Sergio and ‘Mental Strength’

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I hate the common tropes of “mental strength” not because I don’t believe they’re valid, but because they’re often used by idiots who are using it as a vehicle of affirmation since they’re either too lazy or uninitiated to delve into the real reasons some golfers become Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson while others “languish” as Adam Scott or Lee Westwood.

And perhaps no other player is more firmly entrenched between both camps than my personal favorite player, the guy who inspired me to really get into golf, Sergio Garcia…currently one shot back after being the first round co-leader.

The mind is the single most powerful “thing” in an athlete’s arsenal, and while we might obsess over 40 times or how fast someone can throw or mechanics or scheme, all of it is inconsequential without an athlete’s intellect being tuned for optimal performance.  And this is hardly relegated to sports…if you’ve ever read anything about Navy SEAL training, you’ll hear the same refrain over and over and over again.  “Everyone here is physically strong.  It’s mental strength that separates those who graduate and those who quit.”  …or something like that.

You can look at the greatest golfers in history and see this type of mental resiliency.  Yes, most of them were precociously talented individuals with certain elements of their skillsets that made them stand apart from their peers, but in golf especially, it’s this mental ability that’s the real difference.

In “real” sports, an athlete can get by via incredible athleticism or speed or some aspect of their game that’s just THAT much better than everyone else, but it doesn’t make mental strength any less important.  As great of an athlete as LeBron James is, and he’s undeniably in a rare physical class, is it his explosion and leaping that makes him a great player?  Or is it the fact that he can see passing lanes and defensive angles and understands his opponents’ tendencies and uses his athleticism to take advantage of schematic windows that completely break from conventional wisdom?

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And, as freakish as he is, we HAVE seen athletes of a similar caliber that haven’t been able to grasp the game at a level that LeBron has.  Yes, he’s one of the best athletes in the NBA, but he’s also one of the most intelligent and versatile…and yet, how many times have you seen his mental strength questioned in comparison to Michael Jordan’s?  How many NFL Combine freaks have we seen be labeled as “busts” because they cant intellectually translate the information their brains are receiving into physical reaction.

I’ve used this example many, MANY times, but the reaction Tiger Woods had in the 2000 US Open drilling a 20 footer on 16 to save par because he said he wouldn’t make a bogey is as good of an example as there is in golf.  Contrary to popular opinion, Tiger Woods in 2000 had flaws in his game…he was still wild off the tee (tho not that week), had difficulty hitting half shots and controlling his spin and was as aggressively risky a player as there was.

In comparison, at the same ages, Rory McIlroy, in my opinion, is a FAR more refined player than Tiger was.  He’s equally aggressive, but he’s got a much more controlled dispersion with his shots, doesn’t have the huge misses, and is every bit as good of a long iron player as Tiger was.  That said, if you watch their dispositions, did you EVER see Tiger sulking around while struggling at that age?  Can you remember him with slumped shoulders and a hang-dog expression on his face after a miss?

Sure, maybe after the car accident and while he was struggling during periods of teacher transition, but not when he feels he has a shot to compete and can rely on his mechanics.  Hey, just look at Adam Scott’s body language at last year’s British Open, a tournament he was firmly in control of going down the stretch if you don’t believe in the power of having the right mindset in the moment.

So, here we are, after one round at the Masters with Sergio Garcia holding the lead.  We’ve seen this before…hell, we’ve seen him in contention much, MUCH later many times and yet, here we are still asking when he’s going to win his first major.  So what’s the deal?  Why are we still wondering why a player this good is such a disappointment.

Lets dispel another popular opinion…Sergio Garcia CAN win a major.

You look at his ballstriking stats, and they’re excellent, always have been.  He’s got a beautiful short game and is one of the better bunker players around.  Hell, even his putting stroke, the most maligned aspect of his game, is much improved compared to when he was struggling (and yet, still contending).  You can tell by his reactions and his body language that he CARES, something we might question in a lot of other golfers.  He wants desparately to win, and if you’ve ever caught him in a Ryder Cup, you know he can bring the heat in pressure situations.

And yet, you listen to a lot of his comments regarding his game and his mental state and you see someone that’s got something wrong with him.  That confidence he’s been showing more and more on the course just flat-out disappears during interviews and pressers…it’s completely bizarre.  This is a guy who hits 70% GIR, is one of the better drivers in the game and can hit unbelievable recovery shots with the best of them, who’s proven himself in Ryder Cup pressure cookers and, yet, he sounds like a beaten man.

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It’s no wonder he finds himself in contention and can’t pull through if you notice this…he just didn’t believe in himself.

