Closing and Complaceny

Winning on Sunday is hard, tanking it for a huge paycheck is easy. What would you do?

Thrash TalkIs there a male professional golfer today, with the obvious exception of one Tiger Woods, who can routinely close out a tournament? Personally, having never slept on a third-round tournament lead (and not planning to any time soon), I can’t attest to whether or not doing so is one of the most uncomfortable positions in sports, as so many talking heads claim it is, but I can understand how it easily could be.

Watching this past week’s Lehman meltdown got me thinking about the phenomenon of the final-round failure versus that of the front-running door slammer. With respect to Mr. Lehman, I have always perceived him as something of a fluke winner who was rather overrated in his prime; in a real way, it was by virtue of such a fluke that he found himself in the position that he did entering the fourth round. As such, I’m not surprised that his door slamming ability was lacking, since I had no particular reverence for his ability in that regard during his peak playing years.

I was, however, honestly surprised earlier this year when Greg Norman was unable to come away with a victory at the British Open. This may seem contradictory, especially given the logic which I previously employed for Lehman. Norman, even in his prime, had several final-round meltdowns, but it seemed to me that the ability to slam the door was something well within his possession.

Tom Lehman Driving

Perhaps my view on this ability, whether it is latent or manifest, is distorted by one particular event. The 1986 (not 1996) Masters, in which Jack Nicklaus seemingly “came out of hibernation” made the whole issue of slamming the door seem rather black and white. Winners, when they are in position to win, do so. The rest do not. True, this deviates from the earlier discussion in that Nicklaus didn’t have the third-round lead, but he was able to awaken a streak of winning form at the right time in order to get the job done.

I believe I made mention of this faculty in my less than enthusiastically-received piece on grinding a few weeks back. Discovering the right form at the right time almost certainly involves an element of luck, but there is something to be said for the ability to routinely identify a task (making the cut, making birdie, winning the tournament, holing a seven footer) which must be completed, preferably in order to accomplish a larger goal, and completing it.

It’s an ability which few are blessed with and even fewer really aspire to on the golf course, I think. Lord knows, I certainly don’t. After a pull hook into the foliage on the first tee, I’m ready for refreshments in the grill room, not a rallying of the troops to right the ship and triumphantly salvage par.

Tom LehmanComplacency, really, is the issue here. It’s easy to settle when you’re content with something less than your absolute best and second place, with the resultant $600,000 paycheck is good enough. I’m not blaming Lehman, or anyone else, for becoming complacent, whether they do so the night before the final round or after a less than stellar front nine. In an effort at making such professional complacency look better, I offer you a hypothetical scenario in which a certain Ben Alberstadt finds himself in the lead after three rounds of, let’s say, this week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Q. Ben, great round today. 66 puts you two strokes ahead going into tomorrow. What’s your thought process like heading into the final round?

Ben Alberstadt: Thought process? Well I know that if I shoot 87 I’ll still make $120,000… that’s a pretty good position to be in. I mean, I might just go out there and smack it around with a putter to collect the cash. I mean, $120,000? That’s more than 95% of America makes in a year. Winning is nice and all, but as long as I don’t drop dead, I’ll be set for the year.

Q. So, you’re not worried about winning?

B.A. Not… really… no.

Q. How do you think you’ll sleep on the lead?

B.A. Oh just fine. By three tomorrow you probably won’t see a single shot I hit on television, and given my usual enormous galleries, it’ll just be a nice Sunday round of golf. I mean, I break 80 and I’m making four times what you will this year… what’s there to be nervous about?

Q. Do you think the pins will be accessible tomorrow?

B.A. Well, it’s Sunday, so probably less so than earlier this week. Hell, I haven’t had any problem so far, what’s to worry about? If I start thinking about making birdies, I’ll probably pee my pants. Better to blow up early and sail home.

As you can see, I wouldn’t be closing the door on Sunday. It takes a particular kind of determination which few seem to possess. Complacency is rampant amongst established Tour Pros. Is that a surprise?

Photo Credits: All © The Sand and all rights reserved.

8 thoughts on “Closing and Complaceny”

  1. well Nicklaus was about 60%, Mickelson is over 70%… so there’s one who is pretty good. I don’t think anyone who wins several tournaments will ever near Tiger’s 90+%, but he is at a level all his own, so I don’t expect such.

    I think it probably has more to do with difficulty than complacency though… you can’t tell me Sergio gives a rip about the money, but I guarantee he care’s about a vctory. I remember last year AK was trailing and he took on shots comming down the stretch that were more about “winning” than keeping some money. I don’t think golfers get complacent (for the most part) about closing the deal, it just has to do with small leads are easily overcome, especially when 3-10 good golfers might be 1-3 shots back. Hell, I probably coudn’t beat 10 other 7 cappers even if given a stroke or two, at least not 90% of the time.

  2. I agree with you that a 3rd round lead is very difficult. Unlike most other sports, you have to wait a full day before getting back out their, also, its an individual sport which makes it alot harder.

  3. I speculate that the pressure is what keeps them from winning. IIRC a good portion of many pro golfers income is from sponsorship dollars, more than tournament purses. Winners obviously drawing more endorsements.

