I’ve always had weird and wonderful dreams – just ask Mary McKenna, with whom I used to travel to tournaments in my amateur days. She was the recipient of many early morning tales, my tongue tripping over itself as I hurried to recount my dream before it slipped away from me into the ether. Last night I was playing a fourball with Patricia, Dad and long-time friend Alison White who lives in St Andrews and has just retired from a life in golf having worked for the PGA, the LGU and the R&A. Alison had thrown the balls up to determine the sides and she and I were taking on Dad and Patricia but the four of us were already annoyed standing on the first tee. Who was in the group in front of us? None other than Jordan Spieth and we were fizzing at being behind him because he’s so SLOW! There was total acceptance that the world No 2 was there to play ahead of us and simply a strong desire that he wouldn’t inconvenience us by holding us up! What did surprise me a little was when Alison revealed how delighted Rita Ora, (glamorous popstar for the uninformed), who had played earlier in the day, was to meet me! She is a big fan, apparently. Well, of course she is!
Just what is it that our brains get up to? They are surely the last great frontier in, well everything, including sport and golf. And what was going on in Lexi Thompson’s brain last Sunday when, with the title on the line, as well as a clean sweep of prizes and season-ending awards including the world No 1 ranking, she stepped up to a 20-inch putt on the final green. And didn’t even hit the hole.
It’s clearly not a mechanical issue. The answer is surely not to spend even more hours on the putting green honing her stroke. No, it’s much more difficult than that. It’s the successful control of the mind that leads to supreme performance in any walk of life, particularly under pressure. Those of you who, like me, have suffered from the yips, will be familiar with the complete and utter disconnect between the brain’s command and the body’s response and time frames seem to skip a few seconds, so suddenly the ghastly shot is over and there is no awareness of the action as it happens.
I’m not saying Lexi’s putt was a bona fide yip but she has had serious difficulties with her putting, even as a very young player. Countless hours have been spent working on this department of her game with the result that this season she has turned herself into a good putter. And, when you’re as outstanding in other facets of our sport as Lexi is, “good” in the putting department is enough to propel her almost to the very pinnacle of our game. Add pressure into the mix, however, and strange things can, and do, happen. Almost all of you reading this blog would have been able to knock that putt in. You wouldn’t have been able, in all likelihood, to have produced the quality shots that got the ball to that point but you could have knocked the putt in. Not missed the hole.Many moons ago I missed an important, tiny putt, 18 inches or so, on the final green at Castlerock Golf Club. I was a young player and it would have given me victory over the reigning Irish champion Mary Gorry as well as the Ulster Open title for the first time. Off down the 19th we went and somehow I managed to split the fairway with my tee shot. When I reached the ball it was deep in a massive divot and I had neither the power nor the skill to get the ball anywhere near the green. My chance was gone and the title slipped from my grasp. Missed tiddlers on the last green are indelibly etched into the memory banks and as I got into the car and drove off to do my Grade 2 typing exam I was holding back the tears. Lexi was, as always, pure class in handling the presentation ceremony and dealing with her media commitments. And yes, she won the Vare Trophy for the lowest scoring average over the year; and yes, she won the $1million bonus for winning the Race to the CME Globe title. Nice little “consolation” prizes. But this scar will cut deeply and she has an entire off-season to ponder the what-ifs? Had she holed the putt she would have won her third title this season, would have been Player of the Year as well and ascended to world No 1 in the Rolex Rankings. A career-defining season in anyone’s language. As she herself stated, “It’s always what-ifs.” I bet she was also holding back the tears, despite driving off to the bank, not a typing exam.
I wish her a dream-free off-season and respite from reliving that awful, final-green moment which may have the power to sweep away all the wonderful successes and achievements of 2017. I think she’s too sensible, too well advised, to let that happen. But you never know.
Sweet dreams, Lexi.