Control, golf and big money championships
I stood at the 17th tee Monday, squinting at the fairway of the 417-yard par 4. A left miss is preferred, with more space before going out of bounds, and just a light dotting of trees. The right side is tight. Three long bunkers line the fairway. Just right of those fairways is dense trees that shed a thick layer of leafy detritus. A heavy rain had soaked Wilmington the night before. The course was playing ploddingly.
Hole 18 is a par three and so I just wanted to hit a smooth, curvy drive on my last swing of the big stick at 17. The sun was coming out. I took a slow whoosh back, hit the top of the parabolic swing, brought the big Taylormade club head down, met the ball cleanly, and the ball shot off.
I love golf for the ludicrous, stupid pursuit of perfection. I once played golf with a friend who was incredibly hung-over. He was upset with both the inability to shake the liquor loose and with an errant golf shot. And he said something like, “You know, golf and drinking are pretty much the same. If you do it enough you’re purposefully going out of the way to piss yourself off.” Obviously, that is not a slogan for responsible drinking, but it’s fitting enough. Golf, like drinking, can be about a pleasant feeling, but mostly it’s about staying within yourself while still letting loose. And we have all seen that control go horribly wrong in both.
I think steady control of the game is the reason I love watching the pros play golf. Golf seems so boring to the untrained eye because it’s repetitive if you can’t see the intricacies. But so much is out of the golfer’s control at any given time. The opponent is the world, the terrain and the breaks of the game. Non-golf sportsmen often trot out the old adage the ball didn’t bounce our way, but in golf that could literally hold true. The best golfers play the percentages, take the correct risks and control the odds to give themselves a shot at success. So, for instance, they’ll play a draw to take out the big miss in the water or bunker, or they will take out the safer club on a tight fairway. It’s knowing when to take your shots, how to approach a hole and taking the medicine from your mistakes.
The LPGA just had its big final tournament, paying out $500,000 for first place, and $1 million to the player who ended up with the most points in the season’s championship run. It went into a sudden death playoff. On the third playoff hole, it was down to just 17-year-old Lydia Ko and long-hitter Carlota Ciganda. Ko’s second shot on the par-4 put her a long ways away from the hole. She left herself a long putt. Ciganda was 144 yards out for her second shot. Ciganda hit a pure shot, a beautifully arcing eight-iron that effortlessly curled up five feet away from the hole. Ciganda let loose a Tiger-esque fist pump and yell after the approach shot. Ko missed her birdie putt. Ciganda needed to just tap in a short five-footer, straightforward for a pro. She hit the ball firmly with her flat stick, and the little white ball rolled right past the hole. The funny thing was, it was a good putt. She hit it exactly how she planned, it just never broke, a hill never brought the ball back to the hole. When that happens, a golfer kind of pulls up, straightening their body in bafflement. They moved on to the fourth playoff hole. Ciganda collapsed, hitting a shot out of play, and lost.
That is to say, we can control all we want, and we can even succeed. We can put perfect attempts into things and still have it go wrong. Ciganda played that third hole perfectly, but a slight lapse, a cruel whim of the Golf Gods, cost her a title worth millions. And when that happens there are only two things to be mad at, either the world or yourself.
So, back to that final drive of the day for me on Monday. I ripped it, clean and straight. Funny thing, all day, and almost always, my shots hook to the left. I have a natural draw-shape to my shots. Well, this drive never drew and I had aimed square at the bunkers. It was a perfect shot, aimed for a reliable mishit. The mishit never came. My ball skidded along the sand, making a line in the bunkers’ wet surface. I had played the odds and the odds hit back. But I wasn’t mad because what is there to be mad at? That’s playing golf.
Ko, with the win, took home both tournament’s $500,000 first-place prize and the $1 million championship bonus. Ciganda will have to wait. She almost had it. There is only so much you can control, really, even for the best in the world. It’s a cool little fact that makes watching golf or playing golf so interesting.We (the royal, golfer we), after all, are all silly little people hitting a dimpled white ball, playing against the world’s bumpy terrain. Besides, I’m sure second-place had a decent payout.