I remember during my college playing days, David Duval was the No. 1 player in the world and my college coach Puggy Blackman was his swing coach. He had also been Duval’s college coach and so David would be around from time to time. On one of those occasions Duval said something that has stuck with me ever since: Normally, over the course of a tournament, a PGA Tour player is only on with his swing one out of the four days — the other three days he has to rely heavily on his short game to scrap out a decent score. On that one great ball-striking day Tour players play aggressively, firing at every pin and hitting driver often in the hopes of shooting in the mid-60s. During the other three days most play very conservatively, shooting for the middle of the greens on most holes and laying up on some of the tougher tee shots, just trying to shoot a score that won’t put them out of the tournament, maybe a 70 to 72. It seems like the best players have a great understanding of where they are with their game, when to press and when to just hang in there.
When you watch golf on TV, I don’t think you really see this aspect of the game; normally all you see are long putts being made and great approach shots being shown. So far this season, I’ve been impressed by two players who seem to possess a maturity that hasn’t come overnight: those two are Jimmy Walker and Billy Horschel. Not too many people in this modern era of golf have been able to jump right onto the big stage and perform consistently at the top, and these two up-and-coming stars are no different.
Jimmy Walker is a nice, soft spoken guy with a ton of game and offense. He doesn’t get much credit for his game but I think he is going to be a real star in the next few years and a Ryder Cup player. He’s very long off the tee, with a powerful draw. After Jimmy topped the money list on the Nationwide Tour in 2004 it looked like he was ready for the big time, but injuries held him back until recently. Now healthy, it seems that he is comfortable and ready to be around for a long time.
When we played with Billy this year in San Diego I knew there was something different about him and I really liked it. Billy walked onto the first tee about 30 seconds before his tee time (normally you would be there at least 5-10 minutes early) with his chest out and a swagger that I have only seen from major winners. As he grabbed his scorecard and shook the hands of his playing partners, you could tell it was his show for the rest of the day. Billy’s caddie’s name is Micah and on every shot from the first tee on, Billy would say something.
“Micah, you see that green tree out there? I’m going to start my ball at the left edge of it and let the wind bring it in. Watch this.”
He reminded me of a kid just showing off, but he did this on shot after shot, explaining exactly what he was going to do before he did it. For the first two rounds, Billy put on one of the best driving displays I have ever seen: dead-straight balls that started right up the center of the fairway. He ended up being paired with Tiger the last two days and I’m sure that’s his next learning curve.
It hasn’t came easy for Billy: he missed his first seven cuts when he first got on Tour and had to go back to Q School the last three years in a row, successfully retaining his PGA Tour card each time. Looks like he won’t be losing his card anytime soon, though — he has the longest streak of made cuts going on Tour, making his last 21 in a row, and just achieving his first tour win at the Zurich Classic.
I love amateur golf: everyone is friendly and encouraging, the banter is great when someone in the group hits a good shot, and playing partners talk to each other all day. Amateurs will dwell on how close they came to playing well last round just to convince their playing partners how good they are. Leading up to Q School, Donald Constable sounded a lot like those guys. During U.S. Amateur qualifying, he explained to his playing partner how he had made a few late-round bogeys at the previous week’s Western Amateur to narrowly miss the match play, almost like that was a cool thing. This is common language for most average golfers, a defense against the close calls and disappointments you’re bound to experience if you play this game.
Thing is, a pro golfer can’t think like that; to have longevity in this game you have to be in love with yourself. This sounds weird, but when I first began caddying on the Champions Tour for Tom Kite — who is the embodiment of longevity — I thought his insanely positive attitude was insincere. I remember after my first day working for him, I went to dinner with 1993 U.S. Amateur Champion John Harris, who was also playing in the event that week. Harris and Kite are great friends but everyone is different on the grass.
Harris asked me, “What is TK like on the golf course?”
I said, “John, he is fake out there! Every shot he hits, he tells me how good it is in his squeaky little voice.”
