A Change in Attitude

Another late Sunday tee time was mine for the final round of the 2011 Montreal Championship.  After rounds of 71 and 70, I was finding myself in that all too familiar place of tied for 50 something.  This was becoming a common theme for me.  Because of a two-tee start, I was given a late tee time, but unfortunately it was off the 10th tee, about the time those near the lead (like my room mate for the week Tom Lehman) were teeing off the 1st.  It was like every round I was shooting on the Champion’s Tour was 70.  The courses lately had not been that tough, but my game was not in a groove.  One day it was putting, the next it was a couple of bad shots that cost some strokes.  I told my caddie that today would be about attitude.  I would play with a thankful heart full of gratitude and be thankful for the opportunity, not caught up in the performance.

Being born of a French mother and still fluent in French, I was having some fun with the fans before our tee-off.  At three under par, I was a full 13 strokes behind the torrid pace set by Mr. Lu from Taiwan.  John Cook was a stroke back.  With the low scoring, I began to joke with the crowd in French that I needed a round of 19 birdies to catch the leaders.  One gentleman asked me in French who I thought would win.  Since I was speaking French and I knew none of my fellow competitors could hear me, I told them that John Cook was the man to beat and I predicted he would shot a 65 and win at 22 under.

Surprisingly, many in the gallery decided to follow me; probably since I was the only American player speaking French.  After a good pitch at the par 5 10th, I made the 4 foot putt for my first birdie of the day.  “That’s one, only 18 more birdies to go, I joked with the gallery.”  After a good 8 iron approach at the par 4 11th, I struck the 15’ birdie putt on my intended line.  The speed was perfect, birdie #2.  The crowd was starting to get into it.  “You know you can eagle a hole too Bobby”, one enthusiastic golf fan shouted out in French.  “You never know until you give it your all”, I answered back.

Well, I didn’t shoot 53 that day as you might have guessed.  Had I, you would have known about it, as it would have been all over the news.  But I did go on to make 5 more birdies and record a bogie free 65, my best round of the year.   Ironically, I shot an 8 under par 64 in the final round the previous year, the low round of the day.  By the way, John Cook went on to shoot 66 and win by 3 strokes for his 3rd victory of the year.

Shooting to 10 under for the week moved me into a tie for 28th, but more importantly was the breakthrough that resulted.  My attitude was free, thankful and enjoying the journey.  I was no longer a prisoner to my low expectations and suffering confidence.  I was beginning to take hold of some of the key points I had discussed with “Golf in the Kingdom” author and founder of the Esalen Institute, Michael Murphy during a recent encounter.  Michael and I had a long discussion about “the zone”.

Marianna and I flew back to Raleigh in the Malibu that evening.  It was an uneventful 3.5 hour journey except for the numerous lines of thunderstorms we needed to navigate.  After unloading the luggage at home, we bolted to our favorite Irish pub in our neighborhood for dinner.  We knew it would be a short night, for the next day we were booked on a 6 am flight to Pebble Beach for the Nature Valley First Tee, held in my back yard!

Monday was my first day of rest in over three weeks.  I didn’t hit a single shot.  But Tuesday was a busy day.  Needing to save my body from full swings and give it more rest, I set out to Pebble Beach with my caddie, my wedge and my putter.  Cliff hadn’t been to Pebble Beach in over 20 years, and he couldn’t get enough.  He felt like he was on vacation, as I had all the yardage and green reading already done.  But the greens at Pebble were firm and fast, and the putts were breaking more than usual.  I needed several hours of work on the greens before I started feeling comfortable.  Cliff is an excellent green reader, and he learned the greens we putted quickly.  In the afternoon, Cliff and I headed to Del Monte for a mini-practice-round.  Del Monte is the oldest course west of the Mississippi and the first course I ever broke par.  I was 14.  I was excited to play Spyglass in the Wednesday pro-am, until I discovered my tee-time was 7:20a.  Being short on rest didn’t dampen my day, I hadn’t played my old high school home course in over two years.  It was in the best shape I had ever seen.  On Thursday, I worked on my long game and did some more chipping and putting late in the afternoon at Pebble Beach.  I needed to get to bed early, as I had at least two parties to attend every day before.  Fortunately, I had a late Friday tee time off the 10th tee at Pebble Beach.

