I can remember it as if it were yesterday.
It was August of 1972, and I was playing the late Charles “Bucky” Yauilla in the semifinals of the New London Country Club Championship. We had reached the 15th hole with me holding a slim one-up lead. A small gallery had formed to follow the match, as was the custom in those days with my mentor and teacher, the great Ralph Crandall Sr. among them.
It was an improbable scene at the time. I was fairly new to higher-level competitive golf and had gotten to the semis through an improbable upset of the great Dick Hedden. Think USA hockey vs. the Russians. That kind of improbable. And when I knocked in a 12-foot birdie on number 15, I was two up with three to go.
The par three 16th was a tough one in those days and we both missed the green, with Bucky getting caught up in some high rough to the right of the green. My chip checked up two feet below the hole and I marked while I waited for Bucky to play his second shot. I can remember the thoughts that were going through my mind. “What will I wear in the finals? I want to look good in front of that large gallery. Boy, my Dad is going to be proud of me.”
When suddenly, BOOM. ROAR. Bucky chipped in from off the green. I’m suddenly in a dogfight again.
I’ll try to make the description of the ensuing agony as brief as possible. I missed a three-foot putt on 17 to bring the match square. The putter exploded in my now clammy hands and I could feel my heart start to race. I somehow survived the 18th and we went to extra holes with me now having blurred vision, palsy in both my hands, and an anxiety level that was off the charts. On the first playoff hole I was given a fabulous opportunity, the upshot being that I had a two and a half footer for the win and redemption for my collapse. I missed. The pool room term is “short arm,” a stroke so nervous and awkward as to evoke laughter.
The second hole found me with a putt that couldn’t have been more than 18 inches and I found myself slow-walking to the ball, praying that Bucky would say, “that’s good.” Fat chance. As I stood over it, I heard myself saying, “please go in. Pleeeaaaase.” I didn’t hit the putt as much as I tried to wish it in. It never threatened the hole. I lost.
I stood there paralyzed and could feel the blood drain from my face, a feeling of nausea about to consume me. I could hear nothing and I was about to cry when I began to laugh. And then cry again. I had choked and I knew it.
I’m not sure what the dictionary definition of “choke” is, but I bet if you Google it and press videos, a tape of me playing the last five holes of that match pops up and the world gets to watch a golfer collapse under the weight of self-inflicted pressure. This was a local club match; we were not playing for the fate of Western Civilization. Not that it matters because you can choke over a putt for a two dollar Nassau.
It might have been Trevino who first said, “if you never choked, you never played for anything.” I would hold to the opinion that everybody has but you wouldn’t know it by the results of the informal survey I conducted over the last couple of weeks. I asked more than 40 competitive golfers and athletes if they had ever choked in a clutch situation and, if they had, what were they feeling at that moment.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the vast majority couldn’t recall such a moment and some said, “sure, I have” and then recounted stories that had them completing glorious comebacks that just fell short despite valiant efforts or talked about some bad beat where the opponent threw in some lucky shot on the last hole to do them in. Very few were willing to talk of a time that showed what they, I suppose, perceived as a character flaw. Some just said, “I don’t care enough about winning or losing. It just doesn’t matter that much.” Hmmmmmmmmm?
The few that were candid had very similar recollections about what went on with them. They all described a nervousness that affected performance. They talked about being too aware of the consequences of their acts on the golf course. A couple of guys actually told me that it stays with them today, one saying “I’m a terrible putter because I get too nervous. I choke all the time.”
My dear friend, local talk show celebrity Lee Elci, who may have been the best amateur baseball player ever in this area, recalled to me some of what he went through as he tried to make his way through the minors during his professional career. “For me, I felt tremendous pressure in every game I played, in fact in every at bat because I felt that I had to succeed in each instance or they would send me home. I was not a highly paid prospect and felt I had no margin for error. That kind of pressure eventually wore me down.” Now that’s an honest answer.
Competitive athletes find themselves in pressure situation all the time. They put themselves in those circumstances to test themselves. To be sure that pressure is mostly self-inflicted and each of us deal with it differently and according to our personalities and psyches. I know players who are oblivious to consequences and that allows them to play without the debilitating fear that awareness of the circumstance can often provoke.
I offer no cures. I have choked under circumstances that overwhelmed me and probably will again. And if you ever decide to put yourself on the line and play for something that matters to you.
So will you.
Jim O’Neill is a member at Great Neck CC.