The reality is that great players find their absolute best form just about as often as we do. They may play their very best two or three times a year if they're lucky. The rest of the time they prove their greatness by being able to find a way to win without their best stuff. That takes strategy and intelligence as well as grit and skill.
Last week at the Masters Jordan Spieth, who was obviously struggling mightily with his ball striking, still managed somehow to find a way to lead the tournament for some 65 holes before it all came unglued. This was amazing to see, but it was probably really no surprise that he was able to hang on like he did. He is obviously one of the most intelligent players in the game today. He has golfing wisdom well beyond his years. That he eventually fell away is probably no big surprise either. The fact is, you just can't fake it around Augusta National.
The consistent winners, at any level you care to choose, are the ones who know how to manage their way around the course and make the absolute best score they can with whatever game they have on that particular day. That's really the challenge of the game. Golf truly rewards intelligent play. And I can't think of any player who possessed greater golfing intelligence than Jack Nicklaus. Jack was beaten, but he rarely, if ever, beat himself. Jack's golfing idol, Bobby Jones, was also one who, if you read his writing, clearly spent more time analysing and thinking about his game than he did working on it.
Why is it that most of us don't improve at the game? I think it's often because we focus more on improving our mechanics and our ability to hit the ball than we do on figuring out where we are making our mental or strategic mistakes. Harvey Penick told the story of Tommy Armour winning a big bet by guiding one of the worst players at his club around the course in a number no one believed he was capable of shooting. Sam Snead tells a similar story about taking a woman around the course in under 100, only to watch her implode the next time out when she didn't have him to tell her where to hit it.
If we're really going to get consistently better, I think we have to get consistently smarter on the course--unless of course we are one of those players who is already getting the most out of what game he possesses. We need to use less muscle and more grey matter if we hope to improve at this game. The problem is, as my old father was so fond of saying, "Thinking is hard work. That's why so few people do it."
I know this year, as I prepare to start a new season, my ball striking is not likely to get any better. I think I've pretty much reached my level of incompetence when it comes to ball striking. But maybe I might just manage to use a little more grey matter. If I do, I just might not have to dip into my pocket quite as often when I'm playing Carl the Grinder.