The first round was similar in many ways to the final round at Montreal.  My lone bogie at Pebble Beach came off a three-putt on #4.  But birdying 11, 17, 18, 6 gave me a round of 69, the same score I had shot at Pebble in the final round the previous year.

I was off to a good start early the next morning at Del Monte, birdying for first two holes and starting to make a move at Russ Cochran, the first round leader who shot 65 at Pebble Beach.  But after getting into trouble at #3, a bogie stopped the momentum.  It came back again at #7 and #8, then again at #10 and #11.  Suddenly, I’m 5 under for the round.  After a second bogie at #12, I birdied #16 and #17 to finish with a 6 under par 66 and for the moment, the clubhouse lead.  Jay Haas would later go on a birdie run at Pebble Beach at take a two shot lead into the final round.

I was thrilled to be in the final group on Sunday.  My First Tee partner, John Dunlap and I had made the cut, so he too would be playing with me again.  Jay’s junior partner and he also made the cut.  I was happy to play with Jay.  He and I had played many times before and we always got along well.  Jay is focused on his shots, but relaxed in between.  He and I talked quite a bit during the round which took about 6 hours.

The first tee posed a bigger challenge than usual for me.  The wind was slight and variable, about 8 O’Clock.  A three wood was a very aggressive club that could reach the fairway bunker.  A 5 wood might be too conservative.  Jay hit first, and ripped a three wood into the garden spot, with nothing more than a pitching wedge remaining for his second shot.  Cliff and I debated for a moment, then I took the 5 wood and hit the stinger up the right side that trickled into the fringe rough.  After a good 8 iron second shot that never left the flag, I was left with a 18 foot straight up-the-hill putt.  I nailed it, as did Jay.  We had both birdied the 1st.

The second hole is the shortest par 5.  I hit a good drive and had a 3 iron second shot, which I faded into the right hand greenside bunker.  Jay was wild right with his fairway wood 2nd, but made a great up-and-down that was capped off by a holed downhill 15 footer.  I missed my 10 footer for birdie and now trailed by 3.

A pivotal point occurred at the 4th.  The tee shot has undergone some recent changes.  The fairway bunker on the left has been pushed a little to the right and been made larger, the fairway has been pushed right to the ocean’s edge.  Additionally, fairway now circumvents the bunker, bringing the larger bunker more into play when hitting a driver off the tee.  I usually hit a fading driver, but the tee shot is now more difficult, so I decided to lay-up with a 3 iron, leaving a 9 iron 2nd shot.  The hole was cut in the back of the small green, 5 steps from the back edge.  I drew my -5 9 iron 13 feet left of the hole.  The ball landed 5 yards short of hole high on the green, then took a huge first bounce over the green and into the tall fescue.  4 shots later, I made double-bogie.

My son Michael who was following me with his brother Daniel came up to me and said, “Don’t worry Dad, we still love you.”  Those were just the words I needed to hear.  I was in close at 5,6 and 7 for birdie, but they wouldn’t drop.  I made a par at the difficult 8th when I two putted from the front fringe.  After a good drive at the 9th, I hit a hard +5 sand wedge 12’ for birdie, made the putt and suddenly I had closed the gap to two shots.  When Jay 3 putted the slick 10th green, I only trailed by one shot.

