Golf – Chokes and Meltdowns

Everyone Does It, Don’t Handle it Same Way

The art of choking, especially on the golf course, is not limited to a weekend at a local municipal. The “choke” has been experienced by pretty much golfer who ever completed an 18 hole round, or by anyone who has ever played a match or tournament of any length. Jordan Spieth, who possesses this season’s best meltdown so far, is learning to address it with a little humor, or something that resembles light-heartedness, although we all know it wasn’t the slightest bit light-hearted when it happened. The terms “choke” and “meltdown” are not exactly the same thing, and yet are identical in the common theme of coming to lose what was yours/ours/his/hers to win at one point – sometimes affectionately referred to as “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.”

hogan 1To “choke” is to simply have one’s nerves fail in the most important moments, but some have handled this phenomenon with grace in the moment. A “meltdown,” however, is a “choke” followed by a breakdown in emotional maturity, civility, and any semblance of good sense. It is the death of decorum, where the camouflaged ego parades before the world in a mix of embarrassment and plea for support, either from humans present, or from the Heavens themselves.

Even the greatest of the greats have choked. Ben Hogan three-putted from fifteen feet to hand over a major to the person who should have been the runner-up. Jean Van der Velde’s infamous British Opera was a “choke” based on a brief rash of bad decisions, but if I remember correctly, Van der Velde remained a gentleman through the ordeal. The “meltdown” chokes have historically featured more than one serial offender, and although Tiger Woods has had his moments, Sergio Garcia springs to mind. Meltdowns involve putters broken over the knee, clubs thrown into lakes, massacred tee markers, and in a rare case, some physical conflict between player and fan. It all comes back to a possible axiom-to-be, for which I am happy to take credit  – “If a man claims to be a true gentleman, take him to a golf course and make him prove it.”

The ego doesn’t recognize the magnitude of failure. In the moment of crisis, it cannot tell whether it is on the 18th green at Augusta, or on a pitch-and-putt course in Walla Walla, agonizing over a five dollar bet. It occurs to me, however, that recovering from the meltdown is easier than surviving the score choke. The “meltdown” is a little like waking up after an all night party, with all the stupid things you said and did revisiting you all once. The “choke” is an irrevocable score, and if you lost something dear to you because of it, it sticks.

My classic collapse as a kid at the Yakima Elks was a special problem, because the ego thought it was the end of the world, even though I wasn’t going for a career in golf. The effects bled into the things I did as a primary interest, and the grandest choke of my life stuck in my craw for years and years, because I didn’t play any more matches for that long. For a professional, he or she will probably have to spring back into ready mode by the next week. For a “choke,” this is good news. There’s a clean slate just  few days later, and nothing has time to fester. But, a rank amateur can cry over a major fold for thirty years because nothing ever came along to take its place.

AUGUSTA, GEORGIA - APRIL 09: Jordan Spieth of the United States reacts to his tee shot on the seventh hole during the third round of the 2016 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club on April 9, 2016 in Augusta, Georgia. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Choking is a built-in feature of golf, ever-present and nasty when it happens. The “meltdown” is a built-in feature of maturity, tempered with cultural traditions of extraverted or introverted behavior. It is also ever-present, awaiting an opportunity. For the weekenders and the greats, it will always be so.

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