Watching U.S. stumble in Ryder Cup again shows how mental golf can be

Sometimes, you just can’t win. You could play someone in a match about a hundred times, and you’d be lucky to win a quarter of them.

It doesn’t matter if you have a better swing than this particular opponent.

It doesn’t matter if you hit the ball farther.

It doesn’t matter if you believe you’re the better player.

It just doesn’t matter. You feel beaten as soon as you step on the first tee.

Watching the United States get badly outplayed yet again in a Ryder Cup contested in Europe has become so predictable, you have to wonder if it’s in the heads of the Americans.

It’s a feeling of helplessness. I know it all too well in match play.

There’s something about match play that brings out the best in some players and absolutely confounds others – even when it makes no sense.

I used to think that I should be a star at match play.

I tend to have some ups and downs in every round – some spectacular holes and one or two equally spectacular big numbers. Match play makes the big numbers not matter as much. You just lose the hole; you don’t lose any chance of shooting a decent score.

And yet, time after time, I let the pressure get to me and turned an easy win on a particular hole into a halve or even a loss.

I used to play regularly with a guy who was the classic savvy golfer. He wasn’t long at all and usually sliced the ball. I had a built-in advantage on virtually every hole, and yet he would win our match (usually for about five bucks or lunch) four times out of five because he was a great putter and knew how to get himself in position for a putt he could make.

The classic situation on a par-4 would go something like this (see if this sounds familiar to your game):

My opponent manages only a weak, sliced drive into the right rough. No way he can get home from there.

I bomb a big drive down the middle. I’ve got a short iron left.

He half-hits his ball to about 50 yards short of the green. He’s not in great position to make par. I have a clear advantage.

I hit it on – not a great shot, but 20 feet from the pin. Birdie is a possibility, par is an expectation. I can’t lose the hole, right?

Wrong.

He hits a great wedge to 5 feet from the pin. Suddenly, my position doesn’t feel quite so secure. But I want to win the hole, so I charge the putt. It barely misses the edge of the cup and skitters four feet past.

Now it’s a putting contest, but he gets to go first – which is to his advantage. Naturally, he knocks it in. I feel the pressure, don’t put a smooth stroke on it and leave it on the low side. I’ve lost one hole, but it feels as if I’ve lost three. I have a hard time putting that one failure out of my head and lose another hole or two right after that.

Some people would just say it’s another example of how mental our great game is. Some people – the ones who tend to do better in match play – would just say, “That’s golf,” and move on to the next tee with their memory wiped clean.

Some would call it a choke. I sure did. Still do.

This is not to say, necessarily, that the Americans are choking when they lose the Ryder Cup. But there sure is a lot of evidence to indicate that they’re getting beaten mentally by the Euros.

It makes you wonder if the U.S. players are cut out to succeed in match play. I’m sure there are millions of U.S. amateurs watching the competition who are thinking, “Yeah, that’s what I do all the time.”

Thirty years ago, I played in the California Amateur three straight years and never advanced past the second round of match play. I never won two matches in succession. As I recall, I lost five out of six matches, but I can’t even remember the victory. All I remember is losing a lot.

The lesson I took from that experience was that I needed to improve my short game. I was losing because of some bad drives and approach shots, to be sure, but my biggest sins were committed around the green.

I’m a much better putter than I was then. I’m now extremely confident when hitting out of a greenside bunker. I have a variety of chip shots I can employ.

But I don’t know if the mental side would be any different for me. The choke factor still might be there.

And there’s an important nuance to consider: Maybe I’m just not equipped to face certain opponents in match play. Maybe that’s what it is for the Americans in the Ryder Cup.

It might be a simple as this: For some of us, golf matters TOO much. We make a single hole into more than it is. Try as we might, we just can’t relax.

We just can’t win.

 

 

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