I hit was I thought was a perfect shot at the challenging into-the-wind par 3 12th.  Somehow, the ball carried the front bunker but stopped on the downslope in the rough, short of the green.  I had never seen that happen in all the years I’ve played Pebble Beach.  But I had a good lie and saw the opportunity to hit a shot I had been practicing lately, the hybrid chip.  I pictured the right-to-left break, visualized the ball going in the hole.  The cheered erupted when the ball disappeared.  When Jay’s birdie putt curled around the edge, I was tied for the lead.  I could feel the adrenaline, but was in my focus and zone.  Time was beginning to stand still.  Calm was over my body.  I striped another drive at #13, leaving only 128 yards for my second shot.  Needing a -10 8 iron, I hit the ball a little thin, leaving a difficult 45 foot putt that I thought would break 18 feet.  It broke 24 feet, but the straight in 6 footer never left the center of the cup.  I was still tied for the lead, but now with Jeff Sluman who had just birdied the diabolical 14th.  After striping another tee shot in the middle, my sometimes TV colleague, Billy Ray Brown ran up to me and asked for an on-course interview.  This is allowed on the Champion’s Tour, but not on the regular tour.  It caught me a little off guard, but being in the TV business, I knew it was best to do the interview.  “Need to hunker down.  One shot at a time, Pebble is playing tough” is what I told Billy Ray.  I received many comments the following day from many who tried to blame Billy Ray for my double-bogie at 14.  The reality is that it didn’t bother me.  The third shot at 14 is maybe the most difficult approach shot in all of golf.  I was faced with a 123 yard uphill third shot from the center of the fairway.  I hit another slightly thin shot 9 iron shot and paid the price.  The ball landed on the green into the top of the steep slope and began to trickle off the front of the green, leaving one of the most impossible flop shots to a table top in golf.

Jay also double-bogied #14 and we both now found ourselves trailing by two.  When I arrived at #17, I was trailing by three, needing the next to impossible birdie, eagle finish to tie.  Jay had the honor at the famous par 3, playing 184 yards to a back left hole location.  The greens had been getting firmer with each passing moment.  The breeze appeared to be directly right-to-left, perfect for a holding  -5 5 iron.  Jay struck what looked to be the perfect shot.  The ball landed just past the flag and rolled over the green into the deep rough with a next-to-impossible chip remaining.  I turned to Cliff, “we can’t hit it over the green here!  We’re better off in the front bunker than over the green.  How about a +3 6 iron.”  “Yes, I like it”, Cliff agreed.  “The wind appears to be helping a bit.”  I struck it well, but the trajectory was slightly higher than I had envisioned.  “Go”, I screamed.  The ball landed into the lip of the front bunker.  My concern was that I could get a slightly buried lie, as the ball landed softly.  When I arrived to the ball, I was pleased to see the ball had barely popped out of it’s pitch, but left a crater directly behind the ball.  I jumped into the bunker to survey the lie.  It was one of those lies that would leave no room for error.  It was perched high, almost teed up in the sand.  It would require the perfect strike.  I settled in, waggled the club, picturing how the club would enter the sand, seeing the flight of the ball and the result.  The contact was perfect, the ball came out strong, with a ton of spin, landing 4 feet short of the hole and amazingly, stopping a foot short of the hole.  I actually thought it was in when I struck it.  I did my best high-hurdler imitation and jumped out of the bunker.  I later would receive comments about that move, thank God for the P90X Plyometrics workout!

As I stood on the 18th tee, I felt that awful sensation one gets when all the adrenaline has left one’s body. I had then realized I had lost the tournament.  I didn’t want to even play.  My thoughts went back to “attitude”.  It was time to have a real self-talk.  “Ok, a birdie here at 18 will get you into a tie for 2nd.  Let’s see you it 4 quality shots even though you don’t feel like it.  Can you do it?  Prove it to yourself!”  After a perfect stinger 3 wood tee shot, a perfect shaping power draw with a 5 wood and a flag hunting 68 yard -16 yard cut 60 degree wedge shot, I was face with a downhill, left-to-right 7 footer for birdie.  The hole was cut in it’s traditional front right final round placement, but this time it was two steps closer to the middle of the green.  I had never seen that exact hole location before.  Cliff and I read the putt, 2 and ½ inches outside left edge, we agreed.  “Trust it”, I told myself.  I saw the line, made a good stroke, but then watched in amazement as the ball wouldn’t break.  I had just missed a short putt that would drop me into a tie for 5th.  The tournament was over.  Jeff Sluman had just won his third First Tee in the last four years.