This was just Monday, though, and since they only play three-round tournaments on the Champions Tour, we had a long way to go before the gun went off on Friday. But play started Friday and sure enough, Kite missed a 10-foot putt by a foot to the right (sorry, TK) and immediately said, “Man oh man I hit a good putt there!”
I had to catch myself a few times thinking he was joking — I have a dry sense of humor, too — but this was no joke. After two rounds of this, Kite hadn’t broken character and sat at 10-under par for the tournament, and I began to seriously reconsider my prior evaluation of him.
I said to Harris, “This guy is Mr. Positive all the time and I will say it is not fake one bit.”
Still, in the back of my mind I thought, “Well, maybe when the pressure is really on, on Sunday afternoon he will get a little crazy.”
A good test came on Sunday’s first hole, when Kite turned to me and asked if it was an 8-iron or 9-iron to the front pin cut over the bunker.
“It will fly a little farther out of this rough,” I said, as confidently as I could. “Hit the 9-iron.”
The ball plugged under the lip of the front bunker, leading Kite to his first bogey of the week, but he was as unperturbed as ever.
“Man, that was a good swing, and so close,” he said.We would have won the tournament that week but Fred Funk putted the best I have ever seen someone putt for three days and beat us. Still, I had learned a valuable lesson about how to approach the game mentally.
Constable’s self talk was the first real change we made when we started preparing for Q School, and I think it’s been just as important as all of his short-game improvements. The first true test of this huge attitude change came after Constable’s close call at the U.S. Amateur– I knew that defeat could have been crushing if he let it be. I never heard him tell anyone about the fatal two-stroke penalty he charged himself, but when I heard him tell a close friend simply that he had played well down there and it was a great tournament, I knew he was going to play on the PGA Tour. Now when we get done with a round, Constable rattles off every great shot he hit that day: birdie, long drive or putt, it doesn’t matter. If you keep talking positively, you will start to believe it yourself, after a while.
Donald’s last event before Q School was the U.S. Amateur at Cherry Hills in Colorado. Donald had been sick and lost 10 pounds in the week leading up to the event, so practice was limited, but I could see in his eyes he was ready to win the thing. We arrived four days early and prepared to be there beyond the 36-hole qualifier and into the match play portion. Donald drew an afternoon tee time the first day at Common Grounds, the off-site course used for the qualifier. We stepped on the tee at 1:30 pm as the second-to-last group, and the wind all of a sudden picked up to 25 mph. The gusts didn’t bother Donald as he shot one of the lowest scores of the afternoon, an even par round of 70.
The projected cut overnight was around even-par to plus-1. Donald came out the next day for his early tee time at Cherry Hills and made three birdies early, moving into the top 15. This was the dream start: with the top 64 players moving on to the match play, all we needed to do was maintain, survive and advance.
The ball does go far in Colorado, but the 260-yard 8th hole at Cherry Hills is still a serious par-3. Donald hit his tee shot into the bunker and left himself about a 40-yard bunker shot to the pin. As most top players know, this is a tough shot; what made it tougher was a slight lip that Donald had to get over, taking his pitching wedge out of play and forcing him to use his 60-degree. He hit the shot but the club didn’t get through the sand well and the ball stayed in the trap.
Out of frustration, Donald hit the sand to see why the ball didn’t come out like he thought, then splashed out of the sand to a couple of feet and two-putted. Donald sensed he had done something wrong in the bunker. On the next hole, he called an official over and explained how he touched the sand with his club on the previous hole. He wanted to make sure he assessed himself the right penalty.
I will say, in that situation, it was probably one of the classiest things I have seen in golf. I have caddied a lot for different players on the PGA and Champions Tours, and know from my own experience that we golfers are always trying to bend the rules to our advantage. To Donald, however, pursuing his dream meant doing it with integrity, no matter the outcome. For grounding his club in the sand, Donald assessed himself a two-stroke penalty, carded an 8 on that par-3, and missed the match play by two strokes.
