Much has been written about the dearth of effective “closers” on the PGA Tour.
What do I mean by “closer”?
For purposes of this article, a golfer who is able to take a lead into Sunday on the PGA Tour and be expected to win is considered a closer.
And there are not very many of those left.
Phil Mickelson, when he is not paired with Tiger Woods on Sunday (even though he has been doing decidedly better when facing down Woods lately) is a closer. That’s one of the big reasons he has ascended to the No. 2 world ranking.
Of course, Woods himself is one of the greatest closers the game has ever seen. Give him the lead heading into Sunday, and you might as well phone in the results to AP with Woods at the top and everyone else battling for second place.
After all, Tiger is a stunning 31-6 in all tournaments when he is leading after 54 holes. One of his most famous stats is this: he has never coughed up a lead at a Major when he led it at the beginning of the day on Sunday. He is 13-0.
In fact, when it comes to sealing the deal, it is far easier to analyze two of the best closers of all time—Jack Nicklaus and Woods—and what they did right rather than to consider what other PGA Tour players are doing wrong right now.
First and foremost, we should consider what is sometimes considered an immeasurable attribute—mental toughness—when discussing why Nicklaus and Woods have such off-the-charts success at closing the deal.
So just what is it (or in Nicklaus’ case, was it) about the strategies employed by Nicklaus and Woods that made them so formidable when protecting a lead during round four of a golf tournament, especially Grand Slam events?
Two words: mental preparation.
Now, let me be fair, before proceeding, and add this disclaimer to the rest of this article:
It is very difficult to compose oneself on Sunday at a Major, because of the incredible pressure a player is under to win such a prestigious event, and because of the implications involved with winning even one Major.
Just look at Kenny Perry at this year’s Masters. Perry is absolutely one of the best strikers of the golf ball in the PGA. Perry, as of April 14, 2009, ranked 75th in driving accuracy, was tied for 28th in greens in regulation, tied for 12th in total driving, and was tied for sixth in ball striking.
Yet, on 17 at Augusta earlier this month, he shanked his drive into the first cut of rough, and his iron-shot was even worse, leaving him in a collection area near the back fringe of the green. He paid for it all with a bogey.
Then, on the 72nd hole, Perry drove into the one place he needed to avoid—the fairway bunker on the left side of the fairway—and mis-hit yet another approach shot to found himself at the bottom of a slope, just inches from the gallery.
His pitch to about 16 feet was miraculous, but left one hellacious par putt. He just missed it to finish his round bogey-bogey heading into the playoff.
Eerily, Perry had a similar experience the last time he was in control of a major on a Sunday: the 1996 PGA. Perry leaked oil badly down the stretch, and Mark Brooks was the recipient of a gracious gift—the only major he has won to date.
Can anyone, anywhere, document Nicklaus or Woods suffering such a collapse with one of the Big Four tournaments on the line? In a word: no.
The reason for that is simple: Nicklaus revolutionized the mental processes of a high-level golfer. He loved winning golf tournaments, to be sure, with 73 wins all-time, and the staggering 18 majors.
Yet, relatively early in his professional career, Nicklaus made a concerted effort to A) get fitter and stronger and B) focus his attention on winning majors. He began playing in tournaments that would prepare him for the Big Four.
After all, it’s hard to go from a course where you have to shoot 24-under par to be in contention, to a PGA event where par will typically have you in excellent shape heading into Sunday’s last few holes.
Not surprisingly, Tiger Woods has adopted those strategies, too. He has never played the TPC at Southwind in Memphis, TN, for instance. The course simply isn’t demanding enough. It doesn’t require the mental and physical grinding that will prepare Woods well enough for a major.
Jack and Tiger have both displayed that they are better prepared mentally to handle the diabolical rough, fast greens, multitude of hazards, and treacherous hole locations typical of the four majors: The Masters, the British Open, the US Open, and the PGA Championship.
A logical subset of this mental preparation is course management.
Simply put, a golfer needs to know where danger is, avoid said danger at all cost, and play conservatively and intelligently when protecting a lead on Sunday.
A perfect example would be what not to do was what Sean O’Hair did wrong on Sunday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational a few weeks ago.
After leading all tournament long, some loose play by O’Hair helped fuel a patented charge by Woods. They went into the final three holes tied at five-under par.
O’Hair placed his drive perfectly—right in the middle of the fairway; Woods drove into the thick rough.
Incredibly, though, O’Hair tried to fire right at the flag stick, which required him to traverse a lake. If you didn’t see the tournament—but you know that Tiger won—would you care to predict what happened?
That’s right: he chunked the iron right into the lake.
The wise play would have been to throw his golf ball out into the center of the green, with the pin tucked so precariously. That would have left him about a 30 or 40-foot two-putt to grind out for par. That’s what Jack or Tiger would have done.
Woods, the inveterate closer, showed him how things should be done. Plugged in the rough, he laid up in the fairway, leaving himself a favorable angle to the hole. He then landed his approach to within three feet, and calmly sank his par putt.
O’Hair rang up a bogey, and Woods had his first lead of the tournament, on the way to a thrilling victory.
It’s just one hole, but it illustrates the difference between closers like Jack Nicklaus in his prime, Tiger Woods now, and perhaps a handful of other golfers throughout history—and everyone else.
Mental preparation and toughness, combined with methodical course management equals a man (or woman) who can close out a golf tournament, even when he (or she) might not be playing at peak capacity.
Everyone else is left to ponder what might have been, as they will lose, perhaps not all, but numerous times when they have placed themselves in prime position to win for 54 holes.