Whether it’s due to media pressure and, after years and years of “why haven’t you won a major?” questions, or reflecting on his own failures, or being a laughingstock from immature antics we’ll never know.  But what I am reasonably confident in predicting is that, until Sergio can believe in himself, believe that he’s good enough to win a major and that there aren’t “golf gods” conspiring against him, he’ll never get over this hump and forever be linked with guys like Colin Montgomerie.

Phil Mickelson, a three-time Masters champion, had his own demons to deal with, but if you watch a timeline of his interviews and reactions, you could always tell that he truly believed that one day, if he kept putting himself in contention, he’d eventually win.  His confidence NEVER wavered, close call after close call.  Now?  Does anyone question whether or not Phil can win a tournament when he’s in contention?  Hell no!  Shit, is there a better example of a player where mindset means everything?

Phil can do some crazy shit on a golf course, but he’s not in Tiger’s class…sorry.  He’s got a wonky swing and takes stupid risks and experiments far too much, yet how many times have we seen Phil look like SHIT for like a month, and then all of the sudden turn it on and grab a tournament by the throat?  It’s happened so many times now, I just shrug off bad performances by Phil because it doesn’t mean a cot damned thing.

Getting back to Sergio, I’m a little encouraged by his post-round comments yesterday about a course he’s been pretty critical of in the past.  Check this out…

“Well, obviously it’s not my most favorite place, but you know, we try to enjoy it as much as we can each time we come here,” he said. “Sometimes it comes out better than others.”

Garcia’s earlier remarks haven’t been as diplomatic. Although he received attention at last year’s Masters for saying that he needed to “play for second place,” it was in 2009 when he was most explicit in his distaste for Augusta National.

“I don’t like it. I don’t think it’s fair,” he said following the final round that year. “It’s too tricky … you get mud balls in the middle of the fairways.” Asked how he’d change it, Garcia replied, “I don’t care, they can do whatever they want. It’s not my problem. I just come here and play then go home.”

There’s no point in trying to hide it, I’m rooting like fucking crazy for Sergio this week regardless of what he says or how he plays, but if anything, these comments are a step in the right direction even if they can still be construed as criticism.  Yea, he’s still got a somewhat negative outlook, but it’s a huge departure from 2009, and frankly, they’re pretty encouraging if you dig a little deeper.

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He’s not dwelling on the outcome.  “Sometimes it comes out better than others”…he’s in the moment, not thinking about potential results or setting up some self-fulfilling prophesy.  Compare that to the desperation and sense he’s given up from his comments in 2009 and you’ll notice the difference.  Sure…he still says he doesn’t love the course but he’s not dwelling on it, instead, “enjoying” his time here.  And you can see that on his face and in his body language too.  He’s immersed in the tournament and wants to win.

Whether he can pull it out is another story.  I think it’s still a little too early to tell, but I think he’s in good enough form to put himself in a position where he’ll have a shot.  If he can, it’d be a great story…he’s such a phenomenal player and has come so close in the past, it’d be a huge cathartic moment.  But I think the best thing that’d come from him slipping on a Green Jacket would be that a player of his caliber wouldn’t continue beating himself up so much.

Jack Nicklaus didn’t dwell on his average shortgame.  Tiger Woods didn’t hide because of his sketchy driving.  Sam Snead, Ben Hogan and Lee Trevino didn’t shrink because of shaky putting.  Nick Faldo didn’t care he was a short hitter.  Seve Ballesteros didn’t mind hitting it into the trees.  It didn’t matter because those things never diminished the confidence the great champions of the game had when it came to winning a golf tournament.

Golf would be so much better off with a motivated, on-fire Sergio Garcia full of confidence and passion…as much as I enjoy watching him now, he’d be even more of a blast to watch playing well, and who knows, maybe he could even be a player who could put a scare into Tiger.  Hey, even if the rivalry didn’t got a decade-late start, it’d be one helluva fun ride to see those two stripe irons all Sunday afternoon with a major on the line.

As for this week?  If the conditions keep getting worse, the better Sergio’s chances become…as much as his confidence can be visibly shaken, one thing that’s never gotten to him is weather.  Even better if the weather clears and the course is soft while he’s headed into the back 9, where there are opportunities to make up strokes.

  • cabbage

    Best moment yesterday involving Sergio was ESPN capturing him taking pictures of fans with their camera. Can’t imagine walking up to Tiger handing him my camera and asking him to take a picture of me and my friends.

  • cbh49er

    Nice job Spencer, you jinxed him.