The peculiar quirks of tour pros' speech
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While writing a comparison piece between Bryson DeChambeau and Cameron Champ last month, I noticed something in Champ’s press conferences: He used the phrase “like I said” a lot, and almost never in a way that actually made sense. I wrote:
… on Saturday at the Shriners, Cam Champ was asked 10 short questions, and managed to use the phrase “like I said” an astounding nine times in his responses—including in his first response, when it was technically impossible for him to have been referring to anything he actually said.
That got me thinking: Almost everyone has a so-called “verbal crutch,” myself included. These are little words or phrases we throw into the middle of our speech to either buy time, settle our rhythm or, even unconsciously, influence our listeners. (Next time you listen to Rachel Maddow, notice how many times she carries you along with her monologue by inserting a persuasive “right” in the middle of her arguments. Or look back at any Obama speech and count the commanding “look”s.) Mine changes over time, and has spanned everything from the relatively harmless “you know?” to the dreaded, and now thankfully extinguished, “literally.” All but the most polished speakers seem to need their crutch to limp along from sentence to sentence, and sometimes, as in Champ’s case, it barely retains any meaning.
So what better way to honor the useless, critical verbal crutch than to look at the top golfers in the world and explore the crutch each one prefers? Is this content that truly only belongs in the last week of the year? Absolutely. Is it still fascinating? To me, yes.
And like I said, to be totally honest, it’s literally not a big deal, right, because, long story short, it is what it is.
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Brooks Koepka: “I mean…”
The three-time major winner has an enormous chip on his shoulder about the way he’s covered in the media, but maybe the real reason is just that he needs a more spectacular verbal crutch. Looking at his PGA Championship presser alone, he uses the relatively mundane “I mean” a whopping 19 times. A few examples:
But I mean, I was very impressed with the way I hung in there, especially after 5. But to hear some of these roars, I mean, I can’t even begin to tell you.”
“I mean, on Wednesday, I don’t even think there’s been that many people at an event that I’ve ever played at. And then when you come out here on Saturday afternoon, the crowds—I mean, I don’t even know what to say. I’ve never seen that many people at a golf tournament. It’s actually—I mean, I know that it’s a big sports town, which is awesome …”
I have a deal for Koepka, on behalf of the media: We’ll cover you as you deserve to be covered in 2019 if you give us a little credit and assume we know exactly what you mean just by your words alone, and without the constant emphasis.
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Justin Rose: “Obviously… ”
This is a very common one in the world of professional sports, particularly golf, and despite Rose’s relative polish compared to his peers, he is not immune. In his victory presser at the Turkish Airlines Open, he deployed “obviously” 10 times. His highlights:
“I haven’t seen the kids for a couple of weeks. Obviously Kate, I’m sure, will re-toast getting to No. 1, and this time I’ve got some silverware.”
“Obviously it’s multi-facetted because there’s weeks where I back into a top-10 or have a hot last round to finish top-10. Obviously you can steal a top-10 here and there.”
Now, obviously, there are times when using the word “obviously” is appropriate and, obviously, Rose does that sometimes. But what makes it a verbal crutch is when it is either redundant, or loses its meaning and precedes statements that, for the rest of us, are not at all obvious. This is a good verbal crutch, because it lends weight to what you’re saying … how can something not be true if it’s “obvious”?
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Dustin Johnson: “Definitely” and “I felt like… ”
DJ employs almost every cliche in the book as he slogs his way through his pressers, but his two most prominent crutches are “definitely” (a close cousin of “obviously”) and “I felt like.” Here are two prominent examples from his win at the RBC Canadian Open last summer:
“I felt like I was hitting it fine. I just did not score very well at Carnoustie at all. I didn’t putt good. I just scored really badly. But I hit the ball—I felt like I hit the ball plenty good enough to be under par after two days, and I was five over or something. It was just bad scoring. So I worked on it a little bit this week. I felt like even coming in here, I felt like I was swinging it well… ”
That’s a massive four “felt likes” in a single paragraph!
“Yeah, it was definitely good to get off to a fast start. I had birdied the first hole, and then had a really good look at eagle on the second hole. That’s definitely always good… ”
“But to be able to share it with my family is definitely important and definitely means a lot more.”
Like “obviously,” “definitely” is an emphasis crutch, designed to rid the sentence of any insecurity or doubt.
