There's no consensus as to the precise frame of mind a player should have to get the most out of his or her game in an important situation. But the one thing that seems clear after Rory McIlroy's sublime performance in winning the PGA Championship by eight shots last Sunday is that it's preferable to feel some internal heat than to play for pleasure alone.
McIlroy, as it turned out, derived some of his focus from critics who had assumed his high-profile relationship with tennis star Caroline Wozniacki was harming him. Had he played poorly in the last round Sunday rather than shooting six-under-par 66 to win by eight shots, why, they'd probably have said it was because he stayed up to watch her play, and lose, her semi-final match at the Rogers Cup in Montreal Saturday night.
McIlroy had to get up very early Sunday to finish his third round because play had been suspended Saturday because of storms over the Ocean course in Kiawah Island, S.C. He arrived without a lot of time before the restart, missed a couple of putts early, but finished with a 67 to take a three-shot lead into the last round.
"I don't think I could have answered [the criticism] in any better way," the 23-year-old locomotive of a golfer said after he won. "And yeah, to be honest, it did motivate me. I did want to go out there and prove a few people wrong."
Meanwhile, Tiger Woods provided quite a contrast in terms of what he felt on the weekend. Woods was tied for the lead with Vijay Singh after 36 holes, but shot four-over 40 on the front nine in the third round before play was suspended. Woods returned Sunday to shoot 34 to complete his third round, and then finished with 72. He ended 11 shots behind McIlroy.
Woods said that he "came out with probably the wrong attitude" on Saturday, when it all went wrong for him in the first nine holes of the third round. What did this winner of 14 majors mean?
"I was too relaxed, and tried to enjoy it, and that's not how I play," Woods explained. "I play intense and full systems go. That cost me."
Was Woods serious when he offered this curious remark? One would think he of all players knows how to feel to compete his best. But maybe he really did lack fire. It's strange that he would choose to be this way, but maybe he couldn't change his feeling. Emotions aren't easily, if ever, mutable.
It's not as if there isn't a precedent for a superstar golfer to come out flat when it's all to play for in a major. Greg Norman led all four majors in 1986 heading into the final round but won just the British Open. He shot 75 the final round of the U.S. Open to fall into a tie for 12th as Ray Floyd won. Norman said he came out flat for that round and didn't know why.
Maybe there simply aren't any answers as to why one player would flatline in a critical situation while another would feel immersed in the experience. The great Canadian golfer George Knudson used to wonder why he didn't feel engaged by practice. The answer came to him in tournaments. He needed to have something on the line. Practice bored him.
Golfers need fuel to fire. McIlroy found the fuel he needed. Woods didn't, or couldn't. If there's a lesson in all this, maybe it's that the switched-on player has a better chance of winning than the stoic or the one out for a stroll or the proverbial walk in the park.
Woods walked all right. And McIlroy flew.
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Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association's first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada's Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round's on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf's Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein