HONOLULU – Tiger Woods started a trend. He wasn't the first player to place more of an importance on major championships, but he's certainly spun enough press conference queries into responses about hoping to peak four times per year.
Others have fallen in line. Grizzled veterans like Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els. Younger guys like Adam Scott and Rory McIlroy. Even super-sophomore Jordan Spieth has promised his own variation on this strategy.
All of which got me thinking about lesser-known players, those with PGA Tour status, but still seeking their elusive first win.
Why don't these guys treat a few tournaments per year like the superstars treat majors? Why don't they arrive early to some venues they like and learn every inch of sod? Why don't they put all of their eggs into three or four baskets, trying like heck for a victory that would net a seven-figure paycheck and a two-year exemption and – in most cases – a trip to the Masters?
“That’s a really good question,” Brendon de Jonge said with a laugh.
He’s right in the perfect demographic for this experiment. Last year, de Jonge finished 42nd on the money list with just under $1.8 million. He played for the International team at the Presidents Cup. He’s ranked 59th in the world.
He’s accomplished plenty, really – except a win.
At 33, de Jonge is just about maxed out on the perks and benefits of being a full-time PGA Tour member who has never claimed a title. He competed 30 times last season, but why not cut that number back to, say, 27 and enter three hand-picked events fresh and rested and ready to win, just like the superstars try to do before majors?
“It’s a very, very good point. I’ve never thought of it,” he explained. Thinking out loud, de Jonge surmised that the Greenbrier Classic, where he finished top-20 in three of the last four years, could be a good place to try it. “You know what? I would consider that. It’s that time of year where if you’re playing well, you might have gotten your card locked up, so you don’t have that to worry about. It might be something to think about.”
Of course, there is an innate problem to this suggestion, as well: Resting isn’t necessarily synonymous with peaking. Woods perennially doesn’t play during the week before each of the first three majors; Mickelson always tries to play in order to keep his competitive edge.
The idea, though, is really about more than that. It’s about treating a few regular tournaments with more importance, more reverence. Fly first class. Rent a house. Have the swing coach and sports psychologist around each day. In other words, simply give these events more respect.
We often hear players refer to a favorite course or a hometown event as their “fifth major.” This would be an opportunity to truly treat it that way.
Essentially, it's the difference between playing roulette and blackjack. One is pure luck, while the other involves a little strategy.
“I think there’s definitely some merit to that,” said David Hearn, who owns 25 career top-25 results without a win. “But it would be hard to pick the exact four events you’d want to peak for, because you don’t know which courses you’re personally going to play the best. That would be the hard part about it. But it definitely makes sense to play courses you haven’t seen before.”
Others see the benefit, too. All you had to do was check the tee sheets last week at places like PGA West and TPC-Scottsdale – home venues to each of the next two PGA Tour events after this week’s Sony Open – and see how many players were gearing up their games on courses they’ll soon play in competition.
During the season, though, that proposition becomes much more difficult.
“You get in your routine of week to week to week to week, but maybe they don’t peak that way,” suggested Daniel Summerhays, who earned four top-10s last season but is still seeking his initial victory. “If I knew that I was going to play good in 15 tournaments – if I was Steve Stricker – I’d play 13 tournaments a year and just prepare for those. The guys at the top get to take their time off, they get to prepare, they don’t get burned out, they know where they’re going. It’s an advantage, but you have to credit them, because they got to that point.”
“Most of these tournaments we play, we’ve played them four or five times now,” said Jeff Overton, who’s posted four career runner-up finishes without a win. “So we’ve seen the golf courses, we know where the pins are going to be, we know the ins and outs, whereas the majors come on courses where the guys haven’t seen them in a long time. … Most of the places we’ve seen – I’ve seen this place [Waialae Country Club] 25 times already – so one practice round is good.”
What it comes down to is routine. As PGA Tour pros still striving for that elusive trophy, these guys are accustomed to teeing it up whenever and wherever they have a chance. Giving up these chances is like handing money on the roulette table to the guy next to them, then walking away without any potential for sharing the payout.
“As golfers, we never know when we’re going to play well, so to put all your eggs in one basket probably makes us more nervous,” Summerhays explained. “We try to play as much as we can to try and diversify our portfolios. But maybe in doing that, we do lose some of the peak moments.”
Tiger, Phil and the other superstars can try to peak four times each year. Players still aiming for their first win often feel like they can’t afford this luxury, that quantity will beget quality.
Maybe they’re right. But I still can’t help but wonder what would happen if one of ‘em tried this experiment.