Thursday, 2nd July 2020

Paul Spencer Sochaczewski

Negativity Land

Posted on 28. Mar, 2017 by in Golf

The Golf Demons are out and about. Image: Golf Digest

Why do we take such delight in golf’s screw-ups instead of the great moments of success?


EVERY COURSE, Everywhere

A golfer faces more Dark Side moments than Luke Skywalker.

We take a morbid delight when golf legends screw up.

And we wallow in our own masochistic moments of crash and burn.

Why is that? Why can’t we spend more energy applauding and internalizing the great shots? Why do we revel in the dark instead of savoring the light? Something is upside down. Our brains seek the shadows.

Nevertheless, neurotic and unproductive as it may be, it is fun to recall golf’s most memorable disasters.


At the 1966 U.S. Open at Olympic in San Francisco, Arnold Palmer blew a seven-stroke lead over Billy Casper. Sports Illustrated called Palmer’s collapse “one of the great debacles of modern times, comparable to the Italian retreat at Caporetto, the Edsel car and Liz Taylor’s Cleopatra.”


Most golf fans remember Jean Van de Velde’s go-for-broke attitude on the 18th at the 1999 Open Championship at Carnoustie. The French golfer needed just a six on the par-4 final hole for his first Major victory. After a so-so drive he should have, in retrospect, laid up in front of the Barry Burn, then hit a short iron to the green which would have left him with three putts for the victory. Van de Velde however thought he had a good lie in the rough and he went for the green. But his 2-iron second shot hit the grandstand next to the green, then bounced off the rocks on Barry Burn and into the creek. What happened next was one of the iconic images of professional golf — Jean Van de Velde taking off his shoes, rolling up his pants, sporting a Huck Finn-like grin and thinking about playing out of the water. He reconsidered and took a penalty drop. He still could have pitched on to the green and one-putted for victory. But his fourth shot landed in the greenside bunker. He splashed out to about two meters (six feet). In an eerily silent moment he hit arguably the gutsiest shot of his tournament — he made the putt to put him into a playoff with Justin Leonard and Paul Lawrie, the ultimate winner. When Val de Velde went for the post-game press conference he noted the serious and downcast looks of the journalists. “What is the matter?” he asked. “No one has died.”


And who can forget Australian golfer Greg Norman’s flaming implosion when he blew a six-stroke lead on the last day of the 1996 Masters. Norman wound up losing by five-strokes to Nick Faldo in a performance one journalist compared to a “horrifying slow-motion death that was evocative of an old Sam Peckinpah film.”

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Crash and burn anecdotes of the pros are endlessly intriguing, and I wonder why that is.

Certainly there is some schadenfreude involved, the almost illicit pleasure that “even the pros can mess up big time.” But I think it’s more to do with the fact that amateur golfers (yes, me) always screw up shots and make stupid mistakes and this leads to a certain unlikely brotherhood with the likes of famous professionals.

Logically we must accept that we’re not perfect, that we’re as likely to hit some bad shots as the sun is likely to rise tomorrow. That’s life, that’s sports.

But what I don’t understand is why golfers put so much energy into remembering, and thereby encouraging, lousy shots instead of glorying in a finely hit drive, a high pitch that lands softly next to the pin, a long snaking putt that swirls into the cup?

We relish the mistakes instead of cheering the much more numerous good shots. It’s backward, it’s contrary, it doesn’t make any sense and it’s self-destructive.

Examine the memorable disasters of the professionals. The ones we remember all take place at the end of tournaments, when the unfortunate golfer snatches defeat from the jaws of victory. But to get to a leading position at the end of a tournament means the golfer had to play exceptionally well in the previous three rounds. He had to make some memorable long putts, he had to chip in once in a while, he had to hit the fairways and avoid the bunkers. But everyone ignores those highlights and focuses on the end-game mistakes. Curious.

* * *

For instance I bet you remember this one. In the first round of the 2016 Open Championship at Royal Troon, Phil Mikelson had a five meter (sixteen foot) putt on the 18th hole. If he made it he would become the first man to score 62 in a major championship. His playing partner, Ernie Els, who was lying closer to the pin, putted first, in order to give Mickelson the spotlight for his historic putt.  Mickelson’s putt was on-line all the way, the crowd started to cheer, and Phil smiled and started to walk towards the hole. At the last moment the ball veered a centimeter to the right, lipped out, and made a half-circle tour around the hole. Mickelson had to “settle” for a 63, becoming the 28th player to score that low in 437 Major championships.

