Most kids grow up in the United States playing some kind of team sport, be it kindergarten soccer, little league baseball, pee wee football or some version of biddy basketball. In central California the first time a youngster has an opportunity to play an organized individual sport (unless the parent is Earl Woods, Richard Williams or Phillip Agassi) is fourth grade with cross country and wrestling.
By that time, they’ve already been ingrained in “team sport culture” and whether we’ll admit it or not, part of that culture is hoping an opponent “screws up,” e.g. misses an open net kick, strikes out with the bases loaded, fumbles or misses a free throw - each at such a crucial time in the game that the only way their team would win is if the opponent made such a mistake. As the kids grow up, games are often won by great performances, sometimes by the team, more often by an outstanding individual effort. Yet there are still moments when the outcome will be decided by the opponent. A clutch performance and “the good guys” are doomed, a mistake and we win!
Back to the individual sport situation, golf in particular because there’s nothing (short of gamesmanship) golfers can do to hurt their opponent’s chances. Sure, someone can win when their opponent snap hooks a drive OB on the final hole but in golf, the competition is between the golfer and the course, and, in some cases, the elements.
If anyone’s played a team sport, there’s bound to be a time when the only way your team can win is if the other guys mess up, whether you cause the errors or they’re self-inflicted. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but most of the friends I have grew up playing team sports. Anytime we’d go golfing, there would always be a trash talking or kidding which was used to get somebody off their game. We couldn’t help but wish a putt was missed or an errant shot was made so as to keep the match close. Another trait of team sport guys is that there needs to be something on the game “to make it interesting.”
The difference for the professional golfer is the hours, days, months and years of practice. Most of them start so soon in life that their mindset is ingrained in them by their parents, coaches and/or mentors early on. They are dependent on no one other than themselves. No respectable coach would ever teach methods of distraction to a player. First of all, golf has always been a gentleman’s game. Besides, it’s much easier - and certainly more enjoyable - to attempt to master the game than it is to try to distract an entire field.
Call me naive but I don’t believe when a golfer is over a 5′ putt to win the match that his opponent is hoping he’ll miss. He certainly realizes that if the putt drops, he loses but I truly think that every golfer has empathy for his fellow competitor. He understands and appreciates someone who can calm his nerves, focus on what needs to be done and come up clutch. Possibly it’s because the flip side is misery - and he has been there at sometime in his career. So, when the putt drops, there’s admiration for the winner - even though it’s not the guy he hoped it would be.
I admit my feeling is solely based on observation - of listening to post match interviews and talking to the few golf pros I’ve known - but in a golfer’s world, the phrase that seems to apply is:
“There but for the grace of God, go I.”