AUGUSTA, Ga. — Golf is about talent, technique and tenacity. But, over a whole career, it’s the fourth “T” — temperament — that may count for more than any of them.
Sooner or later, defeats, injuries, disappointments, embarrassments — inside the ropes and out — attack the sense of security, confidence and serenity that usually accompany the greatest golf when it’s played on the biggest stages.
You can keep your head steady, delay the hit and stay down the line as much as you want but sooner or later (okay, usually sooner), golf isn’t about the right swing tips, but the right temperament. And not the same temperament for everyone; one that suits you.
As you watch 52-year-old Fred Couples amble cheerfully into the Masters lead, while Sergio Garcia, already a curmudgeon at 32, seems annoyed even though he’s only a shot behind after 36 holes, you realize that golf constantly measures parts of our makeup that might stay hidden or unexplored if it weren’t for the dastardly existence of this particular sport/game/
“I don’t feel too much stress. Obviously there’s stress out there. But when [I’m] playing here, I’m not going to let too many things bother me,” said Couples, who thinks his competitive spirit suits this place. “It’s so beautiful. You can’t say it’s your favorite place [in golf] and then break a club on the fourth hole on Saturday.”
Garcia has spent a dozen years being hounded for his unfulfilled potential, dogged by bad putting and living down various bratty misdemeanors. As one of the leaders here said — meaning no harm, just stating the case casually like a basic fact of the game — “Sergio could have won so many majors.” But the rub of the green, the mud ball, the heckler and the critic all offend and rattle him.
Sergio, how important is it to have the right temperament for golf and what is it, from your perspective? “I’ll tell you when I find it,” Garcia answered after bogeying the 18th hole to fall out of a tie for the lead. “I think that’s the million dollar question. The right temperament for golf, it doesn’t exist. The Guy Up Top probably has it, but anybody else, I don’t think so.”
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Garcia hasn’t found his state of grace, but others have it — unless they misplace it along the way in a long career. When you see Rory McIlroy shake off a first-hole double bogey on Thursday, then cruise around Augusta National in a composed methodical 71-69 to stand a shot behind Couples and Jason Dufner by the end of Friday’s play, you sense that, at 22, he’s already as close to being at peace with his game as a young man is likely to attain.
“I definitely didn’t have a good temperament for golf when I was growing up,” said McIlroy, who has described himself as a typical teenage temper case. “I was a little temperamental. You learn that being like that can only be a negative thing for you.
“There’s no point in getting upset or really throwing clubs, because it just puts you in a bad frame of mind. It’s better just to stay positive and think of the chances you have coming ahead. That’s something that I’ve definitely developed over the past few years.”
All golfers understand intuitively the pursuit of that blend of Zen calm and athletic aggressiveness that goes hand-in-hand with the best performance. Perhaps no one combined the two better than Tiger Woods in his prime. He had a fuse but usually lit it only to motivate himself, rather than ignite some destructive internal dynamite. During his Tiger Slam, he seemed to be a private world of indestructible confident calm.
What now? On Friday, we saw Woods in a perfectionist’s torment, dropping clubs, closing his eyes in disgust, his whole body deflating as he missed putts he used to make. You glimpse how mercilessly golf waits for your serenity, your sense of self or skill or dignity, to alter or deteriorate, or simply change in any way, so that it can drive you deeper into your private perditions — all while you perform in public. Woods has changed so many parts of himself in the last 30 months that he may need some new “golf temperament” appropriate to who he is now or who he wants to be.
Under pressure, his current temperament is precariously close to disintegrating. By the 16th hole, Woods had been reduced to a child. He dropped his club — his standard theatric. But then, as it lay on the tee, he kicked it. By the 17th hole, Woods stood in the fairway looking close to tears. Sarcastic comments come to mind. But they seem as inappropriate as a kicked club on a day when one of the greatest athletes of our time has been ground down until he looks pathetically distraught in public. And he shot 75, not 90.
After his round, Woods had composed himself, sort of. “The 4-iron [wild right at No. 15] ticked me off worse than the 9-iron” at the 16th, said Woods, still holding up the shield of “the tournament’s not over.”
Several times, he used the word “patient,” exactly the aspect of golf temperament that he’d just been devoid of, as well as a tenet of the Buddhism he learned as child that he’s re-embraced: “I’ve just got to stay patient, keep doing reps. Eventually it’ll come.”
Elite-level golf, where every act takes place as you stand isolated, demands more of us than many religions and offers less support. Are we forgiving of ourselves? Do we feel persecuted or unlucky? Any lack of self-esteem reveals itself. Are we jealous of those who are more gifted or getting good breaks? Do we look for excuses or ways to shift blame? Can we be satisfied with our best effort, or is a successful result essential?
Cynics famously say, “Once you learn to fake sincerity, the rest is easy.” But it’s much harder to fake serenity in golf. In this game, at the major championship level, you need the gifts, gurus and guts. But you also need to find some kind of grace.
If you have it, as Couples and McIlroy do now, then 52 is not too old nor 22 too young. If you lack that peace, the fairways of Augusta National are a horrid place to search for it.
For Thomas Boswell’s previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/