Those Who Really Know Course Nuances Stand Best Chance Of Hoisting The Wanamaker Trophy On Sunday

By Ann Liguori
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SPRINGFIELD, N.J. (CBSNewYork) — Ted Williams once told me in a television interview I did with him on my “Sports Innerview” cable series, that “practice, practice, practice, was the key to his success.”

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“The right practice,” the legendary baseball hitter added. He also spoke about managing “expectation” and learning how to stay focused despite distractions.

His words of wisdom could come in handy for many of the top golfers in the world, particularly as the 98th PGA Championship gets underway Thursday morning at Baltusrol Golf Club.

The more practice time the player gets on the course prior to the start of a major championship, and the more inside knowledge one acquires about the nuances of the course, the better. Sure, with the exception of The Masters, the venues for the majors change every year and it’s difficult for players to make time in their hectic schedules to get to a venue in advance of the tournament to play. But certainly it has to help if the player and their caddie can make time to visit the course in advance and certainly get in as many practice rounds as possible.

Making the time to practice, staying focused and managing expectations affects the best of the best.

Certainly, defending champ Jason Day relates to those pressures. Day hadn’t seen Baltusrol until his first practice round on Wednesday. In his Wednesday press conference, he revealed he didn’t even know what the course looks like. Whatever the reasons, (the kids were sick, the demands on his time as the defending champ and being the world No. 1 all take a toll on his schedule), Day is coming into the last major on the calender without much knowledge of the course and only one practice day here.

“I was with Doug Steffen, the head pro, last night, at the Champion’s Dinner,” Day said. “I went through pretty much every hole with him for about 20, 30 minutes, kind of going over all the holes, but obviously the prep’s been a little on the lighter side.”

Expectations on top golfers can get the best of them. It’s a double-edged sword. The better they play, the more famous they get, the more demands on their time. Some players manage the demands better than others.

Day admitted how difficult it is to manage his time.

“I’m really trying to stay focused and be nice and do all the things you can do for the media, fans and people, but also making sure that you’re kind of selfish in a way to understand” what it takes to get to the top, he said.

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“Expectations,” on and off the course, have been a burden on Jordan Spieth this year.

“It is what it is. It was something to be expected,” Spieth said of dealing with what was to come after winning two majors in 2015 and coming close in the other two. “I feel like I improved as a player and not have the same results, and to everybody else, it will not look like it wasn’t an improvement on the year, but maybe to me it does.

“I don’t think that I’m a better player this year than I was last year,” Spieth added. “I think I’m the same player; that I’ve just been getting a bit too frustrated, and maybe because of that, on the golf course, at times.”

Spieth has been on-site since Sunday. The 23-year-old Texan has won two PGA Tour events this year but had an infamous meltdown at The Masters, finished tied for 37 at the U.S. Open and tied for 30 at the Open Championship. To say he’s disappointed in his results at the majors this year would be an understatement.

“I set my own expectations so high,” he said. “So have I met them this year? Not yet. I still can, based on the goals that we set for the year.”

Dustin Johnson said the first time he had ever played Baltusrol was in Tuesday’s practice round. The U.S. Open champ says this course sets up well for him. And certainly, these players are so talented and long off the tee that if Johnson drives the ball as long and accurate as he was at Oakmont, and chips and putts the way he did, he has a good chance to win here, whether he practiced at Baltusrol in advance or not.

“I like the majors and I feel like they are always played on really tough golf courses,” Johnson added, “which I feel like I do very well on really hard golf courses where pars are good scores, where you’ve got to drive it in the fairway, you’ve got to hit it on the green. When I’m on really tough golf courses, I feel like I’m more focused because I’m really trying to hit the ball to a certain spot.”

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Phil Mickelson, who won the PGA Championship in 2005, the last time the tournament was held at Baltusrol, comes to the area often. Before he won 11 years ago, he talked extensively to Steffen and picked his brain about the course, strategy, etc. Obviously, all his prep work and studying paid off and he’s played the golf course a lot since.

But the flip side of golf and the nature of the sport is that, sometimes, the less one plays, the better. It means you’re rested, fresh and strong. Expectations aside, each player has their own way of preparing and dealing with all the factors that go into winning a major championship.

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