Grinding, The Art of Containing Damage Until the Muse Returns
The final round of this year’s PGA Championship really gave us our money’s worth, with a seven-way tie for first place until the last few holes. It gave us a chance to see several players experience the ups and downs of an entire round. Yes, Collin Morikawa’s victory was a tremendous feat, especially for one 23 years of age. I enjoyed every minute of it, but what really caught my attention was the final nine of the third round on Saturday. Like Sunday, there was a tight group at or near the top, and every one of them, at some point or other, had their game go ‘kaplooey.’ One by one, all the leaders ended up grinding.
I’ve never heard a Webster-worthy definition of the term ‘grinding,’ but I’ll put in my two cents. It is the art of hanging on , salvaging, and minimize destruction until the swing, presence of mind, and confidence you had last week returns. It’s a period of clinging to the precipice by one’s fingernails while other leaders are making birdies and trying to render you irrelevant for the final day. It is the summoning of the most coherent thinking and judgment of which one is capable while under the pressure of competition. There is no time out to reset one’s self, and I can just imagine that sometimes a golfer thinks “Please, just get me off this course so I can get my head together and start fresh tomorrow.” Until that happens, good grinding is the only option.
Everyone has to do it, and watching the third round made me wonder what makes a person good at it. Of course, a good recovery game is a requirement for stemming the bleeding until your best golfing self returns, but what goes on in the brain and soul of a golfer that makes a good grinder?
All day Saturday, third round leader Haoting Li put on a cheerful, optimistic face, like a tangible form of visualizing. I can understand the value of the gesture, a valiant effort not to surrender to a decaying game at the worst possible time. I am, however, skeptical that there is a tangible result on the scorecard, other than being able to hold yourself together a little better.
Bryson de Chambeau even spoke of it in a post-round interview. He extolled the benefits of staying positive, thereby becoming a better person and golfer. All of that may be true, but that is still an effort to manipulate one’s reality to a better result. He has skill and knowledge for that. There must be something else, something difficult or impossible to define, but real.
It didn’t have much effect on the fourth round. Sometimes your best game doesn’t show up on day four, sometimes it does. But, on the third day, I was keyed into the play of Brooks Koepka, who has won the major twice. There was something there that I did not see elsewhere. Where putting on a happy face failed, lovely thought that it is, and an expression of desire for enlightenment may not have moved the needle one way or the other, self-knowledge might have contributed to a great day of high IQ grinding on the part of Brooks Koepka.
It was only a sensation that I will never be able to confirm, but it seemed as though Koepka was in full knowledge of who he is, what he is about, and what he is capable of. Finally, there was a low line of quality he was not willing to cross or approach. It was as if the subconscious spent no time in analysis, but in reestablishing habit and fashioning instant solutions. Koepka’s grinding showed concentration and absence of surrender. “This is who I am, and this is what I do.” Call me crazy, but that’s what I was thinking.
Koepka had a string of four bogeys that could easily have been doubles with a slip-up or two. He stood on slanted terrain, dug balls out of deep grass with a force I feared would injure his knee all over again, and struggled to redial in the driver – but he was never at a loss, challenged but never helpless, and faithful to the habits he had sought to instill. In short, strong-mindedness kept him in the game, not lovely thoughts. He was, when he had to be, a grinding master
There’s a lesson in it for those of us who despair at adversity on the course. It doesn’t always go well for anyone. Everyone needs to learn the art of grinding, whatever that means at our separate levels. However, panic, chaos and surrender all bring the same result, and are of no earthly good. Adhere to the habits we have practiced, and get over the last bad shot, move on, and the muse will return. None of us can say when, but she’ll come back – sometime.