19th hole: In golf, delusion of talent knows no boundaries

Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

19th hole: In golf, delusion of talent knows no boundaries

19th Hole

19th hole: In golf, delusion of talent knows no boundaries

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Many moons ago, I walked with Padraig Harrington during a practice round at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course. As he nipped a series of exquisite, one-bounce-and-check wedges, Harrington talked about the relativity of talent in golf. “You know,” he remarked, “the scratch player at your club is an awful lot closer to being you than he is to being me.”

Harrington wasn’t referencing the skill required to win major championships— at the time he was still four years from winning his first — nor even the talent needed to play on the PGA Tour. His point was more basic than that, putting in brutally realistic context the level of performance necessary to have even a faint hope of earning a living in the professional ranks.

That long-ago conversation came to mind this weekend as I waded through a Twitter thread initiated by Denis Pugh, the coach of Francesco Molinari. Pugh worked with Colin Montgomerie at his peak and with Seve Ballesteros. He is one of the more thoughtful men in golf and brooks no B.S. from any quarter, two traits that are assets everywhere except on social media.

“If you think you can make a living as a Tour pro prepare and invest in your future properly,” he tweeted. “This winter find a Challenge Tour player in your area and play him twice a month, home and away courses, for £500 a game. If you can make money from him, you are a potential ‘player.’”

Pugh’s intent was to illustrate the chasm that often exists between talent and ambition. He was duly accused of pugh-pughing dreams by Panglossian types who believe every aspiration should be pursued, no matter how futile and costly. Others praised the wisdom of Pugh’s reality check. “It’s a fine line between shattering someone’s dream and stopping them from wasting their money,” replied former world No. 1 Lee Westwood.

Social media permits people to live in airtight bubbles that only reinforce their beliefs, free of inconvenient facts and contrary opinions. It’s easy for a kid who happens to be the best player in his school or town to harbor notions of making it on the PGA Tour. Piercing that bubble early is crucial to knowing if competitive golf might be a career. Most of us lack sufficient talent to even entertain such ideas, but the harsh reality is that even the most gifted players have little chance of professional success.

I saw that first hand recently when I played Medalist Golf Club in Florida with Tour veterans Brad Faxon and Brett Quigley. Our fourth was Olin Browne Jr., an amiable 31-year-old whose father won on both the PGA and Champions tours. Medalist is home to an abundance of Tour players and is, to my mind, the toughest course in the state. Playing from the tips, Browne made 10 birdies. It was as fine a scoring performance as I’ve witnessed first hand.

The reality check is that Browne has no status on Tour. In 2019, he mostly played the Korn Ferry circuit. In 14 starts he made two cuts and earned $3,304. If you want to understand just how demanding professional golf is, Olin Browne Jr. is Exhibit ‘A’.

That’s why when a parent once told Pugh that their son had a scratch handicap and was going to Tour qualifying school, he replied, “As a caddie or a scoreboard carrier?”

Even those with the talent to get there can struggle to stay there. In 2010, Brendon Todd went 0-for-13 in cuts made on the Korn Ferry circuit and broke 70 just once. He won on the PGA Tour five years ago, but more recently has battled full swing yips, missing 39 of 44 cuts on Tour. On Sunday he ran off seven straight birdies as he cruised to victory at the Bermuda Championship, where the field didn’t lack talents who slipped into the void.

Brendon Todd is evidence that when a man is called upon to give an account of who he is on the PGA Tour, ball-striking skill is never enough.

Delusions about how recreational golf talent might translate to Tour level success aren’t limited to earnest kids or pushy parents. A friend of mine was once asked by a buddy to arrange a lesson for him with Harvey Penick. On the appointed day, his buddy explained to the legendary teacher that he had been successful in business, was a very good golfer, and wanted to commit himself to the goal of a second career on what was then the Senior Tour.

Penick heard him out before politely delivering a sobering reality check. “I have another student you should meet. He’s been successful in his business too and also has plans for the Senior Tour,” the budding pro recalled being told. “Actually, he’s at the other end of the range right now. His name is Tom Kite.”’

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