Anatomy of a Choke: At Pebble, Pro-Am Player Learns Meaning of Pressure

September 19, 2016

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — The finish to the Nature Valley First Tee Open was a graphic example of the effects, good and bad, that pressure can have on even the most seasoned competitors. Joe Durant came to the iconic final hole at Pebble Beach tied for the lead with Bernhard Langer, who had already completed his round. After three solid shots Durant left himself an 18-footer for glory. It never had a chance, leaving Durant with a three-footer to potentially force a playoff. He blew that one, too, in full view of a national TV audience. A little while later Paul Broadhurst arrived at 18 owning a share of the lead. Instead of shrinking from the moment Broadhurst embraced it, refining all the stress and anxiety into a kind of rocket fuel. He smashed his drive well past the tree and then from 228 yards out pured a hybrid to the edge of the green, later saying, “Probably hit two of the best shots I’ve ever hit up 18.” From more or less the same distance as Durant’s miss he calmly stroked in the winning putt. The 2016 Senior Open champion joins Ben Hogan and Tom Watson as the only men to win at both Pebble and Carnoustie.

I was particularly interested in the taut finish because I, too, had competed in the First Tee Open, as part of its unique format that puts two amateurs and one First Tee kid in every group alongside a pro. To say the least, my play evoked Durant a lot more than Broadhurst.

My game, and psyche, began to unravel during the first round at Poppy Hills. We began on the back nine first, and I was a little wild over the opening eight holes but managed two net-birdies to help the team. On Poppy’s 18th hole, an uphill par-5, I ripped my best drive of the week and followed with a very solid hybrid that left me just five paces off the green, with the pin tucked on a second tier. The shot cried out for a bump-and-run but over the previous eight holes I hadn’t yet chipped from a tight lie. We were in plain view of the clubhouse, where maybe three dozen folks were watching, and suddenly I was overcome with the certainty I would chili-dip any wedge shot I attempted.

So I elected to putt, b.s.’ing my caddie that I felt it was the correct play. I followed with a meek effort that expired 15 feet short. Still, all that was left was an easy uphill right-edger. Even if I two-putted that would be a par/net-birdie, a moral victory of sorts. But I temporarily lost my mind and smashed the putt three feet past the hole, leaving a tough downhill slider. As I went to mark my ball I began to feel slightly dizzy. All I could think about were the people on the clubhouse deck, judging me. I could feel the weight of disappointment already enveloping my partner Alfonso Ribeiro, the jovial, beloved actor who on the golf course morphs into a hypercompetitive grinder. I imagined that our pro, Peter Jacobsen, would find some measure of satisfaction in my failure, given that he has been the subject of my barbs in the past. Naturally I missed the putt, though I was in such a fog I can no longer remember how.

Things got even worse the next day when we played Pebble Beach. Driving to the course I could feel my heart racing and my breathing getting shallow. I was choking on 17 Mile Drive! I discussed this phenomenon with Kevin Sutherland, who on Sunday birdied three of the last four holes to finish one shot behind Broadhurst. “The key to it all is breathing,” Sutherland said. “I’ve heard Tom Watson say it a million times: ‘You can’t win major championships until you learn to breathe.'”

I will spare you the details of all the dispiriting shots I hit but suffice to say I was swinging so tentatively I don’t think I took a divot all day. Ribeiro was a rock, and thanks to some timely help from our pro John Cook and our delightful junior Beah Cruz we still had a chance to be one of the 10 amateur teams that makes the cut, out of 81. After a horrific snap hook on the 13th tee I hit a career 3-wood to just short of the green and then a really nice putt — again, I wanted no part of a wedge shot — to three feet below the hole. If I could shake in the net-birdie it would be a massive boost to our chances. No doubt because of Ribeiro’s popularity, a Golf Channel camera crew had begun following us a hole earlier. As I waited to putt I became fixated on the cameraman hovering behind the green. It began to feel like he would be performing an MRI of my soul. I thought about how my Twitter followers would savage me if I missed the putt. Walking toward my ball marker, I actually took time to worry if my shirt was tucked-in properly. Do I even need to say what happened next?

A hundred yards off the 14th tee there was a port-a-potty reserved for players, far from the gallery ropes. I’m usually a mild-mannered dude, but the frustration finally poured out of me and I punched the wall a few times and screamed a long stream of obscenities, assuming no one could hear me. What I didn’t know was that Ribeiro was right outside, waiting to tinkle. When I opened the door we locked eyes and his alarmed expression said, Yes, my partner has lost his damn mind.

I bogeyed every hole coming in and we wound up in 19th place, missing the cut by three agonizing strokes. If I had played worth a darn we would have made the cut, easily. That night I was morose and drowning in self-loathing but I also felt a strange relief: I wouldn’t have to play Pebble Beach again! I was cheered remembering an anecdote I had recently read in The New Yorker about Pablo Casals, who was considered by many to be the world’s greatest cellist, even though he suffered from vicious stage fright. On a hike, in 1901, a large rock crushed several fingers on his bowing hand and Casals’s first thought was, “Thank God! I’ll never have to play the cello again!”

On Sunday I put on my reporter’s cap and returned to Pebble. The first pairing I bumped into was Tom Watson, Hale Irwin and Craig Stadler — two Hall of Famers and a Masters champ, respectively. They would finish in the nether regions of the leaderboard, two dozen shots behind Broadhurst. I studied their scorecards on my phone and was somewhat unburdened to see these three proud champions combined for 36 bogies and 11 double bogies across three rounds. The game humbles us all. I wasn’t rooting against Durant but his 72nd-hole misses also lightened my load a bit. Those who conquered the pressure offered a little insight for the rest of us. Sutherland confided that his stellar finish had nothing to do with swing mechanics. “All I concentrated on was my breathing,” he said. What if negative thoughts creeped in? “You have to battle to replace them,” he said.

I asked specifically about his delicate chip from in front of the 18th green, with the tournament hanging in the balance: “In any situation like that you have to find something positive to focus on. For me it’s a simple thought, like accelerate through the ball. Because if that’s all you’re thinking about, there’s no room to imagine a negative outcome. Or lock in on exactly the spot where you want the ball to land. I think a lot of amateurs focus on what might go wrong, and when that happens you’re in trouble.” Even the champ, Broadhurst, admitted to a moment of doubt during the final round; after a messy bogey at 14 and a “nervy” drive at 15 he said his heart was pounding and he felt butterflies in his stomach. But Broadhurst has worked with a sports psychologist for the last 15 years and is armed with lots of tools. Coming down the stretch he did a series of breathing exercises, grip pressure exercises and visualization techniques to keep the demons at bay.

The man he beat, Langer, is famous for his Teutonic reserve, and he had looked impervious during an airtight 66 on Sunday. But standing behind the 18th green he admitted, “There’s always pressure. The more you put yourself in that situation, the more you get used to dealing with it, but it’s not a simple thing. It’s not simple to forget you just hit a bad shot or missed a putt. It’s not simple to let go of the disappointment and focus on the next shot. It’s not simple to lose a tournament and then turn up the next week as if no damage has been done. That takes a lot of discipline and a lot learning. We’re old guys now and we’re still learning how to do it. It’s a game of many failures and many regrets. That’s what makes it so satisfying on those occasions when you overcome all of that and execute the shots under pressure.”

Having been informed of my travails, Langer offered a sly grin and a parting thought: “Hopefully someday you’ll get to experience that. You have tasted disappointment. That is the very thing that makes success so sweet.”