This is a classic case of remembering the mistakes instead of reveling in the great shots.  The media were full of stories about Mickelson’s “tragic” miss.  Mickelson himself said he “felt like crying,” and said “There’s a curse because that ball should have been in. I didn’t believe in the golf gods but I do now.”

And every article on Mickelson’s painful miss (or was it a curse?) focused on how other great golfers had similarly missed what they thought was their final putt.  Jack Nicklaus missed a one-meter putt for 62 in the U.S. Open at Baltusrol, later saying that he “totally chocked.” As one writer pointed out, “When did Nicklaus ever choke?” In the 2007 PGA Championship Tiger Woods hit a putt for 62 which went halfway down the hole and inexplicably popped out.

My point is that by focusing on the missed putts to make history, the players and the media were celebrating the mistakes and ignoring the fact that prior to that almost-historical putt the player had to play 61 prior shots that were mostly terrific.  They had forgotten the great drives, the precise approaches, the sand shots that landed softly near the hole, the heroic saves from the rough, the long curving putts that went in. Everybody had focused on the “wrong,” no one had focused on the “good.” Same dynamic as when a club golfer beats herself up for hitting a drive into the lake. She makes herself “wrong” instead of remembering and imprinting the good shots.

* * *

Pundits say that you only learn about yourself during times of adversity. Maybe, but why do we dwell in Negativity Land? Why can’t our brains do a better job of imprinting the physiological and emotional pleasure of a shot hit pure and straight?

* * *

Such negativity can have implications that go beyond a sliced drive. The respected 1992 Framingham Heart Study noted that women who believe they are at risk from heart disease are 3.6 times more likely to die from heart attacks than those with identical risk factors, but who lack the belief. Negativity as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

* * *

On the other hand, research indicates that the more setbacks people have, the more resilient they become. Roxane Cohen Silver, a psychologist at the University of California, Irvine, says “each negative event a person faces leads to an attempt to cope, which forces people to learn about their own capabilities.” Although Silver was talking about traumatic events like divorce, the death of a loved one, or being in a natural disaster, perhaps on a lesser scale the same could be said of golf trauma.

So, this wallowing in self-abuse is vaguely Nietzschean; “the golf disaster which does not kill me makes me stronger.”

* * *

I’m trying to find a good metaphor.  Dwelling on a bad (or unlucky) shot is like picking at a scab — ultimately the wound becomes infected and what was formerly a minor irritation becomes something more serious.

* * *

I have developed a method for imprinting good shots. I won’t bore you with it (it’s complicated) but it involves repeating my pre-shot routine after a good shot, re-visualizing the shot and context, and writing it down for later review.

* * *

Can any good come from meltdowns?

Probably the most sadistic (and masochistic, since participants had to nominate themselves as bad golfers) magazine promotion occurred in 1986 when Golf Digest held a competition to find America’s “Worst Avid Golfer.” The winner: Angelo Spagnolo, then a 31-year-old grocer from Fayette City, Pennsylvania. Golf Digest invited Spagnolo and a few other self-designated bad golfers to compete for the title in a televised event. The darkest moment came at the famous 132-yard (120-meter) 17th at TPC Sawgrass, where the golfer has to hit to what is termed an island green (which is really a peninsula, and the distinction is important).

Spagnolo put 27 balls in the water — his iron shots, even from the drop area, flew like rifle shots, rarely more than waist high. Ultimately and reluctantly, on the advice of his caddy and the urging of the TV producer, Spagnolo putted along the winding sandy path that connected the tee with the green.  He got on the green in 63 and three-putted for a 66. “One of the TV networks gave me uncut footage of that hole,” Spagnolo recalls. “It was like watching my fingernails get pulled out.” Journalist Peter Andrews noted “Let me tell you something about Angelo Spagnolo. In enduring perhaps 40 minutes of public humiliation, he did not wince or cry aloud. At no time did a single whispered blasphemy escape his lips. He took a 66 without a curse. Angelo Spagnolo has either the makings of a Christian saint or the most limited vocabulary of any man who has ever played golf.” Spagnolo remembers the support he got from strangers: “Hundreds of people told me I gave them hope. It didn’t make me feel any better about the way I played, but it made them feel better about the way they played. And I figured that was good for golf.”


Paul Sochaczewski is an American writer based in Geneva, Switzerland-based.  His recent books include the Curious Encounters of the Human Kind series, Share Your Journey, Redheads, and An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles. His website:

This article is excerpted from Paul Sochaczewski’s new book Distant Greens: Golf, Life and Surprising Serendipity On and Off the Fairways. Available on