Amateur golfers nearly always approach each game with the hopeful expectation they might play to the absolute peak of their ability. Their mindset on each shot early in their round visualises and recalls the best shot they have ever played from a similar position, especially on a familiar course. These moments are rare and unlikely to be repeated that often, so the most common emotions they then experience are disappointment and frustration, particularly if they use a strategy and a club choice consistent with their infrequent pure strikes. The realisation that hits them after a few holes can produce a dejected player in a depressed state. In life, we have all experienced the sobering shock when we discover someone who we have admired and looked up to isn't perfect. The halo effect we have applied to them evaporates, and it saddens us. However, if we accept the reality that nobody is perfect and everyone has flaws, it can heighten the appreciation of their skills and high points and attenuate the disappointment. Adjust the expectation, and you can manage the weaknesses without surprise and then joyfully celebrate the successes.
Dave had experienced an unusually restless night. The anticipation of caddying for Rod at a major European event, The Irish Open, being played at a course acknowledged by many as one of the greatest in the world, Ballybunion, was more than enough to get anyone keyed up. However, from the moment he saw the draw for the first two rounds he couldn’t sit still. They were playing with Seve Ballesteros! From the time Dave had started to study the history of golf, devouring everything he could in print and on film of the great players and moments in the game, his admiration for the legendary Spaniard had continually grown. Now he would have the enormous privilege of seeing him close up in competition. Rod had played with him before, and when Dave expressed how much this meant to him, Rod said with a wry smile,
"Don't get too excited Davey, he's an interesting character." Dave had, of course, read about the gamesmanship and moodiness but put that down to Seve’s fierce competitiveness and relentless determination. Here was a chance to see a pure genius at work. In his expectant state, Dave missed the warning in Rod's typical Aussie understatement.
Despite not sleeping well, Dave couldn't wait to get to the range; he collected Rod's clubs and bounced down the path. Rod was chatting to a couple of friends from the tour, Dave went ahead and found a spot on the range. He was tempted to set up near Seve who he had noticed straight away at the far end of the practice area but decided not to appear too eager. He would have all day to observe him, besides the atmosphere between him and his caddy seemed a little tense. Even from 15 metres away Dave could feel the energy swirling around Seve, a stored, latent power so palpable he expected to air to start crackling like a high school science experiment. His swing still looked as languid and powerful as Dave had seen in old videos and the crowd five deep behind him looked on in appreciative awe, but the man himself was not pleased. He was muttering to himself, alternating between Spanish and shorthand English. Something was bothering him about the balls, and so he sent his caddy off to get a different bucket which didn't seem to help much. Then he sat on a chair and relaced his right shoe three or four times. All of this absorbed Dave, and he didn't see or hear Rod walk up behind him.
“We could move a little closer if you’d like Dave?” Rod whispered about a foot behind him. Startled, Dave nearly dropped the clubs he had in his
“Is he always this edgy Rod?” Dave asked without shifting his gaze from Seve.
“Oh no, normally he is much more intense, come on let’s get started.”
As Rod worked through his usual methodical practice routine, Dave was wondering how Seve could play at the level he has for so long while appearing to work in an agitated state of mind? So many times in his stunning career he demonstrated inspiring brilliance unmatched by anyone and with the poise to be able to perform in the most pressurised situations this game can present. Dave realised his understanding about being in the zone and how to get into it was underdeveloped and needed refinement and expansion. Severiano Ballesteros was about to give him both. He caught a glimpse of it passing the chipping green area. Seve had stalked off the range almost in frustrated disgust and moved to spend a few final minutes on his short game. Dave didn’t break his stride as he was hurrying to the putting green with Rod before they teed off, but he still was able to notice a significant change in Seve from what he had observed on the range. There was almost a soft glow around him, and despite hitting these gorgeous little flop shots over a bunker repeatedly stopping a couple of feet from the flag, he appeared to be doing it without even thinking or concentrating. His body language and facial expressions were entirely different to a few minutes ago. That incandescent smile of his was back lighting up the whole area. The short game was Seve’s comfort zone, where his genius was undeniable. He knew he was the best at this part of the game, and so did everyone else. Nobody has ever had the imagination, feel and touch that he possessed. There are many jokes about God playing golf; perhaps he already did, through Seve’s hands. People were consistently amazed at how often Seve could create a shot and escape from challenging places. They would marvel at how he could do it under such pressure. But Dave was beginning to realise there wasn't any pressure for him in these situations. This was where he felt comfortable, this was what he enjoyed doing, and Seve was relaxed because he knew he could do it; he had complete faith in his short game ability. If you have a look at him in pictures on the tee compared to when he is playing around the greens, you can see the difference. On the tee he looks under strain, he looks tense as if he is going into battle. Around the greens, he is serene and calm, like he is excited by the challenge. On the tee his eyes are dark with fierce determination as if he's facing an enemy; around the green, his eyes dance with eager anticipation, he is in his safe place.
So, Dave thought, the “zone” can be compartmentalised into segments of the game not just periods of time. Understanding how to achieve this was incredibly important, he needed to study some more. As he walked to the first tee with Rod, he smiled to himself, Professor Ballesteros’s class was about to start.