Few appreciate how hard golf is on the mind and emotions. Even the smoothest victory by an elite player can contain a sea of doubt. Our conscious thoughts, as well as our memories, failures and hopes, lie in wait, ready to attach themselves to any misadventure.
Bill Haas, steeped in golf from birth, grasps that difficulty intensely and talks about it openly, even using his hour of victory to talk about how “many times I’ve choked.” And, because of it, how glorious victory feels.
“This was an unbelievable, special day,” he said after winning the AT&T National on Sunday. “I wish I could explain it.” He actually comes close.
You’d think that Haas might be the most pressure-proofed player that golf could breed. His family is second-tier golf royalty. His great uncle, Bob Goalby, won the Masters. His father Jay Haas won nine PGA Tour events then scorched the Champions Tour with 16 wins and $14 million; he even shot a 60 a few months ago at age of 58. His uncle Jerry was his coach at Wake Forest. His older brother Jay Jr., a golf pro, was his caddie on Sunday.
You can’t have more golf knowledge, wisdom and strategy in your genes than Haas. This week, his dad offered suggestions when they played in the pro-am Monday and Tuesday. Jay, Jr., had a key swing-thought tweak the morning before the final round at Congressional Country Club.
But golf is the loneliest, only-est game. That’s the harsh power of the thing. In no other game do you choke so visibly and undeniably, then face that reality again the next week. Or, as Haas put it, this was the fifth PGA Tour victory of his career “in 229 starts.” He never forgets the other 224.
At 31, Haas already ranked 29th in the world before he won this AT&T National by three shots with a one-bogey 5-under-par 66. Tall, slim, rail-straight and 295.9 yards long off the tee all week, he looked invincible.
Haas could have left that image intact, if he’d wanted. After all, only three others players have won at least one Tour event in each of the last four years — Phil Mickelson, Justin Rose and Dustin Johnson, fine company.
With a leader board about as lame as any that Washington has seen on a Sunday since the PGA Tour came here in ’80, Haas saved face for this event put on by the Tiger Woods Foundation. Subtract his performance, and 146,618 fans during the week, including 35,565 on Sunday, might say, “Doesn’t the Washington golf community deserve better than this?”
But Haas more than sufficed.
“I was trying to keep my emotions in check out there. It’s so hard to do,” said Haas, who took control of the tournament with birdies at the eighth, ninth and 10th holes. “You make a birdie and you’re thinking, ‘Oh, I can win this thing.’ And you somehow have to reel yourself back.’
“There’s been a few Sundays this year — Los Angeles, I had a three-shot lead starting the last round and I threw up all over myself.”
This victory meant even more to Haas because he felt the same jitters he’s had in every event that he considers a disappointment. “Try to enjoy being nervous. That’s hard to do because when you’re nervous, you feel like you’re going to hit a bad shot,” he said. “A couple of times, I could feel it coming and I took a few deep breaths.”
Week after week, golf winners say they’ve had some breakthrough in technique or sports-shrink lingo. Their future — oh, how grand it suddenly looks. Haas thinks that’s bunk. You’ll be the same unique gaggle of nerves in your next event. You may win. You may gag. You don’t know. Face it.
“Sports psychologists — ‘be positive,’ ” he says, skeptically. “I’m more of a realist. . . . Some of the answers that are given [by Tour winners] are pretty boring. They’re by the book. I’m honest about how I’m feeling. . . . That’s terrible to say I choke and throw up on myself . . . but how do you get better? Don’t do it again. Just don’t do that again. Today I didn’t.”
Haas is also a realist about the pressure of being from a fine golf family. “A lot of kids go into their father’s business and don’t succeed or don’t get the deal done that their dad got done,” Haas said. “It’s hard.
“You get a lot of people watching you. At any moment it could go astray. Those thoughts creep into your mind,” said Haas, who said he’d keep his Saturday card because it shows a triple bogey at the 11th hole, followed by three birdies on the next four holes. “I don’t know how I did it.”
For the rest of this decade, watch Haas in the majors as his realism goes head-to-head with his “too hard on myself” temperament. Haas hopes being a new father helps smooth that friction. “A couple of times I said, ‘You get to go home and see William this week. This drive is not that big a deal.
“I have not had much success in the majors,” he said. “I would like to be a part of that . . . and if the next level comes, then I welcome it.”
This event is close, too. Close to deciding about its future. Woods and this event return in ’14, but in October the Congressional membership will vote on whether to host three more Tiger Foundation-backed events. All say the vote will be close.
Tiger needs to do better. On Sunday, he schmoozed with members, as he should. But a player with 14 major titles should have so much pull that he can amass a field that won’t be gutted by one injury (his), one withdrawal (Justin Rose) and two poor performances (Adam Scott and Jason Day).
Still, the mix of Woods, Washington, Congressional and a July 4th-themed salute to the military seems a natural fit, one worth working to keep.
As Haas played the last hole, Tiger suffered in a blue blazer as he waited for the presentation ceremony. “I live in Florida. It’s hotter here,” he said.
Two Marines in parade dress asked for a photo with Woods. He beamed, pouring perspiration, mopping off his face. The Marines were as dry and cool as if they’d stepped out of a freezer.
“That’s because they run like 10 miles a day,” said Woods, shaking his head in appreciative admiration, throwing off an arc of perspiration.
That’s one way to build up sweat equity.
For previous columns by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.