Jim Furyk’s 59 in the second round of the BMW Championship last Friday was an extraordinary achievement, not only for his score but for how he handled the internal pressure coming down the stretch. This was brought into focus for me on the weekend in an unusual way, when a friend who had a career round in his sights faltered. It was as if he couldn’t allow himself to bring in his score, something with which every golfer is familiar and something that Furyk overcame as he birdied the last hole to post the sixth 59 in PGA Tour history.
My friend – I’ll call him Michael – is an 11-handicap. He was playing the Maple Downs Golf and Country Club, where he’s a member. I was in his foursome. We started on the back nine during the Sunday morning crossover. He chipped tight on the 10th, our first hole, and hit crisp irons to the next three greens. He holed a birdie putt of about 15-feet on the 13th hole to get to one-under par, hit a sweet little chip from the right of the 14th green to four feet and then made the slick, sharply sliding putt to save par. He remained one-under through seven holes.
It was as if I were watching the golfing equivalent of a no-hitter. I didn’t say a word about how well Michael was playing. I was curious as to whether he would hold his score together, or improve it. He was headed for what I was sure was his best nine holes. I knew he was aware of his number, as Furyk had been of his in the second round at the Conway Farms course near Chicago. I knew it would be on his mind.
Michael swings fast and hard. His swing hit an even higher register on the long, par-four 17th, and he exclaimed something like “Oh no” as his ball rocketed off his driver low and left. To manipulate and reverse a line from Buffalo Springfield’s song For What It’s Worth, and to take it completely out of context, “There’s something happening here, and what it is is exactly clear.” Michael couldn’t get his score out of his head. Being one-under through seven holes, he was out of his comfort zone.
But he recovered nicely and got out of the hole with a bogey. Now he was even for the first nine. The 18th hole is a short par-four. Maybe Michael could birdie the hole or at least make par. But he drilled his tee shot left again and bogeyed the hole. Still, he’d shot one-over 36 for his first nine.
Over to the first tee we went. Michael’s golf wasn’t quite as smooth as it had been over his first seven holes, but he was scoring the ball nicely. He birdied the par-five fifth after a couple of bogies, and was two-over for the round – still a career round in the making, perhaps. I still hadn’t said a word, as I wanted to see how things would play out. He came to the par-three eighth hole, his 17th, needing to par in for three-over 75. That would be some round for an 11-handicapper.
Then it happened. He came right over the top of his iron on the eighth, where the ground tumbles into unplayable territory left of the green. We looked for his ball, but it had evidently careened into the impossibly thick vegetation. Fearing a lost ball, he had hit a provisional right of the green.
Michael didn’t get that up and down. Triple-bogey. He was six-over for the day. Career round gone. He hit the green on the par-five ninth, and left himself a three-footer for par to shoot 78. He lipped out the putt. He still shot 79, pretty good, but far from the career round that had been in his sights.
“I did everything I could to not break 80,” Michael said after missing his short par putt on the last hole. His career round eviscerated, he at least broke 80, a solid achievement for an 11-handicap golfer. But as he played along, it was easy to see that he had been fighting his thoughts. He wasn’t able to keep his score out of his mind. Human, all too human.
But in that way he was no different from what Furyk was aware of after he shot eight-under par 28 on his first nine (the back nine) last Friday at Conway Farms. He was thinking score, that is. Furyk knew that the front nine was a par-35, and that he needed to shoot four-under 31 to break 60 for the first time in his impressive career that included the 2003 U.S. Open and 16 PGA Tour wins.
How did Furyk handle what he had been doing, and what was possible? Fifty-nine creates a formidable barrier in the minds of the best golfers in the world. Here’s what Furyk did after his startling 28 on his first nine.
“So I tried to basically - the way I played it out in my head was that the back nine (his front nine) was over,” Furyk said. “I wasn’t going to kind of count that I had to get to 12‑under, where I was at. I was just going to go try to play the front nine and shoot as low as I could. I figured let’s see if we can get it to 4‑under. I was trying to take the nerves out of it, and heck, I’ve shot 4‑under par on nine holes probably 100 times in my career. Probably even more.”
Furyk came to the short par-four ninth needed birdie to hit what he would call a “magic” number. He hit the fairway and then stuffed a 103-yard wedge to three and a half feet. Furyk looked loose. He really did. He and his longtime caddy Mike “Fluff” Cowan were enjoying themselves. Furyk then made the birdie putt in the heart.
Fifty-nine. Magic, indeed. “Absolutely,” Furyk said.
What can golfers learn from Furyk? Above all, don’t be afraid of thinking about score. It’s all but impossible to keep thoughts of how one is doing out of one’s mind. Welcome the thoughts, and then get as far into each individual shot as possible – whether you’re trying to break 100, 90, 80 - whatever. Recognize that you’ve left your comfort zone. That’s okay.
Ray Floyd once told me that if people knew what he thinks about on the golf course to keep himself in the game, well, they’d have him committed. That’s Ray Floyd, a winner of the Masters, the U.S. Open, and two PGA Championships in his career total of 22 PGA Tour wins.
Michael told me as we left the last green that he had tried to keep what he was doing out of his thoughts. But, he said, that’s really hard to do.
It is. It’s just about impossible. The mind wanders. We should just let it wander, and then get back to the shot at hand.
“I think a lot of it really was - it really was a mental battle and a mental grind, trying to - I’m still scratching my head a little bit,” Furyk said after his memorable, oh so rare round. “Twelve‑under for a round of golf.”
A mental battle. A mental grind. That’s what it was for Furyk at Conway Farms, and that’s what it was for my pal Michael at Maple Downs. I hope I’m with Michael when he next approaches a career round. I think he’ll have a better change of letting it happen, now that he was out of his comfort zone for almost an entire round.
Golf is some adventure, isn’t it?
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Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association’s first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada’s Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round’s on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf’s Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein