Just before Justin Thomas was about to finish off his record-setting 63 in the third round of the U.S. Open, he sat on the edge of his golf bag and waited for Jonathan Randolph to finish batting his ball back and forth across the 18th green at Erin Hills.
Thomas extended his arms and held out his hands to see if they were vibrating. They were dead still. He got up and calmly rolled in the 8-foot eagle putt to make history.
More recently, Branden Grace of South Africa established the single-round major-championship scoring record at the British Open, posting an 8-under 62 in the third round at Royal Birkdale.
If Thomas had repeated the exercise just before he went off in the final pairing on Sunday, he might have seen a different result. He hit a rope hook off the first tee into the rough, a clear indication that the magic from the previous day was gone. He wound up with 75, a full eight shots behind winner Brooks Koepka.
Grace put himself into contention for the Open title the following day but shot 1-over 35 on the front nine. The day before, he posted 29 on the same nine holes.
It’s a question as old as the game itself: What happens between rounds that turns 63 into 75? Or 62 into 70? It’s the same player. Or is it?
For the rest of us, we find the same curious phenomenon, except that it can happen in the same round.
A few weeks ago, I was in the regular dogfight at Springfield Golf Club in Fort Mill, S.C., not feeling any better or worse than any other day. Little did I know that this round would reveal every emotion in the spectrum, from the euphoric to the gut-wrenching.
I made birdies on five of the first six holes, and at the hole where I didn’t make birdie, the ball violently lipped out. Then, the worst thing that could happen, did: I realized where I was, which was in uncharted territory. After a par on the seventh, I made a bogey at the difficult par-3 eighth.
I stood in the fairway on the par-4 ninth with a 6-iron in my hands, and it turned into a rattlesnake. I hit the most perfect shank you’ve ever seen, deep into the woods and right down Double Bogey Avenue.
If you had asked me if I would have taken 34 on the front nine, I’d have been more than pleased. But I was 5 under after seven holes. Couldn’t I have managed pars on the last two holes?
On the back nine, Mr. Hyde took over from Dr. Jekyll. I made two double bogeys and went 4 over on the final three holes to finish with 76.
What happened, how did it happen and why did it happen?
The first six holes, I’m certain I was in what’s called “the zone.” I could count on one hand the number of times I’ve experienced it in golf. My surroundings and the activity in my brain and my physical golf swing all seemed to be in slow motion. Everything was extraordinarily quiet. There was no doubt, no trepidation, no fear. I saw each shot in my head, and I replicated it. Golf has never been so easy.
But after I reached 5 under, I remembered who I was. I had never been 5 under for nine holes. I didn’t know what to do. As a result, I exited the zone as quickly and easily as I entered it. My heartbeat quickened, and the thoughts in my brain increased in speed. I consciously tried to bring things back to present time, but it wasn’t happening. Maybe I was trying too hard.
For most of the back nine, I was stunned. Success and failure are two sides of the same coin, and it flipped in an instant.
I’ve always believed that the mind is more powerful than the body in golf, especially when you’ve been playing for a number of years. It’s said that golf is 90 percent mental and the other 10 percent is in your head.
The bottom line is that this is a really hard game, even for the best players in the world. Most of the players we see on television make golf look impossibly easy. The ones we don’t see on TV struggle.
Bill Haas said a couple of weeks ago, “You’re one swing away from playing good and one swing away from playing bad.”
Justin Thomas was painfully aware after his Erin Hills weekend. Jordan Spieth turned what looked like a horrible collapse into a British Open title in the space of a handful of holes.
That’s why we – media included – should be careful about criticizing players who lose touch with their best under duress. The whole thing is just too razor thin.
Mike Purkey has written about golf for more than 30 years for a number of publications, including Golf Magazine and Global Golf Post. He lives in Charlotte, N.C. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @mikepurkeygolf