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Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Bobby Jones on Golf: Competitive Attitude

There have been a few great players over the years.  Today, we seem to be witnessing the emergence of another player destined to become a great of the game in Jordan Spieth.  There have been several articles about Jordan that have tried to capture just what it is that seems to be setting him apart from the rest.  

Spieth is an interesting case, because he isn't a bomber like Bubba, or DJ.  He isn't even close to being the best ball striker.  He is a terrific putter, especially in that fifteen to twenty foot range, but he also misses his share of short ones.  So, Spieth is a bit of an enigma.  He really is better than his stats would indicate he should be.  So, what is it this kid has?

I think Jordan Spieth is the best competitor in the game.  Put simply, I think he has the ability to try harder than the rest of the field.  Bobby Jones believed that this was what made him a great champion, his ability to take more punishment and try harder than his fellow competitors.  In many respects, Spieth makes me think of Bobby Jones.  Whether he will ever attain anything like that sort of stature in the game remains to be seen, but he's certainly made a great start.

Besides the ability to hit great shots at the right time, the great players have all possessed something else that set them apart from the numerous other players we've known over the years who were quite possibly just as talented.  They were great because of their mind--that famous five and a half inches between their ears.  Bobby Jones wrote about what he believed separated the greats from the also-rans in his book Bobby Jones on Golf.  Under the heading Competitive Attitude, he wrote:

"In every sport, and, I suppose, almost every other line of endeavor, it is hard to separate and recognize the qualities that distinguish the great from the near-great--the men who succeed from those who just can't quite make it.  In golf, this little difference, as telling as it may be, is yet so small that it is difficult to see that it can have a positive and consistent value.

I remember reading in an English newspaper after I had won the British Open at St Andrews, an editorial that made a point of the slight margin of superiority shown by the winner of a tournament over the rest of the field.  In this particular championship, I had won by the greatest margin I had ever had, yet as the editorial pointed out, my advantage of six strokes, however big it may have looked, when reduced to percentage, read only 2.105 per cent, or one and a half strokes in each round in which an average of a little less than seventy-two strokes were used.

I suppose it is consideration of a slender margin such as this that led J.H. Taylor to say that the difference between the winner and the near-winner is the ability on the part of the successful contestant to be ever on the lookout against himself.  Never too certain of what the result may be, he plays not one shot carelessly or with overconfidence.

In competition, I have not regarded seriously the tendency of some people to endow golfers with superhuman powers.  Because on occasions a few players have staged spectacular finishes to retrieve victory by last-minute rallies, I have heard it said of them that they are able to pull off whatever is necessary to win.  Such an idea is absurd, for if these men were capable of playing golf as they willed, they would never place themselves so that they had to beat par to win; and when I hear someone criticized for cracking at the finish, I always think of the query Grantland Rice propounded at Scioto--whether it is better to blow up in the third round or the fourth.  Every player has his bad patches in any seventy-two-hole  journey.  It is mainly a question of who averages up best over the entire route, and that, I think, is the feature the winner remembers and the field forgets.

When we begin to think in terms of the English editorial I have referred to, we must see the importance of each stroke, whether it be drive, approach, or putt; and we ought to see also that in a medal round to hole a long putt for a six is just as helpful as if it were for a three.  It is every shot that counts.

In defining the difference between the great and near-great, J.H. Taylor pointed out a lesson for every golfer.  He was not merely explaining why some fine golfers win championships and others equally fine do not.  He was telling you why you missed that easy pitch to the fourth green yesterday and why, after you had missed your second shot to the eighth, you took a seven instead of the five you should have had if you had played sensibly.  All of us, from duffers to champions, would do better if we would play each stroke as a thing to itself.

It is difficult for a person who has not been mixed up in these things to understand what it means to play a competitive round against opponents who cannot be seen.  In an Open Championship, one's imagination runs riot.  A burst of applause or a cheer from a distant part of the course is always interpreted as a blow from some close pursuer, when it may mean no more than that some obscure competitor has holed a chip shot while another player's waiting gallery happened to be watching.  It may not mean a thing, and even if it does, it can't be helped.  But it is difficult to view it that way; one always feels that he is running from something without knowing exactly what nor where it is.

I used to feel that although I might make mistakes, others would not.  I remember looking at the scoreboard before the last round of the 1920 Open, my first, and deciding that I must do a 69 at the most to have a chance.  Actually, a 73 would have tied.  I had some such lesson each year until I finally decided that the best of them made mistakes just as I did.

The advice Harry Vardon is supposed to have given, to keep on hitting the ball no matter what happens, is the best in the long run.  It is useless to attempt to guess what someone else may do, and worse than useless to set a score for yourself to play for.  A brilliant round or a string of birdies will not always win a championship.  The man who can put together four good rounds is the man to watch.

No man can expect to win at every start.  Golf is not a game where such a thing is possible.  So the plan should be to play one's own game as well as possible and let the rumours and cheers fly as thick as they will

The best competitive golfers are, I think, the distrustful and timorous kind, who are always expecting something terrible to happen-- pessimistic fellows who are quite certain when they come upon the green that the ball farthest from the hole is theirs.  

This kind of player never takes anything for granted. And cannot be lulled into complacency by a successful run over a few holes.  The most dangerous spot, where the cords of concentration are most likely to snap, comes while everything is going smoothly; when the hold upon concentration is a bit weak anyway, there is nothing like prosperity to sever the connection...

One shot carelessly played can lead to a lot of grief.  I think a careless shot invariably costs more than a bad shot painstakingly played, for it leaves the morale in a state of disorder.  It is easy to accept mistakes when we know that they could not have been avoided; we realize that many shots must be less than perfect, no matter how hard we try.  But when we actually throw away strokes without rhyme or reason, it is pretty hard to accept the penalty philosophically, and to attack the next shot in the proper frame of mind.

I once heard of a man who, playing in the final of a club championship, had won his match on the last green after being two down and three to play.  To accomplish this, he had played the last three holes 5-4-5 against a par of 4-3-4.  After the match he had been congratulated most heartily upon his magnificent victory--snatching victory from defeat by a courageous finish, and all that.

Some weeks later during the same season this same man, over the same course, had reached the final of an invitation tournament.  This time, instead of two down and three to play, he found himself one up with three to play.  He played the last three holes in par, 4-3-4, a stroke a hole better than on the previous occasion, yet this time he lost on the last green.  Where his 5-4-5 had made him a hero, his 4-3-4 left him in shame, a creature of no backbone, who faltered under the fire of competition.

And so it goes in golf.  I have for this very reason an unspeakable aversion for the word 'guts' as it is so often used in describing an attribute of a golfer.  Not only has the ability to finish well, or to play golf at all for that matter, nothing in the world to do with physical courage, but it will be found that sensational recoveries and tragic failures are almost always accomplished by the cooperation of both sides."

So, there you have it.  From possibly the greatest champion of all time, we learn that playing great golf is more about grit than guts, and Mr. Spieth has got grit in spades.