Brown: Final 30 trying to focus on golf, not the big prize

Stan Badz/PGA TOUR
Brandt Snedeker captured last year's FedExCup and the tough-to-not-think-about $10 million.
September 17, 2013
By Clifton Brown, PGATOUR.COM columnist

Playing golf with $10 million on the line can be very distracting. But that’s a good problem to have.

This week’s TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola brings the climax of the 2013 FedExCup Playoffs, with $10 million going to the FedExCup champion. Some players don’t like to talk about the prize money, especially this week. But you can believe it’s on their minds.

Look at what U. S. Open champion Justin Rose said after last year’s TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola.

“It’s a different kind of pressure, playing for $10 million,” Rose said. “I mean, it gets in your head more than other tournaments. Other golf tournaments it’s more routine. But this week it’s not routine.”

All 30 players in the field have a mathematical chance to win the FedExCup. But the five players at the top of the point standings control their destiny. Tiger Woods, Henrik Stenson, Adam Scott, Zach Johnson, and Matt Kuchar can all win the FedExCup by winning the finale, regardless of what anyone else in the field does.

All of them will try to play the same mind game. Focus on the golf. Don’t worry about the money.

It’s something the world’s best players do on a regular basis. But this week, that’s a little more difficult.

“The challenge is, with that much money on the line, not to think about it when you’re on the golf course,” said sports psychologist Dr. Bob Rotella. “When you’re in your hotel room at night, if you turn on the TV and watch sports, you’re going to hear people talk about it.

“You try not to get on the phone, get on your computer, and read about it all day long. Try not to talk about it at night. But the bottom line, it’s there in the back of your head somewhere. It’s a ridiculous amount of money.”

It’s ridiculous in a good way for whoever wins. And it certainly adds to the drama of the TOUR’s season-ending event.

Brandt Snedeker, the 2012 FedExCup champion, was obviously successful at blocking the $10 million out last year. Well, almost successful.

“I was not thinking about the $10 million at all until the last hole, and I hit an awful shot,” Snedeker said last year. “So that shows you what that does for you.

These are the kind of mental tests that compel many players to seek psychologists for guidance. Even for the most talented players, golf remains a game of mental gymnastics. We saw it last week, when Jim Furyk became only the sixth player in TOUR history to shoot 59. Furyk talked about the psychology that played into breaking that barrier.

“That magic number, it’s hard to get under 30 on nine, and then it’s really hard to get under 60 for a day,” Furyk said. “It definitely played some tricks with my head on the way in.”

For those with the best chance to win the FedExCup, it’s the tournament within the tournament this week. No surprise to see Woods in the mix. Nobody has dealt with the mental side of golf more than Woods, as the tour’s most visible and scrutinized player.

Through his triumphs and failures, staying motivated has never been a problem for Woods. Having worked with so many athletes, Rotella is fascinated with the mindset of people like Woods, who will approach the TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola with the zest of someone trying to win his first event.

“Some guys are born with it, some learn it, but one way or another, if you want to be great, you have to stay hungry,” Rotella said. “Michael Jordan and Tiger are great at that. Look at Bill Russell, who won 11 titles with the Celtics. That might be the ultimate. For most human beings, it’s very hard to do.”

Rotella believes the players chasing this year’s FedExCup title have already shown the resiliency to deal with the pressure this week. However, there are times during a TOUR season when Rotella wonders how a player will cope after winning his first tournament, having his best season, or reaching some other career milestone. Over the years, players in many sports have been changed by success, leading to a downward spiral.

“I think that’s the ultimate challenge for today’s athletes who are becoming increasingly wealthy,” Rotella said. “Are you playing golf, or any sport, to find out how much you can win? Or are you just playing to make money.

“To be able to stay hungry when you’re really well-to-do? That’s when you really find out what you’re all about.”

Indeed, chasing the FedExCup is a grind, both for the body, and for the mind. But for somebody in this week’s field, it’s a journey that will end with a huge payday.

Clifton Brown is a freelance columnist for PGATOUR.COM. His views do not necessarily represent the views of the PGA TOUR.