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Justin Thomas: Mr. Versatility
I’ve scoured Thomas’ pressers, and while I can’t say that he avoids the verbal crutch, I can safely say that he jumps around enough to where he isn’t defined by any single one. Behold:
“It was a good day, I felt like I had a lot of positives from today … The three-putt on 9, it definitely was a bummer, but it didn’t cost me. If I make it obviously or two-putt it’s a big difference. But I birdie 10 and 11, and I was still fine. 14 was a bummer, but I made great putts there on 10 and 11 and 12 and then a good second putt there on 13 and then, yeah, 14, I don’t really know what happened … But like I said, I bounced back fine, and I still had a great chance … Yeah, I mean it just was, I mean, no …”
That selection, spanning just four questions in a short 2018 PGA Championship presser, not only hits every single verbal crutch yet mentioned in this article, but introduces a new one that Thomas counts as a favorite—the unnecessary “yeah.”
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Rory McIlroy: “Yeah”
It’s no surprise that Rory uses fewer verbal crutches than most of his peers—in general, the better you are at talking, the less you need them, and Rory is among the best talkers on the PGA or European Tour. He throws an Obama-style “look” at the start of declarative sentences now and again, but the main thing you notice is the “yeah” that comes either at the start or in the middle of sentences, and isn’t responding to a direct question. The purpose is a little subtler than the “obviously” or “definitely” crutches in that it attempts to bolster his point and validate/affirm the questioner—as in, yes, you’ve got it right, good question, and now let me elaborate. And it would be a normal response, except that it’s too frequent and it doesn’t always refer back to something the person actually said. A simple example:
Q. Some of the goals were to make sure you were ready mental wise, physical wise, to play your best when it really matters. Do you think that worked?
RORY: “Yeah. I mean, look, it’s been a year where there’s been glimpses of showing what I can do, but I just haven’t done it often enough, I guess. But, yeah, obviously, it’s the major season over, and we’ve got to wait a few months for the next one, but there’s still a lot of golf to play this year and quite a bit to play for.”
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Jordan Spieth: ???
Sorry, there’s nothing here. You can read all the transcripts you want, and watch all the video interviews, and no patterns emerge. He says “you know,” but not with the kind of frequency that a crutch requires, and though there’s the occasional “uh” dotting his sentences, I consider that more of a pause than a crutch. He’s too polished, too smart, too good at talking. Spieth is crutch-less.
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Tiger Woods: “to be honest with you”
I used to say this a lot, along with “honestly,” until someone said “why would you be anything other than honest?” and it shamed me into stopping. It’s tempting, because with a single expression, it lends weight and credence to what you’re saying … or that’s the idea, anyway. But too much of a good thing makes it seem phony, even when it’s only a crutch. Tiger seems to have gone through a similar trajectory. After his 2000 U.S. Open win, he used the phrase six times. It was still around the next year when he won the Masters and U.S. Open, and it lingered until 2005 at which point it seems to have died off (being replaced by an occasional “honestly”). But then, this year, it was BACK, used in the FedEx Cup Playoffs at the Northern Trust and twice at the Tour Championship presser. So, good news for all you Tiger fans—he’s still being honest with you.
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Help. Someone help me. I started reading his oldest pressers, from his U.S. Amateur win, and … well…
“But if the center of gravity is off, there’s torque that’s created, and what happens is it wobbles and wobbles, and it goes to the heavy side or the off-balance side. And then I find out how much it’s off-balance by putting lead tape on it on the top of the ball to see how much mass it takes to flip it over. Ergo, how much—how many inches or how many millimeters is it off from the center of the ball. And so if it’s more than 16 milligrams (sic) out of balance, I won’t play the ball.”
“So most putters have either face balance or toe hang. My putter is what’s called torque balanced, and David Edel came up with this idea, the guy that made the putter and makes my irons and wedges, and it’s actually pointed toe upwards. So what happens is when you try and move it on an incline plane in a free environment without anything, just swirling on an incline plane, it’ll stay square to the plane of motion. It’ll be 90 degrees to the plane since it’s on a tilted—this is kind of difficult to explain, but since it’s on a tilted plane and you’re swinging it up in an arc, it’s still going to go inside, still going to open its face, but it’s going to be square to the plane, 90 degrees to the plane. And that’s what happens.”
And that was before I got into his pro career and the “biomechanics” era. My brain needs a crutch.
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