how quickly it all can change.

    Part of what makes closing out a tournament hard is the heaps of time for players to think. The media pepper them with questions Saturday night (“What would it do for your career if you won?”), then players try to sleep, and they don’t start their final rounds until mid-afternoon Sunday. The self-doubt that crept up on Scheffler before his final-round tee time at Augusta National? Not uncommon.

    Even absent all that noise, a normal round of golf is nothing if not deliberate.

    “It’s around 0.4% of the time you’re actually hitting the ball,” Pickens said. “When you have a reactionary sport, the fact that the ball is moving is what occupies your mind. In golf, it seems like it should be easy because the ball isn’t moving, but if someone has the chip yips, one of the things you can do is start rolling the ball to them. I guarantee they’ll do better than when everything is static.”

    In the fall of 2015, Brendan Steele held the outright lead after each of the first three rounds of the Fortinet Championship at Northern California’s Silverado Resort. He shot 76 on Sunday to finish T17. The next year, finishing 45 minutes before 54-hole leader Patton Kizzire, Steele birdied the last three holes for a final-round 65 and his first of two consecutive victories at Silverado. “It’s easier that way,” he said, “where you just know you’ve got to do your best. It’s harder to hold the lead, especially all week.”

    That’s for sure. At the 2020 Sony Open in Hawaii, Steele took a three-shot lead into the final round but never got comfortable. He played the last six holes of regulation in 2 over par to fall into a playoff with a surging Smith and bogeyed the first extra hole to lose.

    “Like Mito said at the PGA,” Steele said, “‘I thought I was nervous Thursday until I played Friday, I thought I was nervous Friday until I played Saturday, I thought I was nervous Saturday until I played on Sunday.’ It’s always hard. They’re really long days, your focus has to be really high, there’s never time to take a breath.

    “The momentum gets out of control,” he added. “It’s like you just hope you run out of holes.”

    No other choice but to love it

    Bobby Jones used to feel the stress of competition so acutely that he would lose weight. To better understand the physiological effects of being “in the smoke,” as Lee Trevino used to call it, Justin Thomas wears a WHOOP around his bicep. As he won THE PLAYERS last year, his best nights of sleep were Friday, scoring 84% recovery, and Saturday, 77%, which may begin to explain how he shot 64-68 on the weekend to win.

    Measuring strain, which is derived from a player’s heart rate, WHOOP reported, “The last day of the tournament was by far the most strenuous for Thomas. His strain hit 16.4 on Sunday after being in the 13-14 range over the previous three days.” What’s more, his heartrate spiked at 125 beats per minutes as he celebrated his eagle at the par-5 11th hole Sunday.

    “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.

    Scottie Scheffler wins the WM Phoenix Open
    • PGA TOUR – The CUT

      Scottie Scheffler wins the WM Phoenix Open

    Scheffler, the only man ahead of Smith in the FedExCup and world ranking, also found something this year. He had five top-3 finishes on TOUR before netting his first win at the WM Phoenix Open in February. Then he couldn’t stop winning.

    The best players are resilient by necessity. Having read about the stoics, McIlroy tries to accept victories and defeats with equanimity because a lot can go wrong, and some of it, like Johnson’s locked bus, is freakishly unpredictable.

    Francesco Molinari had won the 2018 Open and had his sights on the 2019 Masters when he hit his ball in the water on the 12th and 15th holes, opening the door for Tiger Woods. The wind always swirls on 12, fooling many, and Molinari’s third at 15 appeared to clip a pinecone.

    “I was going along well,” he said, “and the last hour and a half a lot of things happened, but not only to me. There were a number of other guys. Water and wind.

    “You can easily have a three-shot swing on one hole,” he continued. “It’s fun when it goes your way, and not fun when it goes the other way. We all just try to focus on the things you can control, which is just evaluating the wind and committing to the shot as much as you can. I don’t think there’s any trick to it. You just have to be patient and stay in the moment.”

    Easier said than done. Winning on the PGA TOUR is not for the faint of heart.