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Tantalus Plays Golf

This is an excerpt from Golf Flow by Gio Valiante.

The modern word tantalize comes from the fable surrounding Tantalus, a character from Greek mythology. According to legend, the gods saw to it that Tantalus, who had committed acts of treachery, would spend eternity standing in a pond of water. Each time he bent down for a drink of water, the pond would recede and stay just beyond the reach of his cupped hands. Similarly, fruit trees hung over his head, yet when he would reach for a piece of fruit, the branches would rise and remain just beyond the reach of his hands. His story is one of temptation without satisfaction, of eternal deprivation.

Tantalus occupies many domains. Racecar driver Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s quest for victory in 2011 was chockfull of near misses, close calls, and what-ifs. Despite racing at a consistently high level, contending regularly, and achieving 12 finishes in the top 10, his ultimate goal of winning eluded him. In a parallel fashion, research scientists are familiar with the feeling. Many academic researchers spend a lifetime trying to solve a single proof or seeking to prove or disprove the smallest of details from a particular theory. When it seems like they are getting closer to a finding, the research trail often goes cold. Einstein, while being celebrated as the most successful physicist of modern times, spent 30 years of his life in a failed attempt to create his grand unified theory. Of his quest, Einstein wrote,

The years of anxious searching in the dark, with their intense longing, their alternations of confidence and exhaustion and the final emergence into the light—only those who have experienced it can understand it.

Golfers can certainly relate to Earnhardt's frustration and Einstein's words. The parallels are clear: extreme dedication and longing in a lengthy quest for excellence.

In a manner similar to Tantalus' punishment, golf has a way of teasing the mind and keeping the prizes just out of reach, at least for a while.

A common phrase among golfers of all levels is, “I am so much better than my scores are showing.” It's another way of saying, “I am so much better than I am playing.” Most golfers spend the bulk of their playing lives in some version of purgatory—not quite hell, not quite heaven. They play OK, but not quite at the level of their potential. They know that they can do better but only rarely get into flow and play as if inspired.

Golfers feel most like Tantalus during the often-cruel moments when they are extremely close to a sought-after achievement, be it a personal best score or an elusive first victory. They get right up next to it only to watch it recede.

Finishing way down the leaderboard sometimes seems easier, or at least less anguishing. If you are never really in the tournament, you are less invested, so your emotions emerge relatively unscathed. But the close calls and the dashed hopes can be damning. The belief that they are on the verge of the win, that they are so close they can almost taste it, lives on in their minds and keeps golfers awake at night.

Anyone who watched the 2007 British Open understands that Tantalus plays golf. Sergio Garcia, who led the first three rounds of the tournament and began the day with a three-shot lead, couldn't will a putt into the hole. Needing to make a par for his first major championship victory, Garcia had a 10-foot (3 m) left to righter for his first major title. As he had been doing all day, he hit a perfect putt. The high-definition coverage captured every moment of the ball's journey as it came off the putter face perfectly and rolled on a direct line to the hole. The ball rolled closer and closer to the hole and began to disappear. It seemed certain that Sergio had won his first major championship! But then the ball that was halfway into the hole hopped back out. Again, golf allowed Sergio to taste the thing that he wanted most, a major championship, but then kept the full satisfaction of the win just beyond him.

Great careers in golf are characterized by close calls and near misses. The game's greatest, Jack Nicklaus, is known for winning 18 major championships. More interesting from a psychological point of view is that he was able to cope with many near wins. The numbers are telling; over the course of a 45-year career, Nicklaus played in 163 major championships. He finished top 10 in 73 of them. Although he did win 18 of those, he also came close to winning 55 other times. Of those 55 top 10s without a win, 19 were second-place finishes. It is the coming close, the Tantalus, that so often causes golfers to drink too much, get divorced, change their swings, fire their coaches, or quit the game altogether. I've seen my share of all those reactions.

Arnold Palmer lost three playoffs in the U.S. Open alone! One of those was when he took a seven-shot lead into the 1966 U.S. Open and lost. Forty years later, Palmer recalled how that tournament still kept him up at night. Ninety-four professional wins. Seven major championships. Thirty-eight top 10s, 19 of which were top 3s. And yet the thing that stays on his mind? “It hurts so much to come close and not win,” he said.

Greg Norman's career was defined by its own version of Tantalus' punishment. Norman finished in the top 10 in 30 major championships, more than 30 percent of those that he entered. Despite his two major wins, historians of the game universally see his dramatic failures as being the distinguishing features of his career.

In 1986 Norman went into the final round of every major championship with the lead, a feat now often called the Norman Slam or the Saturday Slam. At the Masters that year, needing only a par to secure a playoff spot, he made a bogey. He shot a final-round 75 at the U.S. Open and a final-round 76 at the PGA Championship to fall out of contention in both tournaments. Even more characteristic is Norman's record at the Masters. In 1987 in a playoff, Larry Mize chipped in from 45 yards (40 m) away to snatch a victory from Norman. In 1989, coming into the 72nd hole Norman again needed a birdie to win and a par to get into a playoff. He teed off with a 1-iron, made bogey, and again fell a shot short. The epic, and most memorable failure in his career (and some would argue in the history of golf) came at the 1996 Masters. He opened with a course record 63 that propelled him to the top of the leaderboard, where he remained for three days. With five previous top-five finishes at Augusta and a six-shot lead, Norman seemed like a sure thing. The media were convinced that even someone with luck as bad as Norman's could not lose a six-shot lead. Norman's long-awaited Masters victory was about to materialize.

Rather than take you through every cruel moment of that round of golf, I'll let you consult the history books. I will leave you with a paragraph from the Sports Illustrated column, April 1996, written by Rick Reilly:

Golf is the cruelest game, because eventually it will drag you out in front of the whole school, take your lunch money and slap you around. Golf can make a man look more helpless than any other sporting endeavor, except perhaps basketball when you air-ball a free throw in the clutch, and nobody we know has air-balled free throws for an afternoon on national TV. Norman shot 78. He had taken his glorious victory parade and driven it off a pier.

Thirty top-10 finishes in majors: 2 wins, 28 near misses. Nine top-10 finishes at Augusta: no wins. Temptation without satisfaction.

Learn more about Golf Flow.

More Excerpts From Golf Flow