Coming Back from a Ten Stroke Choke
I remember Jean van de Welde’s Open experience some years back – we all do. It was easy to criticize and mock, because most of us had never played under more pressure than a few bucks or a steak dinner can levy. Van de Welde, however, was never even expected to appear on the upper leaderboard. He was a foot soldier back in the pack, ranked down there where the number utterly lacked importance. But Martin Kaymer? That’s another story entirely.
Martin Kaymer, from Düsseldorf, Germany, is a highly-ranked golfer with a bunch of tour wins already amassed in a short career. He’s just flat-out good. This past January, however, Kaymer lived the nightmare that, for all of us, is closer to reality than we might think. He led the Abu Dhabi Championship by six strokes going into the final round, extended the lead to ten in the first nine, then lost the tournament on a couple of errant drives.
Rather than go into a Woodsesque tailspin, he addressed the “why” immediately, and left the “what” for another time. Kaymer doesn’t speak of it publicly, for fear that we’ll make more of it than we should, and in general, display our worst behavior in some cases. He is wise to shut us out, because that is precisely what would happen. We are not to be trusted with personal information. We, as a species, are the swine in the pearl parable.
Golfers have thrown away large leads before, and golfers playing well have overcome large deficits to win. As a person who has lost a match one down after being up 9 up with 10 to play, I have tremendous sympathy for Kaymer’s rough New Year. I, too, on my low golfing level, learned much about what my grand choke really meant, because 9 down with 10 to go moves past the question of golf. Kaymer says that he’s got it, and that it will never happen again, and I believe him. As for me, I’m not entirely sure that I’ve got it, so I just stay out of matches – works for me, wouldn’t work for Martin Kaymer.
The difficulty of golf is not just based on striving to match par, and being disappointed after walking away with a bogey. Even at the pro level, Lady Luck and Golf team up as a great deal more sinister than that. The game’s strategy for not just defeating you, but humiliating you, is based on cascade failure. You hit a bad shot, you fall to pieces, then hit more of them – or, you hit one difficult shot into a place where the next one is far worse. Ever played serial bunker to bunker shots, knowing there’s a green between them somewhere, but you just can’t seem to find it? Ever explored the backwoods of your favorite home course to the point where you feel as though you’re back in the Daniel Boone era? Ever had the feeling that on some days, the cup has a sensor and rejection mechanism, no matter how true your line? And don’t even start on the subject of water.
Suffice it to say that golf is set up, unless you prevent it by maintaining your discipline, to turn a four or five into a fourteen or fifteen. That’s a 72 turned into an 85 or 86, and that’s if it only happens on one hole. For Martin Kaymer, it can turn 1st place into top ten. Kaymer won’t starve without that extra amount in the winner’s check. His trophy case will do just fine, and he’s not done winning. Those of us who play on weekends will be fine, too. But, it behooves us, hacker and pro alike, to understand what golf’s evil plan for us really is. She’s not in it for the bogey. She’s in it for the 14.