Competition at The Masters

Competition, playing to win the day, finding an entrance to the winner’s circle, is a compelling motivational force? No argument there. But which competitive force is the most powerful? Is it the external drive to defeat a hated opponent? Is it the drive to gain fame and fortune. Or is it the inner-game based, riveting excitement that comes with playing for the gold – being in contention? Which provides the highest-octane motivational fuel? Let’s use the Sunday at the 2009 Masters to examine that question.

There was high drama on Sunday at Augusta. It was a showcase for each player’s mental game prowess. As you know the tournament winner was decided in an intense final round and playoff. That was the under card, though, for the main media event focused on superstars Tiger and Phil (You are a super-star when recognized by a single name – Jack, Arnie, Michael, the Babe, Annika, Magic.)
Competition was deep and strong as Tiger and Phil made their dramatic runs at the lead. They were real life examples of “in the zone” play. With five birdies in the first six holes, Phil mounted the first charge and Tiger countered with a magnificent eagle at 8. The tournament within a tournament was on as the stars jockeyed for the lead. Secondary attention was on Chad Campbell and the leaders Kenny Perry and Angel Cabrera – all veterans and multiple tour winners. With a hospitable Augusta National yielding the roars once again, the five-some and the crowd anticipated great theater as the players approached the legendary amen corner.
Through number16 great plays were everywhere. Brilliant shot making, magical ups and downs, pressure packed puts and fairway splitting drives. You know the finish. From 16, they all limped in desperate for the same high-level execution that had earlier defined the day. After some dazzling recovery shots, Cabrera prevailed on the second play off hole. That was a great example of how to pay under pressure.
Here are some interesting observations about the play and the spirit of competition displayed by the players. After the great runs by Tiger and Phil, which extended through 16, they did fall back, got ahead of themselves, or just become mortal. You know the rest of the story – missed putts and wayward shot making.
For me the side story was the manner with which each player faced the ultra – competitive atmosphere. Tiger and Phil were intensely focused on their own games during the round, seldom if ever recognizing the existence of the other with a ‘nice putt,’ ‘good play,’ or ‘great drive.’ From my TV view – I reviewed the tape – even as their round ended the traditional on the green handshake was a very stiff formality. Not much compassion there. Neither had been able to finish their impassioned runs for another coveted green jacket.
Winning is a great emotional high and it’s magnified exponentially at Augusta. Disappointment with a loss is a normal emotion. Because expectations are so high for Phil and Tiger, regret for them, was magnified. Could they, though, have paused for just a moment and praised one another for their strong runs for the Augusta crown? Why did they not find within them selves to simply say, “Great round, Phil” you were really competitive today” and, furthermore, why not add, “there is nothing I enjoy more, Tiger, than that kind of round going head to head with a great competitor like you. Of course I would have loved to have won and I know you would have too, but that kind of intense competition is as good as it gets.” If my memory serves me right it was just what Tom Watson said to Jack Nicklaus on the 16th tee on that memorable weekend in 1977 at Turnberry when Jack shot a pair of 66’s only to be edged by Tom’s 66-65. Jack was heard to say in response to Watson’s “this is as good as it gets. You bet it is.” This interchange between the two golfing greats has been repeated often amidst the thrilling performance by Tom Watson at Turnberry last week.
Are we so entrenched in a win at all costs sport culture, that we can’t take time to enjoy the moment, those times when all the players are really cooking? When the ebb and flow of the game is so exciting? When brilliant shot-making is universally adored? At least with Tiger and Phil, I guess not. Maybe they did enjoy the day and were just not able to express it at the time. I’m not suggesting that they pull stools up to the nearest bar and toast each others play. Please just acknowledge the others dazzling play. If they can’t, it’s too bad. They have denied themselves a rich treasure that comes from such a competitive experience.
But back a few groups (at the same time) Kenny Perry and Angel Cabrera were waging a similar battle. While playing the game with a passion equal to Tiger and Phil, they congratulated each others skillful shot-making with genuine warmth reserved for just those moments. Kenny and Angel must have known that competition was culled from the Greek word competre, which actually means to be with. As they intensely went from shot to shot they appeared to truly enjoy being together. It didn’t appear to take away from their play.
What a wonderful positive message to send to all sport enthusiasts. If we decide winning is everything, as Phil and Tiger might have been doing, we will continue to choke the joy out of the competition. You see the intensity of focus, the total commitment to every shot, letting swings go with total trust and the management of emotions, are within our control. Winning is not. I contend that the most powerful, high outcome fuel for a sport competition situation is that which resides internally. Unfortunately, the media preaches that the fiercest motivation comes only as a result of hating, or disliking the opposition. Is that what motivates Tiger and Phil? It appeared that way. Too bad for those who buy into that principle. Fortunately Kenny Perry and Angel Cabrera did not.

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