I was watching the Players Championship on TV this weekend, largely because it is a course I have played and enjoyed immensely. The TPC at Sawgrass is one of my top five all-time tracks and while I haven't been there in 20 years, the course still has a familiar look to it.
The drama of the course reaches a crescendo over the last three holes; the 16th, a reachable par five with trouble everywhere; the 17th, the most famous hole in golf with its island green looking like a sand spit in the middle of a lake; and the 18th, a rugged four par with water on the left and trouble on the right. It's a great test for a champion.
As much as I enjoyed seeing the golf course again, I was much more struck by the travails of Kevin Na, the third-round leader who soared to a 76 and a seventh-place finish in the final round. While Na is an accomplished pro who joined the tour at a very young age, he is likely to be remember for the infamous 16 he took on a par four at the Texas Open or, more likely, for the way he got to his final-round collapse.
You see, Na developed a hitch in his swing during the third round that carried over into the final round. Na simply had trouble pulling the trigger on his swing for two days. While the issue got wrapped up in PGA rules on slow play, more compelling was the human drama of a young athlete whose mind would not let his body do what it had done so effortlessly for so many years.
Na would stand over his shot, waggling his club, seemingly about to start his swing, but his mind would not allow him to bring the club back. On more than a few occasions, Na would force the club back, only to balk at the swing and have to start again. Many in the crowd were unsympathetic, deriding Na for a nervous condition as they had done to Sergio Garcia years ago when El Nino would constantly grip and re-grip before finally pulling the trigger. But this was different.
Whereas Garcia simply wasn't going to swing until he was comfortable, Na couldn't swing. He wanted to; he just couldn't do it, the quirk in his mind overpowering the athletic precision developed over years of practice and repetition. Na would scream at himself in an attempt to unlock the forces that constrained him, but to no avail. Strangely, when he finally pulled the trigger, he hit some wonderful shots and, in spite of it, raced to the top of the leaderboard entering Sunday's final round.
But it wore him down, slowly and inexorably, as he fought whatever demons were trampling his mind. And it was painful to watch as only the most callous fellow could watch this without an outpouring of empathy for someone in such mental pain as Na. What's more, I had seen this phenomenon before, and it was more extreme than Na's case, if not as dramatic.
We were on a buddy trip in the early 90s, playing all the great courses at Kiawah Island, including the famed Ocean Course, site of the 1991 Ryder Cup. In fact, we were playing the great Pete Dye design when one of the group, who I will only call Bobby, developed a similar but much worse hitch in his giddyup than even Na experienced.
The first time it happened, Bobby simply went to the top of his backswing and, instead of starting his downswing, he took an exaggerated pause, rocked a couple of times, and then finished the swing. The shot wasn't terrible and we all kidded him gently with "what was that?" Bobby laughed and so did we. But two holes later, Bobby took his swing to the top and got stuck there, seemingly frozen in position, unable to start the downswing. He rocked his body a few times in an effort to create some momentum, and finally, after four or five seconds, was able to complete the swing. This was no longer funny to anyone, most especially Bobby.
Understand this: Bobby was a strong 4-handicapper with a lifetime of experience in golf. And he was frightened. As it turns out rightfully so, because the for the rest of the trip, the exaggerated pause at the top remained, someone lasting only a couple of seconds, but often as much as 10 seconds, making it a painful experience for all of us. And since Dr. Phil didn't make the trip with us, Bobby was left with the unprofessional advice of his ignorant playing partners who clearly had no idea what was going on in Bobby's mind but were perfectly willing to call upon exotic home remedies in an attempt to unchain him from the malady of his mind.
Bobby struggled for the trip, had a miserable time but smartly went to a reputable sports psychologist upon returning home. It took a year of lost golf for Bobby to regain his unfettered skills but it did happen. I have never asked him what he and the psychologist talked about but it's clear that any of us could be candidates for counseling, given the mental requirements of the game of golf.
I would wager there are more cases of the yips in golf than there are cases of Heineken in Rodney's cellar and no amount of elongated putters is going to put a dent in that statistic. And who among us hasn't choked harder than the Boston Strangler's last victim? As I always say, "if you never choked, you never played for anything." But that's another blog, one which I feel very qualified to write about.
For now, all of this comes shrouded in the mystery of the human psyche, and let's be honest, we have a lot to learn about that. Why is it that a perfectly good athlete, in seemingly familiar surroundings, can't do something he has done thousands of times before, without incident? I don't know but I do know that we should have some compassion for Kevin Na for what plagued during one of the biggest moments of his young career. There, but for the grace of God ...
Jim O'Neill is a member at Great Neck CC.