I have lived in Woody Austin’s hometown of Tampa, Florida for over twenty years — and have had the pleasure of his company on many occasions. So, as you can imagine, I was delighted to watch his performance at last weekend’s PGA Championship. Now, I’m not claiming us as life-long friends – but we have played golf together a number of times and had one seriously competitive New Year’s Eve Ping-Pong battle. Yes, it’s true – a golfer’s idea of a New Year’s Eve blowout may not be as exciting as say – hockey players. But none the less, it was fun. Although, sadly for me, after a 20 – 16 lead, I let him come back for the victory. Oh to have that easy slam back one more time.
Most of the golf I played with Woody happened before he made it to the PGA Tour. It was in the early to mid 90’s – before he relocated with his wife and kids to Kansas. At that time, he was without a doubt the best player I had ever seen. I remember once watching him practice his short game at Babe Zaharias Golf Course (a course where he once shot 57) with amazement. He did something so audacious, that to this day, it’s still imprinted on my mind.
He was working on hitting flop shots over a bunker around the chipping green, when all of a sudden he pulled out his 1-iron. Yes, people still used 1-irons in the 90’s. I was curious about his club choice, as on the other side of the green was a cart barn and a putting green. Plus, there were people practicing on the green, which was less than 40 yards away. I remember thinking, what on earth is he going to do with that club? Well, what he did was rocket balls into the top lip of the bunker and watch them gently trickle down to the hole. It was insanity. If he hit the ball 6 inches higher, people on the putting green would have been playing dodge ball. It is one of the most confident things I have ever seen a golfer do. But that was Woody – supremely confident. As a matter of fact, one of the last times I played with him, he was 9 under par through 10 holes, with an eagle putt on 11, when rain and lightening put a stop to it. Apparently God wasn’t ready for someone to shoot 54.
I followed Woody the day he qualified for the PGA Tour at Grenelefe Resort just outside of Orlando. He was simply flawless and won q-school, which brought on high expectations for his rookie year. And of course, at least in his first year, Woody did not disappoint. He won the 1995 Buick Open on his way to Rookie of the Year honors. Still, even after such a positive start, Woody struggled throughout much of the late 90′s and early 2000′s. He did so for one reason — poor putting.
Ah, poor putting – it’s been the demise of many a great player. But with Woody, it was almost his downfall before getting to the PGA Tour. The stories around Tampa were legendary of what Woody would do after putting poorly. Sometimes he would punch himself in the forehead. Other times he would slap himself so hard in the thigh, bruising would occur. And of course, as most golf fans know, he would occasionally hit himself with a putter over the head.
I believe Woody did, and still does, suffer from a common problem in the game of golf. One we all share to some degree. And one that, if left unchecked, can ruin our enjoyment and rob us of ever reaching our potential. The problem is simply high expectations. Setting too high a standard in this game, unless your name is Tiger Woods, will lead down a road of disappointment.
Let me explain.
You must play to your strengths in this game. Sure, I agree we should work on our weaknesses and strive for balance — but the truth is; we all have things we do naturally well. For example, Jack Nicklaus, the greatest winner in the history of the sport, would rarely shoot for pins. He played this way for a couple reasons. First, he was a very good lag putter. And second, he was not a very good chipper or pitcher of the ball in his prime. Knowing this, he would avoid the problem all together and aim to the fat of the green. He would wait for birdie chances on par fives and on holes with simple to find pins. He was playing to his strength. But more importantly, he was accepting of his weaknesses and okay with his limitations.
Okay, back to Woody. Woody was so good at hitting the golf ball — and I mean scary good — he felt any round over 65 was a disappointment. He would routinely hit 16-18 greens and legitimately have 12 putts a round under 10 feet for birdie. And on days when he felt he wasn’t making his share — he exploded. I get it. I mean, here he was playing flawless golf from tee to green and shooting 68-72. Every time he finished, it was like he had scored the worst score possible. And that feeling, over an extended period of time, will drive a golfer crazy. And it certainly did with Woody. This was undoubtedly the reason it took so long for him to get on Tour – and why he hasn’t been the dominant PGA Tour player his talent warrants. You just can’t play to your potential day in and day out while angry or disappointed. And it got to the point with Woody — that as soon as he missed the first putt he felt he should have made — he was done. He was done mentally, which after a while started infecting the things he did well — striking the ball.
Knowing what I know now — if I was teaching Woody back then — I would have set scoring average goals. I would have talked to him as the teenage prodigy he was about trying to make a final number. I would have showed him that a stroke average of 70 on the PGA Tour would net him a couple wins a year. I would have showed him that a stroke average of 69 would net him 3-4 wins a year. And as well as he hit the ball, I would have explained to him that — while most averages would get higher in major events — his would stay the same — as his ball striking prowess lended itself to tougher golf courses. I would then have told him to be okay with missed birdie putts. They are just easy pars. And every now and then be okay with running the tables on the green. Don’t expect to do it every day — but when it happens — run with it. Those would be the rounds that turned into 63. And that’s it. Be okay with an easy 69 and the occasional 63. Don’t spend your entire golfing life aggravated about leaving a 63 on the course. And because of that aggravation, turn that easy 69 into a stupid 73. I firmly believe if Woody would have taken that philosophy as a teenager — he would have won 40 times on the PGA Tour by now. He was that good.
Now, how does this relate to you? I know, I know. It sounds like a good problem to have – being disappointed with a round of 70. But everything’s relative. For you, we’ll discuss the degrees in handicap. Almost all of you could lower and play to your handicap just about every round if — you lowered expectations and played to your strength.
Lets say you are a long driver but not too accurate. Play to that strength. Pick the 4-6 holes on the golf course, usually par 5′s will be part of that group, where you can let the driver go. Use it with confidence because there is room. On the other holes, use that length by keeping your driver in the bag. Use 4 irons if needed. Who cares? Just take advantage of the holes you should – and avoid mistakes on the holes you shouldn’t. If you do this, your scoring average will come down. How about a good short game player? Again, play to those strengths. Don’t just, because you have confidence in your wedge, fire at every pin. Use that confidence to play more conservatively. Play your approaches to the fat side of the green. Then, if you miss the green – you’ll have lots of room. Then, with tons of confidence in your wedges – you’ll almost guarantee a par.
Probably the best example of playing to strengths and instilling more confidence is Tiger Woods. If you notice Tiger’s schedule – he plays the same courses year after year – with many examples of him winning the same tournament year after year as well. He avoids the courses he doesn’t like and stocks up on the ones he does. It surprises me how few players follow his lead on this strategy. If Tiger played the courses that didn’t suit him – he wouldn’t win as much – and hence have much less confidence.
So for you – first, determine your strengths. Next, embrace them. Don’t spend countless hours of practice and even more of mental stress fretting over weaknesses. Design game plans around your strengths. There are no rules in place stating you must play each hole a certain way. Or for that matter – a round of golf.
If you do this, you’ll do the one thing that Woody Austin has unfortunately never done – play up to your scoring potential. Good luck!