BETHESDA, Md. – Bill Haas is what you’d call an old-school golfer. He doesn’t wear phosphorescent colors that can be seen from three fairways away. He doesn’t pound his chest like an NFL receiver after every birdie. He even wins on old-style courses, with Congressional joining Riviera and East Lake on an impressive list of recent venues he’s conquered.
But maybe the most traditional thing about him is that he has no sports psychologist, mental guru or shaman on speed dial. Never has, either. And he certainly doesn’t own a “life coach” as one of his fellow contenders this weekend described his personal sounding board.
Other touring professionals may be shocked to realize that Haas is left to his own devices in the middle of the night, tossing and turning while visions of bogeys dance through his head, but it seems to be working for him. His victory at the AT&T National on Sunday placed him in an elite foursome alongside Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and Justin Rose as the only players to win in each of the last four seasons.
It also means that while those other competitors have worked long hours to accentuate the positive and done everything but try one of those Men In Black-type neutralizers to erase any memories of the negative, Haas is like the PGA Tour’s own elephant. He never forgets.
It allows him a thought process that would leave any sports psychologist, mental guru or shaman worth his weight in Xanax cringing at the idea.
Here is just a sampling of his comments about recent play from his post-round interview session:
“I had a three-shot lead starting the last round and really felt good there, and it didn't happen – threw up all over myself in the middle of that round …”
“… I was proud of the way I hung in there at the U.S. Open, just threw up over myself when we came back after the delay …”
“… as many times as I've choked and hit bad shots and I've been nervous and it hasn't worked out, I was feeling all those things today …”
“… all of a sudden, I made one birdie, I'm like, alright, you don't have to choke too bad here; you can go the other way.”
Paging Dr. Phil. This guy uses the terms “choked” and “threw up” so much he’d make Johnny Miller queasy.
The truth is, if Haas finds something troubling him, he’ll talk it over with his dad Jay – a longtime PGA Tour veteran – or swing instructor Billy Harmon. For the most part, though, he practices the antithesis of modern beliefs.
If he “chokes” (as he maintains he did at last year’s BMW Championship, failing to gain a spot in the playoff finale) or “throws up” on himself (as he said of a three-stroke 54-hole lead at this year’s Northern Trust Open that turned into a third-place finish), he bottles it up and remembers it the next time he’s in a similar position.
“That's terrible to say that I choke and I throw up on myself, but I'm just honest that I did that,” he said after a final-round 66 secured a three-shot victory. “How do you get better? Don't do it again, you know. That's my best statement is just don't do that again. Today I didn't do it.”
The epitome of old-school continued …
“I'm just being as honest as I can be here. Obviously, I could sit here today and say today I blanked all that out and I was so focused and that's the reason I won. … L.A. has sat with me all year, honestly. You can't let one round bother you, but the way I played those holes in the middle of that tournament really was disappointing. [But] it only makes this week that much sweeter.”
Right now there may be 131 other players who competed at Congressional saying to themselves, “Why didn’t I think of that?”
Bobby Jones once famously said that golf is a game played in the 5½-inch space between the ears. So many players have taken that notion to the extreme, choosing to work on the mental game as much as the physical and technical parts, but Haas is proof that it’s not only shiny, happy people who can claim the shiny, happy hardware on Sunday afternoons.
Not that it always works. Haas understands the need to stop beating himself up for certain things on the course. But understanding and acting upon that are two different things – and he struggles with the latter.
“He can't help himself sometimes,” Jay said. “I stress to him it's OK to get mad, but being negative and beating himself up is not the answer.”
Maybe not, but it worked again on Sunday, just as it has on at least one occasion during each of the last four years.
The sports psychologists, mental gurus, shamans and – yes – life coaches won’t like hearing it, but Bill Haas’ ability to accentuate the negative has often led to a positive result.
Like he admitted, “I think it makes it that much sweeter, too, when you can remember the times that you stunk.”
If that’s not the epitome of old-school, nothing is.