    So a mid pack guy leading on Sunday not only is he thinking about the win, but he is also thinking about what this might mean for his livelihood down the road. I know that would probably make me more tense on each shot.

    With regards to how much they make compared to the average Joe, I don’t think that is even relevant. These guys live compared to each other, that is so well beyond most people, that they don’t even consider what the person watching them play makes per year.

    Of course you can talk about the people below 125 on the money list and struggling to make it on tour, but how often are they in contention or in the lead on Saturday evening?

    Comfortable living is relative, when I was broke in college I thought I would never need more that $35,000 a year to live comfortably. Making much more than that and with different standards, expectations, social circle and obligations due to my current position in life, the previous number seems foolish.


  4. First, you learn how to close. Think about the first time you broke 100, 90, 80. Most people don’t do that the first time they are in position to do that. If you can’t get over that hump, take up bowling. You’ll have less lost balls.

    All pros and good amateurs have learned how to close.

    Second, to move up the food chain, you have to be able to continue to close. I think most of that relates to motivation. Tiger is the #1 continue to close guy because he measures himself by wins and losses. Same with Nicklaus and Bobby Jones.

    Phil and Arnie plateaued for whatever reason after a few major wins. Arnie seemed to lose his need to win after the 64 Masters, his last major, and he was only 34.

    Norman was and is overrated — charisma goes along way with the public and made Norman seem better than he was. Compare Joe Namath with his one major — the 69 Super Bowl. Also compare Andy North — two US opens and Norman — two British Opens.

    I’m not saying any of these players are lousy golfers, they are all way better than I. My point is that at the highest level, the difference is mental. And that the ability to close is based on motivation and overcoming the fear of failure (or the fear of success, as the case may be).

  5. i usually skip the articles but i might start to read them!

    This reminds me of Tom Kite, he claimed for many years that he was happy finishing second and taking the cheque.

    Stands to reason the guys that consistently close out are better golfers, over the course of a season and are more likely to shoot a better score. Of course its mental thats part of what makes them better, Tiger is the best everyone knows this, Padraig Harrington is getting there. I am really impressed with Harrington as i have never considered him to be blessed with amazing natural abilities, so he closes our pretty good with the tools he has.


  6. Closing is an art form; not for the weak of heart or faint of spirits.

    Golf is like anything in life, you either have it or you do not. That is why we have CEO’s, VP’s, etc., and then you have the common person who just goes to work everyday to collect a paycheck and gives it what they want, satisfied to be second best at work, but always the best at home. The only difference is that when you have an audience of a million or more watching your every move being, you know and feel it. Life is interesting, so too sometimes can golf.

  7. Great article, Ben. Very thought provoking.

    I’ve thought alot about this issue, and I really don’t think anyone knows why some people can finish it out and others don’t. We like to talk about some people being “competitors” and “champions,” with the implied obverse of “choker,” but I’m always wary of those sorts of judgements. With golf, from a purely statistical standpoint, it’s hard to really determine if the high-percentage closers really have some mental toughness advantage, or whether they are just plain better, athletically. In other words, maybe Tiger is a 90% closer because he’s so damn good that when he is in the lead on the final day, he’s usually 4 strokes further in the lead than a typical last-group player is. As a “thought experiment,” to truly determine what is behind Tiger’s success or Lehman’s failures, you’d have to take 10 (or 50) other pros, put them in Tiger’s and Tom’s shoes (same tournaments, same amount of lead, same guys chasing), and see what the results were.

    But apart from that over-intellectualizing of the issue, it’s a very fun topic to debate.

    I think the thing that links winners across sports and even into other fields such as business, fine arts, politics, etc., is that successful people have a high degree of self-confidence, and also pretty strong narcissistic tendencies. None of these things can compensate for a lack of requisite talent and ability, but to rise to the very tip top, you need the ability AND these intangibles.

    Confidence is easy to understand…if you don’t believe you can win (or hit the fairway, or make the putt), you probably won’t. The “comfort zone” concept is at play…everyone feels comfortable performing within a certain range. If you are above or below that range, you tend to correct yourself back into the range. So, if you’re playing well below your standard, chances are you regroup on the back nine and salvage something from your round. Or, if you’re Phil or Greg Norman trying to win your most coveted trophy (US Open? Masters?), you start getting nervous when you’re really close to winning, and you “correct” yourself back into a losing position.

    By narcissism, I mean that anyone who consistently wins in highly competitive fields, where fans and spectators are involved (sports, TV, movies, etc.), usually has very strong ego motivation to be noticed, to show the fans that he is the best. I know the opposite is sometimes said in sports (that people worried about the fans end up failing, and the ones who are “self motivated” do better), but I don’t believe it. To be comfortable enough to perform at your best when the whole world is watching requires a personality that likes to be looked at, to be noticed.

    Anyway, whatever the reasons are, I know this: I don’t think there has been an athlete as good as Tiger Woods, ever, in any sport, when it comes to winning and closing the deal. It’ll be debated forever, I’m sure, but he’s so far ahead of a very, very deep and competitive field it’s just astounding.

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