THE ONE ESSENTIAL: PERSEVERANCE
How weird is golf? That's the question I was asking myself when I arrived at Turnberry in July 1994 to play the British Open. I had spent the previous week at home at Lake Nona near Orlando practicing for the championship. Every session had been exciting, because I was hitting the ball better than I ever had before. I genuinely felt that my game was reaching a new level. I had won my last tournament, the Western Open, and generally my game and overall sense of well-being could not have been better going into a major championship.
But this game is often bewildering. That sense of well-being can dissipate in an instant -- and for no apparent reason. During my first practice session at Turnberry, all the good feelings I had at Lake Nona mysteriously left me. Monday was bad, Tuesday was awful, and Wednesday's practice on the range was only slightly better. But I worked on the same things as always. These elements had helped me win on the PGA Tour twice in 1991 (after not winning since 1983) and then to win the 1992 PGA Championship -- my first major. I won one other tournament on the 1992 PGA Tour, and then in 1993 and 1994 won seven more times on the PGA Tour prior to my arrival at Turnberry. By sticking to the same things I had emphasized for years, I slowly but surely began to get my game back on the practice ground at Turnberry as midweek came and the tournament began.
How do you explain the dramatic reversal from Lake Nona to the early part of the week at Turnberry, from feeling so confident about my game to feeling so worried? It's easy. It's the game of golf. The experienced player does not panic in this situation. And although I was close to panicking, I didn't, because there was a huge difference from the late 1970s and early 1980s. I could easily remember my inconsistent and inefficient game then and even in 1982, when I led the British Open at Troon in Scotland by three shots with six holes to go but then dropped four shots coming in to lose to Tom Watson. In March 1982, after some dismal play on the European Tour, I had decided to revamp my swing and make a long-term commitment to improving; my swing was not reliable enough to win major championships. I worked with David Leadbetter for five weeks that first visit at Grenelefe near Orlando, where he was then based, and noted in my diary before I left that I had taken a huge step in the right direction. The entry reads: "These five weeks spent practicing with David were well spent! The smartest thing I ever did!"
I continued to refine my technique day after day, year after year, and finally started winning regularly in 1991. Sure, I had won the 1983 World Series of Golf on the PGA Tour, a win which, like my play for most of the 1982 British Open just a few months after starting to work with David, was a sign that I had made the right decision to change. But then it took another eight years for all the hard work to really pay off.
Now, at Turnberry, all my efforts came to fruition. I knew that the swing changes I had made were correct. I was having trouble simply because of human nature. There was no reason to shift focus from what I had been working on to something new. I firmly believed that eventually my body would adjust to the cooler conditions in Scotland and also to the time change. The swing was still there. I just had to trust it, a policy that was proved correct when I went out after my practice session Wednesday for a round in which Greg Norman and I played Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson. It was indeed an honor to play with two past winners of the British Open at Turnberry, Norman and Watson, and with Nicklaus, probably the greatest golfer ever. I shot 67 and Greg shot 66, but we lost the better-ball match to Jack and Tom, who each shot 64. But I felt I would be ready the next day.
Thursday I opened with an encouraging one-under-par 69 that was full of solid shots. The week got progressively better, but I was beginning to wonder if things were going to work out. Then in the final round I was three shots behind with nine holes to play. I still felt I had a realistic chance to win. Jesper Parnevik was clearly playing the best golf of the day and up to this point was making it difficult for anybody to catch him. Yet I knew that Parnevik had never been in this situation before -- leading at the British Open during the last nine holes -- and thought perhaps he would make a mistake or two coming in. But I would also have to make something happen.
After missing the thirteenth and fourteenth greens and chipping and putting for pars on both holes, I had my first birdie chance on fifteen but missed from fifteen feet. A lot of people still look at the long eagle putt I made on the seventeenth as winning me the championship, and it did, but the sixteenth was also extremely significant. After a good tee shot there I decided to use a ridge to the left of the hole and past it to bring the ball back to the hole. The hole was cut so close to the front edge of the green that anything short by as little as six feet would roll back into a stream in front of the green. That's why I decided to use the slope. The shot came off perfectly. The ball pitched just past pin-high, ran up the slope, and spun back to fifteen feet from the hole. In 1982 I wouldn't have played the shot that way. Since then I had learned not only about my swing but also how to think my way around the course and manage my game. I rolled the putt in and walked to the seventeenth tee two shots behind Parnevik.
The seventeenth that day was playing downwind, and I knew a good tee shot on the par-five would leave me a long to medium iron into the green. I hit a really solid drive but pushed it slightly. The ball flirted with the fairway bunker on the right, but because I had hit it so solidly the thought of it going in the bunker never entered my mind. The ball ended up in a patch of light rough just off the right side of the fairway. The hole was cut on the front right-hand section of the green just over a series of humps and hollows. I could probably have gotten a five-iron to the hole, but I decided to cut a four-iron, because if I slightly mishit the five-iron the ball would likely come up short and to the right of the pin. And it would be very difficult to get up and down from that position.
I remember watching a video of the 1977 British Open when Watson and Nicklaus had dueled at Turnberry. Watson had won in the end, shooting 65-65 the last two rounds to Jack's 65-66. Jack had hit a weak second shot to the right on seventeen and had a difficult chip over the moguls. I wanted to be past the hole, because the easiest putt was from beyond the pin. I put such a good swing on the four-iron and struck it so solidly that the ball refused to cut and headed for the left edge of the green, where it took a slight bounce to the right and ran up approximately fifty feet from the hole. Although it would appear that I was playing negatively in aiming left of the hole and beyond it, I felt as I walked onto the green and saw my ball that I had an outside chance to make the eagle putt. The putt had only about six to eight inches of elevation to it, which over fifty feet is nothing.
