x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

A confidence conundrum even for the best of golfers around the world

High expectations – confidence! – can antagonise good golf, which asks the human brain to contain its expectations to the next shot. This is, of course, unnatural for the human brain.

Martin Kaymer gets a feel for the Emirates Golf Club’s Majlis Course yesterday.
Martin Kaymer gets a feel for the Emirates Golf Club’s Majlis Course yesterday.

It remains fitting that golf sprung out of a birthplace rich in mists, clouds and occasional fogs.

Just try to follow the following passage from Martin Kaymer.

Now, Kaymer might be newly 27, but the indications indicate he might end up about as good at the game as anyone not named Jack or Eldrick or Gary or Walter or Ben.

Two weeks ago, he came to the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship as "the king of Abu Dhabi" – rival Alvaro Quiros's words – so yesterday there came the reasonable question about whether expectations affected him, given his 73, 77 and missed cut at Abu Dhabi.

"Well, I mean it didn't really affect me in the past, you know," he said.

That's defensible, given he won the tournament in 2011 after winning it in 2010, which came after winning it in 2008, which came at age roughly 12 as he extolled his really cool luxury hotel.

"So everybody expected me to play well again," he said, "but maybe this year my expectations were too high because I was practising very hard in the winter, and felt like I was playing good golf."

So the other people's expectations weren't consequential, but Kaymer's own expectations butted in, and here's where we start to get into the fog of it all.

High expectations - confidence! - can antagonise good golf, which asks the human brain to contain its expectations to the next shot. This is, of course, unnatural for the human brain.

Continuing: "But then if you don't start the way you want ... I started straightaway with a double bogey because I hit it out of bounds, and then you feel like you're a little bit behind, and then you try even harder."

Now, look at that. Kaymer has won a major title (the 2010 US PGA Championship), won the Race to Dubai, won 10 times at this meagre age, spent a spell as the world No 1. He has played 18 holes so many times that his brain probably divides neatly into 18 compartments, recognising the importance of each hole over the whole.

He, of all 27-year-old people, long since comprehends that a starting double bogey shouldn't make anyone feel behind, and that the response absolutely should not be trying even harder.

Yet he's a human; golf, a beast. Its fundamental oddnesses threaten even somebody that good.

Continuing: "And with putting you have to wait. It's not good if you try to steer the ball into the hole.

"You know, you have to let it happen. You have to wait for it, but after a while I got a little bit impatient and that's never good when you need to make birdies.

"So I think it was more about myself that I was not patient enough and that I maybe expected a little too much."

The savagery of it. Here is a man who in 2010 played 78 rounds and averaged 70.04, first on the tour. Most guys, if they went out and shot 70 once in a life, would spend the rest of life boring to death friends, close relatives, distant relatives and strangers in airline terminals just rehashing it.

Yet here is a man who knows the value of the lag putt, knows full well the game is not about steering putts, knows in his bones it's about percentages and efficiency and patience and so on.

Yet he possesses a human mind which, being a human mind, did not see why you could not just steer that ball into that hole. The game saw that, jumped up and bit, which it adores doing amid high expectations.

In 2010, Kaymer surged to the Tour title and posted major finishes of cut-8-7-1. In 2011, then, in a way it's almost predictable that his major finishes went cut-39-12-cut. Or, not. It's mysterious.

Said even the ancient elder Lee Westwood, 38, whose hunt for a first major title after so much nibbling ought to be one of the top themes of the year: "It's always a strange situation because, you know, you kind of need confidence to play well.

"But obviously good play breeds that confidence. So it's strange, what comes first. So you sort of have to build up from square one again, and get used to seeing good shots coming off the club face and going where you want."

Or you can go with a still-older sage, who turned up in Qatar last week with two major titles and a legacy of demonstrative frustration and the name "John Daly." He said, "I'm 45 and I'm still learning. But it's just the hardest game in the world."

cculpepper@thenational.ae