Golf is a game where you can't play defense. There are no blocked shots or intercepted passes or perfectly turned double plays in our game. You play your best and if someone plays better, that’s just how the breaks fall.
But as the final couple of hours of the Open Championship illustrated, major championship golf is also a game you cannot play defensively.
It’s a story as old as sport itself: a basketball team builds a big lead, so they slow down the pace and put on the four-corner stall in an attempt to run out the clock. Before you know it, the score is tied.
A football team is up by two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, so they rush three down linemen and drop everybody else into a "prevent" defense. Just like that, the other team comes roaring back. The prevent defense has only prevented them from winning.
A baseball team goes up by three or four runs and suddenly the pitchers quit throwing to win and start throwing not to lose.
And in golf, a player with a three-shot lead in a major goes away from his game-plan, makes tentative swings, and plays not to lose instead of playing to win.
It is impossible to know what was going through Adam Scott’s mind down the homestretch at Royal Lytham and St. Annes, but one thing is certain: the swings that got him into position to win his first major were not the same swings he used to bogey the last four holes.
"When Adam turned into the wind coming home, he didn’t get through the swings enough and hung back," said world-renowned instructor Mark Immelman who witnessed the meltdown firsthand. "He made tentative swings on the final holes and missed shots left. Maybe he was a bit defensive, because every miss coming in was to the left of the target.
"I'm not sure his mindset was defensive, but he certainly made more defensive swings. If the body is more aggressive through the hitting area, a player of that caliber will usually miss to the right because they’re going to get out in front of it. Adam hung back and missed left."
Putting was another area where Scott’s tentativeness showed. Even though the final putt (which would have gotten him into a playoff) was firm enough, most of his earlier efforts came up a roll or two short.
He might not have believed he was putting defensively, and if asked, he would almost certainly deny that he was putting not to lose. But the subconscious mind often overrides the conscious. Just as knowing that a scare is coming in a horror film doesn’t stop you from flinching when it happens, you can certainly believe you aren’t being tentative even if the results prove otherwise.
Tiger would recoil at the idea that he played defense in England, but his stats for the week tell a different story. Going into Sunday’s final round, he ranked 73rd in driving distance among the players who made the cut. That left him with longer approaches which he had trouble getting close.
Even when he had short irons in his hands, he failed to stick them tight: another sign that, even if he believes otherwise, Tiger's game was defensive.
"I believe Tiger thought he could Hoylake everybody to death," Immelman said, referring to Tiger’s win at Royal Liverpool where he only hit driver twice in four days. "But Hoylake was firm and fast. Lytham was not."
Sometimes the golf course makes it tough to play offense. The bunkers at Lytham are cavernous and penal, and when the wind blows as it did last Sunday, they are all in play. But major titles normally go to the bold: the men who hook wedge shots 40 yards from the trees in sudden death (Bubba Watson) or execute perfect chips from high grass to get up and down at the last (Webb Simpson).
In this case, the victor rammed a birdie putt into the back of the cup on the final green – a putt that would have rolled a good three feet past if it hadn’t gone in.
There was nothing defensive about the way Ernie Els played Lytham on Sunday. He was offensive and aggressive the entire day.
And as a result, he is, once again, the Champion Golfer of the Year.
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