What we can all learn from the PGA Tour’s leaders in ‘strokes gained/attitude’
Attitude means a lot in times of stress and adversity, and hasn’t this assumption been illuminated to a draconian degree in these astonishing times.
Even before the world was elbowed off its axis by a microscopic assailant, the topic of attitude—a proper and healthy ability to cope—was deliberated comprehensively on the PGA Tour in the first few weeks of the year. Whether it comes in the form of patience (Ben Hogan), self-control (Jack Nicklaus), equanimity (Fred Couples) or, simply, a short memory (Dustin Johnson), a good attitude is a great attribute in the midst of tournament golf.
“Self-control,” Nicklaus said, “demands self-honesty above all else. Learn to fight emotionalism with realism.”
Evocation of emotion is a common, if not reflexive, byproduct of the game—regardless of skill level. The high handicapper might harbor disbelief at the notion that men and women proficient enough to play the game professionally have similar levels of frustration and encounter the same battles with pessimism and uncertainty.
“I think it’s a choice,” Xander Schauffele was saying in January as he prepared to defend his title at the Sentry Tournament of Champions in Kapalua, Hawaii. “You wake up in the morning and you can either decide to be a grouch or decide to be happy, and snowballs could be thrown your way and you can either be a grouch or be happy when they’re thrown at you.”
Schauffele, who eventually lost in a three-man playoff to Justin Thomas at Kapalua, had no problem saying that occasionally he struggled with the snowballs, or whatever. His model is Webb Simpson. “He’s sort of my strokes gained/attitude guy. I told him that at the Presidents Cup. He was honored.”
This isn’t the first time a player has ventured to measure the intangible of mindset through the prism of the PGA Tour’s strokes-gained statistical bundle. Charlie Wi used the exact language when assessing various players’ preeminent attributes. Peter Malnati was his choice for tour leader “if there were a category for strokes gained/attitude.”
Schauffele shot an 11-under 62 in the final round at Kapalua’s Plantation Course to win the 2019 Sentry, delivering another bout of disappointment to the two men occupying the day’s final pairing: Gary Woodland and Rory McIlroy, two guys whose outlook on things is generally healthy.
Woodland failed to hold a 54-hole lead for the sixth time in as many tries. The next time he held it, six months later, he converted for his first major title, the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.
McIlroy, meanwhile, found himself losing despite playing in the final group for the seventh time in a row. Nevertheless, he was heartened by his effort. And how did he express that? “My attitude was much better today,” McIlroy said with a trace of satisfaction. “I was patient. It’s just something I’m going to have to be persistent with, keep putting myself in position.”
Which he did. Often. And won the FedEx Cup and PGA Tour Player of the Year.
“Attitude is a relative term,” Thomas said. “Attitude isn’t necessarily if you don’t swear and you’re just happy-go- lucky all the time. My attitude is good because I’m a fierce competitor, and I have all the confidence in the world that I can beat everybody else.”
The 2017 PGA Tour Player of the Year, Thomas also gives Simpson high marks. “Webb is one of the nicest guys on the planet, and he does have a great attitude and he is also competitive. I mean, best of both worlds.”
“I think Webb just takes the high road on everything, and it’s pretty cool to watch,” Schauffele added.
Simpson, 34, has been playing some of the best golf of his career of late. Winner of the 2012 U.S. Open, he captured the Waste Management Phoenix Open in early February by defeating Tony Finau on the first hole of a sudden-death playoff. Simpson birdied his last three holes at TPC Scottsdale—the final two of regulation and the first playoff hole. He won his sixth tour title after finishing second five times and twice third in the previous 17 months.
At the Sony Open in Hawaii, where he would end up third, Simpson smiled at the notion that he had an edge over the competition in ways that defy definition. He is fairly proficient in defined areas, too, though, ranking 16th or better in three strokes-gained categories (approach the green, putting and tee to green) and sixth overall in strokes gained—total.
“It’s a good feeling to know I’m not going to beat myself,” Simpson said. “There’s two parts to it. One, it’s my faith. I want to represent my beliefs in a positive way. The last thing I ever want to do knowing there are kids out there watching us is to act like a fool.
“The second part is that my sports psychologist and I work on compartmentalizing every shot, chip and putt, so if I make a bad decision or hit a bad shot, I get 30 seconds or so to kind of deal with it, and then I move on. I deal with it at the bag, get away from the other players, and then I don’t talk about it anymore. If I talk about it, I feel like it’s going to affect my next shot. And then I take that attitude when I go home. Now that I have kids, I want to walk into the house and they wouldn’t know if I shot six under or six over. It’s not easy, but those are my goals.”
Simpson said his mental approach has improved in the last three or four years. “I think the results really show that,” said his longtime caddie Paul Tesori, who is considered one of the best caddies on tour, largely because of his positive and calming demeanor. “Guys talk a lot about focusing on process and not results, but I’ve seen Webb really embrace that. He’s very focused, but we also have fun out there because any mistakes we put aside quickly.”
“If all you did was concentrate on what you shot, you’d go mad out here or be mad all the time,” Simpson added.
Funny he should say that. Because mad is the fallback emotion for any golfer. Jerry Kelly, who is thriving on the PGA Tour Champions, once said that he couldn’t think of a round of golf where he wasn’t angry. How many players would second that emotion?
A bit like Thomas, Matt Kuchar posited the notion that an affective attitude didn’t necessarily fall under one tidy psychological heading. “Is positive attitude the only one that works?” he said, weighing his own words. “I think attitude—what we might call a positive attitude—is huge when it comes to longevity in this profession, and I would grade myself pretty high in that regard along with some other guys who’ve been around. A Zach Johnson, Jim Furyk, Phil [Mickelson] definitely has a great attitude about the game.
“But not everyone channels attitude the same way. Jon Rahm is among the top-ranked players in the world and he’s a temperamental guy. But he makes it work. Some guys channel anger pretty well. It seems to really motivate them.”
One guy above all others comes to mind here. He’s been around a long time, so in that regard his attitude must be exceptional, especially considering all the injuries he’s had to overcome. But, yes, he plays exceedingly well angry. Of course, we’re thinking of Tiger Woods.
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