2005: Lost . . . and found

Norton, Mass.

As golfers, most of us know all too well about losing it, though frankly, most of us never quite have it to lose. On the professional level, losing it is captured by the painful snapshot of former British Open champion Ian Baker-Finch, one of the game’s class figures, screaming a drive across two fairways and out of bounds at the Old Course at St. Andrews.

These days it’s David Duval enduring more cuts than a 13-year-old entrusted with his first razor.

Losing it, unfortunately, is easy to do. The golf game can come and go like a New England tide, sometimes choosing never to return to shore.

The great challenge of golf is rediscovering and unearthing what we once had, silencing the inner demons and finding the tiniest spark that can reignite the stagnant embers to burn brightly once again.

The spark can flash anywhere, at any time. For Billy Andrade, it happened over a cell phone line and a couple of conversations a few days before the Deutsche Bank Championship. Winner Olin Browne says his spark came from his scant bank account. Jason Bohn was inspired to play better when he tightly gripped his first victory at the B.C. Open in July, fueling the inner belief he really belongs on Tour.

Matt Kuchar, the former U.S. Amateur champion who has seen an uptick in his game this summer, said his light switched on as he stood on a tennis court, volleying against his wife.

“If you notice, tennis players are always talking to themselves,” said Kuchar. “It’s similar to what golfers do. You can talk to yourself positively or you can talk some other way. I wanted to change it up.

I started on the tennis court, and then took it to the golf course. It’s easy to dwell on negatives, because they seem to stand out. I keep believing I’m going to hit good shots.

“I’ve flipped a confidence switch. It’s kind of hard to describe . . .”

Proof? In the third round at the Deutsche Bank, Kuchar stuffed a wedge close to the hole at No. 1, then missed the putt. Unrattled, he holed a wedge from 99 yards for eagle at the next hole.

The golfer is basically on his own, unlike the NFL quarterback who sits in film meetings with coaches all week, or the pitcher and catcher who together plot how they’ll attack a particular hitter. In golf, there are times you have it and times you don’t; the former, for whatever reason, is a lot more difficult wave to stay atop.

“I think that’s why this game is so frustrating, and so great, because you have times when you’re awesome, and then there’s times when you’re not,” said Andrade, who entered the final round of the Deutsche Bank Championship eyeing his first PGA Tour victory in five years. It didn’t happen. He shot 75. “It’s trying to fight back and get it back. . . . all of a sudden you’ve been doing this your whole life, you know it takes one little something to get you going.”

Andrade, 41, drew inspiration through a conversation with his good friend, Brad Faxon, as Faxon made the short drive from Connecticut to Rhode Island with the Buick Championship trophy in tow. Faxon spoke about “freeing” himself with the putter, and it hit home with Andrade, who had been facing 10-footers with the frazzled nerves of a kitten stranded on a freeway. Andrade over a significant putt had somehow become Shaquille O’Neal at the free-throw line. Brick-laying time.

An experiment with “The Claw” was scrapped for a fresh, positive, don’t-fret-the-consequences-so-much mindset, a frame of thinking cultured through talks with Faxon and sports psychologist Dick Coop.

“I don’t care if I miss every putt until I die as long as I let the putt ‘go,’ ” Andrade said. “That’s just really neat to be able to do that.”

And if you fail, you fail. No biggie. The bounce in Andrade’s gait was proof he’d latched on to something good. When you’re a PGA Tour player who rediscovers that “little something,” you don’t just run with it. You sprint. Think Jesse Owens-like, with a tailwind at your back.

Andrade is playing his 18th year on Tour, and hasn’t finished outside the top 125 since his rookie season. A year ago, he weathered a mad scramble to the finish, making six cuts in his last seven starts to produce a late run that put him at No. 124.

He has won four tournaments, banked nearly $10.5 million in career earnings, and once won back-to-back events in 1991. It’s not enough.

“I really feel I’ve underachieved,” he said. “I really feel I’m a better player than what my stats have shown. I look at something like the Ryder Cup and say to myself, I could really be an asset to a team. That’s the stuff I thrive on. You know, when I played basketball, I always wanted the ball. That’s me. In golf, I haven’t done as much as I’ve liked.

“What do you do? You can either quit or you can do something about it.”

Browne, who finished 127th on the money list last year, can relate to Andrade. “I think we all think that way, to some extent,” Browne said.

Browne, 46, didn’t start playing until he was 19 years old and played his college golf at Occidental, so what he has achieved in the game (winning three Tour events and four times on the Nationwide Tour) is pretty impressive. He could have changed his life forever a couple months ago at the U.S. Open. Browne was in the second-to-last group in the final round, but shot 80 and slipped all the way to 23rd.

You think he doesn’t daydream about what might have been? He played alongside Michael Campbell that Sunday, the man who went home with the trophy and the new life it brings.

“I wish I’d won the U.S. Open, but I didn’t,” he said. “I’m sure as hell not going to stand at the edge of a tall building (to jump). My life isn’t over because of that. I just want to keep improving.

“Somebody asked me one time, ‘When are you going to quit? When are you going to give up?’ And I said, ‘When I stop feeling that I can get better, I’ll quit.’

“There’s still room for improvement. So here I am.”

That was Sunday. Browne left town with the winner’s check Monday, so obviously he has found something. For a golfer, it’s a feeling you don’t want to lose.

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