When a mountaineer climbs the world’s highest peaks he never attempts to do so in one go. Instead he sets up a base camp from where he ventures into the higher reaches of the range a few times before launching his bid for the full ascent.
It’s not a lot different for world class golfers.
It’s popular to think otherwise, to believe that some golfers can trek into thin air without suffering from altitude sickness, but even Matt Wallace, a player widely credited with this winning mentality, has basecamped.
The success he enjoyed on the Alps Tour (appropriate circuit, maintaining the metaphor) in 2016 did not come out of nowhere – it was prefaced by two failures to turn good positions into wins. His breakthrough success at the Open de Portugal in 2017? Two starts previously he led the Kenya Open at 54 holes and was passed. Even his first full European Tour win in India was, by his own admission, fuelled by an inability to convert another 54-hole lead in Italy.
In the major championships, this notion is even stronger (the peaks are that much higher) and the list of Masters winners in the 21st century proves the point.
Three years ago, Danny Willett’s final round performance at Augusta National was exemplary. He began the day trailing the leader by three and that gap would rise and fall over the front nine yet he maintained composure and never fretted.
He was always aware that ugly pars were as important as pretty birdies. He pressed, but wasn’t reckless. He was hungry, yet never desperate.
And when the opportunity to pounce arose he grabbed it with both hands. Just as importantly, when his situation was altered – when, after 15 holes of chasing, he became the hunted – he didn’t panic.
For many this performance was a surprise, yet a peek into his 2015 record book provides evidence of a golfer basecamping. That summer he had headed into the final 36 holes of the Open one shot back of the lead. In other words, he had slept on the knowledge that he could win a major.
The WGC events do not carry the historical weight of majors, but the opposition is the very best in the world and, for golfers yet to win at the very highest level, the opportunity is life-changing and the pressure unprecedented. Willett was third in both the World Match Play and HSBC Champions that same year.
He also had what every mountaineer needs – a good sherpa.
Willett played the final round of the Open alongside Zach Johnson and even before the play-off (which the American would win) had been confirmed Willett was telling reporters outside the R&A clubhouse: “I think it’s good to play with someone like Zach today, who could potentially win it. I can actually look back and see how he won it, what he did, what he didn’t do, and stuff like that I can learn from.”
Wow, he learned all right.
Sometimes this sherpa-ing has been experienced at Augusta itself.
In 1978 Seve Ballesteros watched playing partner Gary Player complete victory. The Spaniard was particularly taken with how the South African was fuelled by crowd hostility and said to him after the final putt dropped: “You have shown me how to win.” Two years later he felt the same mistrust of the patrons around him, he recalled Player’s response and he earned a first green jacket.
In 1986 Sandy Lyle had the best seat in the house as Jack Nicklaus swept to victory. In his autobiography it is telling how the Scot references the details of that day: Nicklaus’ ability to cope with errors, maintain focus, take advantage of good luck, and strike when others stumbled. Two years later … you know the story.
For the world’s very finest performers scaling the heights becomes a common occurrence, a subject Justin Rose has referenced.
Back in 2010 he dominated the Travelers Championship through 54 holes, but blew it on the final day. A week later he won the AT&T National and said: “You learn these lessons in contention and that’s why guys like Tiger are so good as closing out tournaments because they are there so often, they learn and they have the opportunity to put into practice what they have learned soon after.
“If you are not in contention that much, you learn something, but it can be six months before you’re in with that same chance again, and by the time you get a chance to apply it, it’s kind of not fresh in your memory any more.”
Perhaps in the big weeks – the majors – there is a sense that these thoughts are recalled; that the importance of the moment thrusts them out from the fog of memories, as it did for Willett, Ballesteros and Lyle.
A look at the surprising winners of green jackets in this century adds weight to the notion of basecamping, as if the 18 month period before their Augusta success is when they ventured into the thinnest air to test their lungs.
Mike Weir won the Tour Championship 17 months before the Masters; Zach Johnson was third in the WGC World Match Play 13 months before his big win (and contended the WGC CA Championship in his final start before it); Trevor Immelman was also third in the WGC World Match Play 13 months prior and sixth in the PGA Championship; Angel Cabrera had won the US Open; Charl Schwartzel had led the WGC CA Championship after 54 holes before finishing second, again that weird 13 months prior; Bubba Watson had also led the WGC CA Championship at 54 holes, this time a month before his first Masters win, he ultimately finished second; Adam Scott had endured the nightmare of tossing away a four-shot lead in the previous year’s Open; Willett we know about; Patrick Reed had been second in the previous summer’s PGA Championship.
They had all slept in a basecamp tent, knowing the summit of the mountain was above them, contemplating the prospect of a life-changing journey next day, but also aware that they’d been up there before, maybe not to the top, but close enough to know that planting a flag was not beyond their reach.
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