Getting onto the PGA Tour may be a dream, but the focus, dedication, and hours (and hours and hours) of practice it takes to achieve has a way of weeding out the dreamers. In Donald Constable’s case, we needed to take a hard, sober look at his game, beginning with why he ended his college career ranked No. 75 in the country, and not better. We decided to start with his short game — in particular, tightening his putting stroke so that it worked under pressure. I’m the eternal optimist whenever I’m working with a student and so is Donald’s step dad, Joe Ryan, when it comes to Donald’s golf game. Joe and I put together a plan that we thought could work for Donald.
Four hours a day, five days a week. We putted — and still do — for hours a day, just focusing on being short and tight, getting the ball started on line. I would say out of the four hours a day, we spent three on Donald’s short game. When we played actual rounds, we always kept score and took it very seriously. We made sure that he never got comfortable with at 73 or 74; that wasn’t going to cut it in the weeks and months to come.
Donald immediately started chipping and putting better and scoring lower as a result: leading up to Q School his scores during practice varied from 64 to 70. Once we began traveling to tournaments, we tried to prepare at every course like it was his home course so that he could shoot those low scores consistently. In order to be fully prepared, those practice rounds always need to be harder than the tournament itself.
We arrived at each host golf course four days early and played 18 holes every day, with just nine holes the day before the tournament. When he wasn’t on the course, Donald was either eating, sleeping or resting in the Jacuzzi. He was able to keep his pre-tournament practice routine relatively light, because we’d already worked on everything we needed to by the time we arrived on site. When he wasn’t on the golf course, Donald was either eating, sleeping or resting in the Jacuzzi.
Skills-wise, Donald was ready, but in golf the mental side of the game is just as important, and after taking our first real trip together I realized that we had probably more work to do off the golf course than on it. We spent a lot of time talking about what he would face regarding pressure and outcome during Q School. I was looking for the same sense of optimism and confidence in his game from Donald that I had seen work for champions like Tom Kite and John Harris. It was Donald’s reaction after one of the classiest, and potentially most devastating, moments I have seen in golf – during the U.S. Amateur qualifier the week before Q School started – that first made me believe he would make the PGA Tour.
When I start working with a player on their golf game I always try and ask myself, “what is this person’s potential?” To be honest, this is the most exciting time with a player. To start to dream a little bit, I ask the player, “Where do you want to be with your golf game in one year? How about in three years?” Then we make a plan for what that player needs to do each day in order to reach the goals we’ve set.
There are so many up and down days in this game; you’ve got to have a process you can stick to after a bad day. Hopefully you’ll look at your plan and have enough faith in it that you don’t need to make drastic changes — just keep working at it. After coaching and being around many top college players, and even Tour players, I’ve seen that this can be the biggest trap they get into: they’ll play with someone who, let’s say, is a really good putter or driver of the ball, and think, “I need to change myself and do it that person’s way.” If you follow one player’s career for long enough you’ll see that they don’t play well every week. They’ll occasionally miss cuts and perform poorly, but it’s during those times when you have to believe that what you’re doing is the right stuff and make slight adjustments –not overhauls.
I caddied on the Champions Tour for Tom Kite, who once told me, “If you’re not making changes, you’re not getting better.” Tom likes to be on the cutting edge, constantly working and getting better, but I’ve noticed he’s always trying to improve the same aspects of his game. He has a plan and he doesn’t vary from it. I remembered what I learned from Tom when, last summer, I was approached by an unheralded college player, a recent graduate from the University of Minnesota, who wanted my help to achieve his dream: making it onto the PGA Tour.
I had worked with 23-year-old lefty Donald Constable — on his short game, mostly — for the past four years, but the question he posed on that August day was an entirely different matter: “What is it going to take for me to get through Qualifying School?”As you may know, the PGA Tour Q School is one of the most nerve-racking experiences is sports. Most pros never even come close to landing one of the few Tour cards that are available each year during the marathon of tournaments that comprises Q School. I immediately knew that getting Donald, the 75th-ranked college player in the country his senior year, his card was going to take a lot of work.