Fear Of Failure Haunts Even Golf’s Best

DURBAN, SOUTH AFRICA | The first European Tour event of the year, and clearly there is something in the air. It’s not the looming announcement of the European captain for the Ryder Cup. That’s certainly as thick as the humidity in the Durban air, and Darren Clarke is negotiating his way through the endless questions on this. It’s not the whole Olympics and Rory McIlroy thing, although it’s also still lingering like the few extra kilograms from a very good festive break. And matters such as the putter anchoring debate and changes to the Old Course are drifting about the clubhouse at Durban Country Club. But the thing that’s really hanging about here is far more raw than all of these. It’s that thing that slips easy into Ernie Els’ head as he stands on the first tee as a four-time major winner about to hit his first competitive drive of 2013. That thing where he says to himself, “Here we go. I hope it’s good.” That thing that, in golf, is not limited only to age. Even 24-year-old Branden Grace, a winner five times in 2012, feels it. Will it ever be as good as that this year, or even close? There are names for it. Competitive advantage is one. Passion, drive for success, respect for the game are others. But really, those are words akin to a few too many waggles before getting down to the real business of pulling the trigger on the tee. And the real business in professional golf is fear. Fear that one day, it will be gone. “It,” because calling it anything more than that is just too fearful for words. That sudden disappearance of form that can be as fleeting as one round, or as damning as the end of a career. This is what keeps professional golfers awake at night. It’s what sends them to the driving range, because you take nothing for granted when it comes to something as fickle as the golf swing, or a putting stroke. Even when they’re playing well, they’ll put in the hours on the range, offering a kind of sacrifice of sweat to the gods of golf in the hope that “it” will remain with them just a little longer. Just ask Padraig Harrington. “It took me at least 13 years before I would come out off my winter break without the fear of it all being gone or it all disappearing,” he says. “My first 13 years on Tour were based purely on fear. Fear of losing and fear of it all going away.” In perhaps no other sport do the professionals fear a sudden loss of form as much as in golf. You can’t imagine Usain Bolt, seconds before the gun goes off, suddenly in a panic as to whether he’ll be able to put one foot in front of the other as he’s done so many times before. Or even Lionel Messi awaking in a cold sweat at night with the thought that suddenly he will have forgotten how to make the ball dance like a ballerina on the end of his boot. Sure, all sportsmen know their careers will one day end. But it is only the professional golfer who lives with the constant fear that it could come so suddenly and without warning. “With golf, you do ind it for very short periods of time, and that’s the problem,” says Harrington. “We are teased at times that we think we have it, and then it all goes away. The fact that you have it for a few days or even a round, you just want to have that feeling back again. “And in golf you have a longer time to dwell on it. You build up a history. You remember a lot of shots, and unfortunately you tend to remember the bad ones more than the good ones. Golf is not a reaction sport, so you have longer to think about it. That’s a big difference to a lot of our game.” Harrington has embraced his fear and tried to use it as a motivator. “Every sports psychologist and every book on the subject will tell you that fear is not a good motivator, but it seems to work well for me,” the Irishman said. “If you look at golf holes that have out of bounds on one side and water on the other, I tend to play those well. It’s a strange way of doing it. But it will burn you out if you’re always thinking that way.” But it is always there. Even when things are going well. As Els hit that first tee shot of 2013 in the first round of the Volvo Golf Champions, he could breathe a sigh of relief that it was just as good as he’d hoped it would be. “I was thinking, ‘Well, here we go.’ It was one of those moments, you know, let’s have a good year.” He birdied the first, second and third holes. “I thought, ‘Here we go.’ ” Then he double-bogeyed the par-3 fourth hole. “It” was back. Or as Els put it, “The second you think you’ve got it in this game, well …”

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