There’s a story, perhaps apocryphal although I’ve heard it enough to believe there is at least a smidgen of truth in it, that Jack Nicklaus once said of a young Tiger Woods something along these lines: “I’ve seen lots of players with the kind of physical ability that I had, but he’s the only one who has the same kind of mental toughness and psychological strength.”
Anyone who has stood on the range at a PGA Tour event can testify that just about every swing, and the results thereof, look close to perfection. Then why doesn’t every player win?
Transposing that swing from the range to the crucible of competition is the litmus test of golfing talent. Few can do it on a consistent basis. Even fewer can achieve what Nicklaus and Tiger and few others can. That is, put a bulletproof physical and mental package together week in and week out.
When Jason Day went from being the top pick in the “best player not to win a major” poll by holding off Jordan Spieth on Sunday to claim the PGA Championship, it spoke volumes about how he may have, at 27, assembled that rare package.
And, according to him, winning our national Open last month had a major (excuse the pun) impact on that process. Only days removed from leaving a birdie putt short at the Open Championship and thus missing the playoff, Day didn’t make the same mistake at Glen Abbey.
After his ecstatic celebration, he said: “To turn around so quick and hole that putt on the 72nd hole at the Canadian Open, I mean, it was a good way to turn around. Knowing that I can do it and show people that I can do it and stomp my foot on the ground and say, ‘No! That’s enough! I can get it done.’ The way I closed in Canada is obviously powerful to draw on. It’s just amazing how the more and more I stay out here, the more it’s all about the head, rather than the whole game itself.”
If there has been a knock on Day, it has been that he is just too nice, lacks the killer instinct, is a touch out of focus. Could it be that he has finally dialed in, that he is accumulating the Kevlar psyche to accompany his superb physical game? Looks like it.
Setting a major scoring record of 20-under, on a golfing purgatory like Whistling Straits, is a stunning achievement. Defeating Spieth, the 22-year-old phenom, only enhances that accomplishment. TV broadcasters called Spieth a “gunslinger,” a reference to his Texas heritage. But compared to Day and the rest of the bombers, Spieth packs a popgun. Perhaps a more appropriate reference might have been to Joe Lefors. As some of you may recall, Lefors was the relentless, inexorable pursuer of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in the movie of the same name. Constantly looking over your shoulder is a tough way to rob banks or win on Tour. For Day to resist that instinct and to focus on the prize should worry his fellow players.
“My play this week was just so much better, better than everyone else,” he said Sunday. “And that feels good to me, because I was the last man standing, which is great.
“Now I know exactly what I have done to get myself in a position where I’m holding the trophy. So as long as I keep working on those things and get the process right, I know that there’s going to be plenty of these to hold as long as I really am feeling motivated and I want it more than anyone else.”
Superb physical ability. Mental toughness. Psychological strength. Confidence. Desire.
Any comment, Mr. Nicklaus?