The Match of the Millennium

The Match of the Millennium
by Dr. T. J. Tomasi
Keiser University College of Golf Senior Faculty and Director of Research

TJ Tomasi

In 2009, Golf Magazine ranked the greatest players of all time: Jack Nicklaus No. 1, Tiger Woods second, Bobby Jones third and Ben Hogan fourth. Hard to argue with this ranking, but I will.

First, though, I have to change the selection guidelines. Who would I pick to win from that foursome, assuming they all play their very best for 18 holes, at Pine Valley, a very difficult course in southern New Jersey ranked No. 1 by Golf Magazine?

My answer is Ben Hogan, every time. Hogan is easily the best ball striker of the group and well known for demolishing fields on difficult golf courses.

Hogan was by far the most creative and self-reliant of all the champions, past or present. He had no coach, no mental guru, no physical trainer, no equipment expert or dietitian — just himself, all 5 foot 8, 145 pounds.

It is this reliance on private self-efficacy that carried him through experiences that would’ve crushed a lesser competitor, beginning with his father’s suicide in the next room when Hogan was only nine.

In his early years, he went broke on the tour several times and was out of money for a third time when he found his car jacked up with all four tires stolen.

He had just enough money for the entry fee at the next tournament, and he had to win or go home — he won. In this day of courtesy cars and buffet lines, there are no Hogans.

Tiger played a couple of rounds with a cracked tibia, which was impressive, but Hogan, after being hit by a bus, played much of his career with legs so mangled he had to soak and bandage them for two hours before and after every round.

So even aside from his ball-striking, Hogan would’ve had a huge advantage in mental toughness in our “match of the millennium.” With everything on the line, in the prime of his career, even with his putting merely acceptable, he’d be my pick to beat them all.

When golfers go into competition, often they’re scared; nerves jangle, the heart pounds and the hands sweat. Paul Azinger said ‘You can feel your pulse in your eyeballs.’

Sounds awful doesn’t it? And yes, tour players get paid tons for doing it, but is money really the reason why great players compete? Is it the number one motivator?

The answer in my opinion is a definite “no.” It’s the battle itself, not the cash; it’s the test, not the reward, for the great ones.

The goal is to have your feet to the fire and then see how you perform. Phil Mickelson sums it up: ‘The enjoyment of competitive golf is having the opportunity to win – being in contention one shot back, with three to play in the US Open is pretty cool.

I love golf, and when I’m playing the game is when I’m the happiest.’ Happy – even though you can feel your pulse in your eyeballs? There must be something else at work here, something very basic to the human being, and it can’t be just the cash.

Built into our brains is a hard-wired survival system that, when triggered by threat and fear, releases a cascade of powerful, sometimes euphoric drugs.

Evolution is smart and for survival, it’s very handy to be scared of things like mastodons, saber tooth tigers, and alligators.

Now, we no longer battle for our lives on a daily basis as we did thousands of years ago (ok, there may still be alligators), but we still have this elegant alarm system which, rather than let it go to waste, we feed with prefab threats that allow us to vicariously take “tests of fear” in a safe environment.

Why would we do that?

Putting ourselves in situations where we’re incredibly challenged to see how we’ll react tells a lot about ourselves. To use the hard wiring we already have in place evokes a pleasure as palpable as exercising our muscles.

We can’t have all this sophisticated machinery and not use it; that would be like taking your Ferrari out only for trips to the grocery store.

So, we spend a lot of time and effort devising situations that will rev up the machinery so we can take it for a safe spin around the track – and golf is one of them.

So try to remember when you’re feeling stressed on the golf course that it’s not a real life threat, and thank your golf course architect for all those ersatz mastodons – thank them for giving you a safe way of getting in touch with your inner cave-person.