I picked out a spot on the crest of a ridge between me and the hole and ran my putt right over the top of that spot. As soon as the ball started tracking and running at that little mound I got excited. I had hit the putt on the line I had picked, and it had the perfect speed. When you're playing at this level of pressure your senses become amazingly acute. You can get so into a putt that you know it's going to come up one roll short. But I knew this one had the right speed, and it broke exactly as I thought it would going over the ridge. Then I started running on the green, trying to follow the putt's progress. The scene unfolded so slowly I could see every roll of the ball. About three feet out of the hole the ball hit a spike mark and wobbled. I held my breath for an instant and thought, "Oh no, don't knock it off line." It dropped. I can still see myself standing there watching the start of the putt, running to the right as I felt it had a chance, then jumping high in the air and hugging my caddie, Squeeky Medlen, who wanted the British Open as badly as I did.
I don't know if I will ever be able to again do something in my golfing life as significant as holing that eagle putt on the seventeenth. It was like holing a shot on the last hole when you had to, fairy-tale stuff. Now I had made the eagle I needed. The crowd was going berserk, Squeek was hugging me, and my playing companion, Ronan Rafferty, appeared as excited as I was after witnessing the turn of events. Then I learned that Parnevik had bogeyed the last hole. I couldn't hear myself think, but I knew one thing: I had to control my emotions, because the round wasn't over. Back in 1982 at Troon I had awarded myself the championship on the thirteenth tee, when I quietly said to my caddie and friend Kevin Woodward, "That's it, we're going to win this thing now." That was a big mistake, one that haunts me to this day.
... I wasn't going to make the mistake now that I had made on the thirteenth tee the last day at Troon; there was no way I was going to take anything for granted. But the situation was heart-stopping, and I had to gather myself. I had gone into the seventeenth two shots behind Parnevik and had emerged one shot ahead with one hole to play.
The eighteenth at Turnberry is a dogleg left par-four. To add pressure to the situation I had bogeyed this hole in rounds two and three. I took a three-iron to make sure I hit the fairway, and I killed it, although I wasn't trying to hit it hard. I pulled the shot maybe two yards off line -- that's how defined my targets had become -- and when the ball bounced forward I thought I would have a five-iron to the green. One last iron, two putts, and I would win the British Open. I got up to my ball and had only 157 yards to the flag. It was a perfect seven-iron for me; with the pin being left of center I had plenty of green on the right to use.
First I assessed the shot as I walked up to the ball. At that stage I noticed a "D" on a sign in the grandstand behind the green and told Squeek I was going to aim there. Squeek, who is always positive, said, "Split it, Nick." Then I went through my normal routine, as if this were any shot at any time. I was feeling aggressive and wanted to get the shot over and done with. But experience helped me there. I held back and went through my preshot routine bit by bit, and although it only took five or six seconds it felt like a minute, because I was slowing myself down. The routine is important, and I think that if you go through it correctly at a crucial moment, the adrenaline you are holding inside comes out at the right time. I made sure I did that. No longer would my routine vary from two or three seconds to fifteen seconds depending on the shot, as it used to. I had learned how important a routine was to efficient golf, particularly for getting into a nice comfort level. I was at that level as I stood over the shot from the last fairway at Turnberry.
I flew that shot straight at the "D," splitting it. The ball finished in the middle of the green, twenty-five feet right of the hole and just past pin-high.
But still the championship was not over. I misread the speed of my first putt and it came up a couple of feet short. Just before me I had watched Ronan hit a putt of the same length from the same point, and it broke. The last thing I needed at that moment was anything but a straight putt, and I don't mind admitting that I had the wobblies on my putt to win the British Open. But I stuck to the putting routine I had so meticulously developed in the same way as I had refined my swing, and holed the putt. It went in very slowly. I was not going to jam that putt in. I was under control and put the right speed on the putt.
Even now I get choked up when I talk about the final three holes at Turnberry. The calculating precision of my play was the culmination of years of working at the game to which I had dedicated myself more than twenty years ago halfway around the world in my home country of Zimbabwe. I was in the middle of quite a streak at Turnberry, and in fact won my second PGA Championship and my second Canadian Open later that summer. I might not have thought it possible to continue the successful run I had been having since 1991, but by then the victories were only the result of my previous years of commitment to improving. The streak could not last forever, but it was proof to me that it was possible to make dramatic changes to one's game.
You too can achieve an efficient game -- efficient in your swing, short game, putting, and thinking -- and can reach your potential in golf. If you want to improve and are willing to commit yourself to a program of developing your game, you will reap the rewards of more reliable golf. In this book I will take you through some of my background in Africa, to show how I learned the game -- bad habits and all. Then I will explain my theory of the efficient swing based upon what I have learned. Finally I will present what I believe are the essential principles of an efficient golf swing and game and offer drills that will help you integrate the swing changes and feelings as you gradually become a better ball-striker. Work with this program, give yourself time, and you will be well on your way to getting the most out of your golf.
There is no reason you cannot improve, although this will not happen overnight. It didn't with me and I can't imagine it does with anybody. Change takes time, and while we live in a hectic, get-it-done-now society that often seems to preclude long-term programs -- we all would prefer instant gratification -- I still believe that the most intelligent plan allows for slow but sure progress. Persevere with a plan and you will progress -- that's my theme.
I have been keeping a diary since I started professional golf, and you have read the entry I made after spending time with David Leadbetter in 1982. But the most important notation is the one I make at the back of every diary that I begin at every new year. There are three words, each followed by an exclamation mark.
Those words are "Persevere! Persevere! Persevere!"
Excerpted from The Swing by Nick Price. Copyright © 1997 by Nick Price. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.