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WGC-HSBC Champions Preview: The Weird Art of Winning
Tim Maitland
6th October 2011

The last global tournament of the stroke play season will see an unprecedented number of newcomers rewarded for their wins with a place at the WGC-HSBC Champions. For the first time in golf history, there's a chance the season will end with all the Major titles and WGC trophies in the hands of first-time winners. The world of golf has never been so wide open.

All of the big trophies have pride of place in their winner's display cabinets, because none have won at such lofty levels before. Thirteen different players have won the last 13 Majors, while the last nine World Golf Championships events have been won by nine different winners; a spell unparalleled since the tournaments were introduced in 1999. There have also been 12 first-time winners during PGA Tour regular season and an almost unprecedented parade of rookie winners.

The reason would seem to be obvious: the decline of Tiger Woods. Through to the end of 2009 Woods had won almost 30 per cent of his starts on the PGA Tour including 16 of the 29 WGC events in which he competed.

What we're seeing now, with Tiger so far down the rankings and so far removed from his last big victory that he hasn't qualified to play in China, is not just young talent, but several generations of golfers figuring out how to win.

New Sensations

In reality, winning seems to have very little to do with technique. Ask any of the world-class field at the WGC-HSBC Champions about this and instead they will discuss at length what goes on in the grey matter between the ears and how the body reacts to that.

"It's one of those things where you almost black out," says 25-year-old Keegan Bradley, a rookie on the PGA Tour who this year won the HP Byron Nelson Championship and then went on to become only the third player ever to claim a Major at his first attempt, when he beat Jason Dufner in a play-off.

"I don't remember some of the shots; you're just so into it. It's a pretty intense experience!"

Even 18-year-old Italian Matteo Manassero, at 16 the youngest-ever winner of the (British) Amateur Championship and at 17 years and 188 days the youngest-ever on the European Tour when he claimed the 2010 Castello Masters, struggles to describe the sensations.

"It's strange. It's tense; you've got a lot of nerves. Adrenaline makes you react a little bit differently. I'm not sure there is a secret. There's not much you can do to make it happen," explains the teenager, who qualified for Shanghai when he won the Maybank Malaysian Open in April.

Given how unpredictable the sensations and reactions to being in a winning position are, it shouldn't come as a surprise that, in the absence of the Tiger Woods of old, the tournament golf landscape is somewhat confusing at the moment.

"I think if you took 30 per cent of that kind of experience out of any sport or that kind of top-level know-how from the C-suite of any business or work place anywhere in the world it would have to create some kind of void. It's experience of success and there's some truth to the saying that success breeds success," says HSBC Group Head of Sponsorship Giles Morgan.

Try to Win and You Won't

Any hacker will recognize the irony of a sport where the more you try the worse it can get; we've all played horrendously until, just when we're ready to give up, we finally smack one off the middle of the club. Another of the qualifiers for the HSBC Champions coming off a first win on the PGA Tour has done exactly that, except for him, it wasn't one round. it was his whole career.

"People had been telling me for years 'You're trying too hard!' I always thought, how can you try too hard? It doesn't make any sense," says Harrison Frazar, who set a PGA Tour record when he claimed the FedEx St. Jude Classic in Memphis in his 355 th start.

The turning point for the now 40-year-old Texan was when, after starting the season by missing the cuts in six of his first eight events, he decided it was time to quit.

"In my mind it was over. Everybody was on board; family, friends. everybody knew it," Frazar says.

" I had just given up on trying to force results. I just said 'I'm going to stand up, pick my lines and just hit it and see what happens'."

There are few examples as extreme as Frazar's, but Hunter Mahan will attest to how fickle winning golf tournaments can be.

"Last year was funny; I didn't really play very consistent but I had two wins. And this year I've been much more consistent and had a bunch of top 10s, but haven't had any wins, so it's kind of strange," he said when he returned to defend his WGC-Bridgestone Invitational crown.

"Whenever you watch great players play, they never look like they're trying to win; they're just trying to play the game correctly and hit the right shots at the right time and do all the right things that are going to enable you to win. You've got to keep working and keep learning and just kind of let it happen."

It's because of these emotional contradictions that so many golfers reach out to sports psychologists to try and find a framework that allows them to perform to their potential in pressure situations. Thus the game is full of players who talk, in different ways, of staying process oriented rather than results focused.

A Matter of Experience

So as the world's top golfers gear up for the WGC-HSBC Champions with few of the proven winners seeming to be in winning form, it's interesting that many of the first-time winners have some sort of life or golf experience that lessened the enormity of the task when they succeeded.

None of those stories is more heart-breaking than that of the Open Champion Darren Clarke. The Northern Irishman was a regular winner until his wife Heather was diagnosed with breast cancer. She succumbed to her illness in 2006 and six weeks later, her husband resumed his golf career at the Ryder Cup. He readily admitted that having gone through that experience at the K Club, winning the Open at Royal St. George this year wasn't nearly as hard as it might have been.

"To this day, I still haven't faced anything as difficult as that. That in itself made Royal St. George an awful lot easier for me because I will never face anything as tough as what that was," the 43-year-old said after lifting the claret jug.

Among the first-time WGC winners there are similar kinds of stories. Australia's Adam Scott got the biggest win of his career at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational with Tiger's longtime caddie Steve Williams on his bag: "It's almost like I need to show him I've got it in me, because a lot of people question it," he said afterwards.

Then there's the defending champion Francesco Molinari who held off newly-crowned world number one Lee Westwood to win the "Duel on the Bund". Would he have been so steadfast without having gone through the madness in the mud at the Celtic Manor Ryder Cup five weeks before?

"You can't do anything to take pressure off yourself. You just have to live with it and play with it. After a while you get used to playing with all the tension," Molinari says of his Ryder Cup experience.

When the penny finally drops, you'd be forgiven for thinking that winning again would come naturally. Webb Simpson certainly thought so after his maiden victory at the Wyndham Championship, but he discovered that wasn't the case when he followed up with a triumph at September's Deutsche Bank Championship.

"It was just as hard. It was like I had never won a golf tournament before. I thought winning the second time would be easier," Simpson declared.

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