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Bill Haas was my roommate at Wake Forest for 2 years. He loved to play pick up basketball in our practice facility and I wanted to learn more about golf. At one point, we were on the course together and, after one of my inerrant approach shots, I asked Bill, “What do I do from here–this is frustrating?” He quoted his dad and said, “Al, you gotta fall in love with going up and down.”
After one of his tournaments, Bill would often walk into our apartment and I would ask, “How did it go?” In the most laid back manner, Bill would say, “Played ok.”
“Well, where did you end up finishing?” Usually at that point Bill would say, “I won.” That’s who Bill was–humble–never trying to use golf to draw attention to himself.
During my senior year, I especially got the “golf bug” because I liked the idea of being able to control my playing time on the course–I got to hit every shot–no sitting on the bench! During a time where most serious golfers were obsessed with video analysis and swing plane, I would often ask Bill for a few swing thoughts. His response was always, “I don’t really think about that–just hit the ball–be an athlete.” This mentality probably makes Bill one of the faster players on tour in terms of his pace of play…he takes very few practice swings.
Eight years ago, I watched Bill make his first birdie in a PGA tour event. Since that time, Bill has had an awesome career and, if you look at his statistics, he gets better every year. With any success, there are bumps in the road. Four years ago, I hung out with Bill after he failed to make the cut at the Byron Nelson in Dallas–he had missed several cuts in a row and was beyond frustrated. He suggested to me that maybe he was not “cut out for this” and that he just needed to go start a restaurant or something like that. Bill did make good pancakes, but I’m not sure this was his calling.
Nearly six weeks ago at the Greenbrier Classic, Bill lost in a playoff. Knowing how fiercely competitive he was, I could see the disappointment in his eyes as I watched on TV at home. After the 3rd round of the Tour Championship last week, Bill went to dinner with his father Jay and was down again about his bogey, bogey finish. In a later interview Jay said, “As we ate dinner, you would have thought Bill was the worst golfer in Georgia.”
That brings us to the final round of the Tour Championship. Bill finds himself in the second hole of a sudden death playoff with Hunter Mayhan–not in a fairway, not in the bunker, not on the green, but in the water.
Imagine yourself trying to figure out how to hit this shot: your right foot is completely under water. Your ball–it’s halfway under water. You can’t see the hole and you have to go up and down to have a chance of staying in the the tournament. At the same time, Johnny Miller (a most critical NBC commentator) says on TV, “The chances of getting this within 15 feet of the hole are slim to none.” Oh yeah, and I forgot to mention, there is $11.4 Million dollars on the line.
As I watched Bill waggle a few times before the shot, I remembered his old advice, “Fall in love with going up and down” “Just hit it”. Bill swung and as the ball arched over the hill and spun back to end up 3 feet from the hole, millions of viewers witnessed a shot that will forever be embedded in golf history–a shot that would propel Bill to not only a Tour Championship, but the Fedex Cup.
In 4 rounds Bill shot 68, 69, 67, & 68. But the most amazing thing to me is that Bill was able to hit these kind of shots after so many ups and downs on the 4 holes before the “water shot”. Let’s review:
#17 tee shot in the bunker (incredible par from awkward stance)
#18 iron shot right–great up and down.
Playoff #18: Iron shot right again / ball bounces out of grandstand / another great up and down
Playoff # 17: Driver in the bunker / approach shot in the water / one of the greatest pars of all time!
Playoff #18: With 2 tough iron shots in his memory bank, he shows a ton of grit and hits the back center of the green / 2 putt to par for the win
After Bill clinched his Tour Championship victory on the 18th green, he walked towards the trophy platform and asked somebody, “Who ended up winning the Fedex Cup?”
“You did”, the announcer told him. In the course of six holes, there was disappointment, frustration, more frustration, and then greatness like you’ve never seen before. When you read the newspaper, it seems like a lot of things are under water these days. Bill, you inspired millions of viewers on Sunday by reminding them that disappointments–ups and downs–are usually a part of the pathway to success. You defined mental toughness. And in a matter of seconds, you showed that perseverance is truly a process–that you have to have a short memory. And just like you told me years ago, sometimes you just have to go up to the ball and hit it.
It’s match point—you’re down 40-15. Your opponent has two more points to put you away. What do you do? I know what I do—I start pushing the ball across the net in a most embarrassing manner. My racquet head speed becomes non-existent, so that I make sure that I get the ball in! I suppose at this point I have entered the “play not to lose” zone. If I don’t get over this tendency of guiding the ball under pressure then I will, more than likely, have to maintain my policy of not playing anyone that brings more than one racquet to the court (that’s when I know someone is really good).
As many of you saw earlier this month, Novak Djokovic defeated Rafael Nadal in the US Open Final. If you watched the semifinal matches, you know that it should have been a Federer/Nadal showdown in the final—that’s if Djokovic had entered the “play not to lose” zone against Roger Federer. He did just the opposite.
After losing the first two sets, Djokovic battled back to win sets 3 and 4. At one point during the fifth set, Novak returned Federer’s serve with a most memorable forehand to save the first of two match points. It was risky, bold, and there was no fear of failure in the shot—everyone in Arthur Ashe Stadium knew it.
Following Djokovic’s comeback victory, the court side reporter asked the Serbian star how he found the courage to hit his most aggressive shot of the match in a moment like that. His response was something like this: “I knew if I hit it that kind of a shot it might not go in and the match might be over, but that’s what I needed to do in that moment–I was comfortable with it.”
I heard a business owner speak at a conference in Florida this past weekend and one of his key points was about the importance of focusing less on outcome and more on the process. Had Novak Djokovic been overtaken by the outcome than he would not have been able to hit such an aggressive shot against Federer.
Over the past several years, I have frequently written down my goals on a yellow pad: where I’m trying to go and what I’m trying to accomplish. With Novak’s forehand return as an example, what does it mean to embrace pressure by trying to hit the “best shot” you can possibly hit in that moment–to move towards the goal of “winning” by attaching ourselves to the process more than the result?