The Fear in 54


2010 AT&T NationalNEWTOWN SQUARE, Pa. – More so than designated tournaments, non-conforming grooves and differed compensation, the most feared phrase for PGA Tour types in recent weeks has become “54-hole leader.”

Not that a player would ever shy away from such an affliction, because if you’re atop the board through three laps chances are you’re golfing your ball. Yet consider the plight of your recent final-round pace setters as the dog days have descended on professional golf.

It started with Robert Garrigus in Memphis. Two up on the field through three rounds, he stepped to the 18th tee on Sunday at TPC Southwind needing no worse than a double-bogey for his first Tour title, lost track of his situational awareness, hit a tree, into the water and signed for a triple-bogey and eventually lost a playoff to Lee Westwood.

Seven days and a few times zones down the road big-hitting Dustin Johnson was 18 holes away from becoming the undisputed prince of Pebble Beach with a three-stroke advantage, raced his way to a par-triple bogey-double bogey-bogey start and was on the redeye back home before Graeme McDowell had finished his victory speech.

And last week Justin Rose began what should have been the downwind run at TPC River Highlands with a field goal head start, lost his rhythm, started death-gripping the golf club and signed for a closing 75.

Simply put, the last three Tour Sundays have been more smash mouth than fun ’n gun. The Sabbath has become scarier than a Stephen King chat room, which brings us to the schedule of events for the Fourth of July at Aronimink Golf Club. This time Rose is four shots clear of Carl Pettersson and Charlie Wi and, if he is to be believed, better equipped to handle Sunday pressures than he was seven days ago.

“I felt like I was a better player on Monday after Sunday at Hartford because of what I had learned,” said Rose, who shot a third-round 67 to grab the AT&T National lead. “I feel like I’m better for it.”

That is not guess work or wishful thinking, but instead hard, quantifiable fact acquired honestly via the type of soul searching that’s not easily given.

Less than 12 hours after Rose had tanked his shot at a second Tour title in four weeks he was on the phone with Dr. Gio Valiante, a central Florida-based sports psychologist who began working with the Englishman about six months ago.

For an hour and a half the two broke down what went wrong at TPC River Highlands and came up with a plan to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

“His rhythm changed and his grip pressure changed,” Valiante said. “What you’ll see tomorrow is better rhythm and softer hands on the club. I’m not going to guarantee he will win, but he will be better because of what happened (in Hartford).”

Rhythm seems to be a central theme in all three recent Sunday collapses.

With Johnson, one of the Tour’s fastest players, he appeared to get quick in his shot selection process after hitting into a clump of grass adjacent Pebble Beach’s second green, hit a chip left handed than nearly swung under the ball with his next attempt. While Garrigus never took the time to understand his situation on the final hole in Memphis. All forgivable offenses, but more importantly they are all fixable.

“The main thing that happens when they get nervous is they get quick,” said Dr. Morris Pickens, whose list of Tour clients includes Stewart Cink, Zach Johnson and Lucas Glover. “Something starts going too fast. All of a sudden, instead of playing the golf course you’re playing to win your first title or whatever.”

Pickens, however, dismisses the notion that a player should somehow avoid getting nervous.

“Every time you’re going to have a result thought, a negative thought and you’re going to get nervous. Those are going to come,” Pickens said. “The goal is to learn how to handle that.”

Similarly, the trio’s lack of Sunday experience also factored heavily into the outcome the last three weekends.

Garrigus’ closest brush with Tour fame was a pair of third-place finishes in 2007 and ’08, while Johnson, although a three-time Tour winner and a rising star by any measure, had never been that close to major glory.

While Rose had won his first Tour title in early June at the Memorial he did so from the pack, trailing by four strokes heading into the final round, and, truth be told, not all victories are created equal.

“Playing with the lead (in Hartford), it’s the first time I’ve done that in a long, long time,” Rose admitted. “I had some emotions.”

Having his client admit he had “emotions” is something of a 5-and-4 walkover for Valiante, particularly this client who suffered through dreadful days earlier in his career and suffered through numerous near-misses in America.

“The problem with a lot of guys on the PGA Tour is they try to force an outcome and the guy gets bullied,” Valiante said. “You’re looking at a guy that won’t get bullied.”

Sports psychologist are big on one-liners, Post-It notes for the soul that simplify the task at hand to a single thought. After Nick Watney’s first round, Pickens texted his newest client, “Nice Thursday.” The message? It was one good day, now focus on Friday.

“Walk around the golf course casual and confident” is another one of Picken’s inspirational offerings.

Asked what he might text Rose on Sunday morning before he sets out in the anchor pairing for the second consecutive week, Valiante offered a quick answer, “He likes to go to battle with one word, the word for (Sunday) is release.”

Simple, to the point and not nearly as unsettling as “54-hole leader.”