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Sporting Life

Golfing perfectionists caught in stoic struggle to be better

One by one they arrive at the practice range at Sentosa Golf Club and unsheathe their clubs and easily find a tempo as if they're playing to music only they can hear. This is an assembly line of greatness.

Brooke Henderson casually hits perfect three-woods into a grey cloud. She leaves. Lydia Ko arrives and starts with a wedge, her ball taking off almost vertically and falling as softly as a fat raindrop. Amateurs cannot watch this for too long. It's too much humility to swallow at one time.

Every woman's swing looks greased and effortless, yet they're never content. So a caddie films his golfer's swing and shows it to her. There is no sport so obsessed with technique because there is no sport as precise as this: A tiny club face is used to propel a spinning ball 200 yards with the expectation that it will cut through the wind and land at an expected spot. It is absurd excellence.

You can argue whether golfers are athletes, but even tennis players will concede they have the meticulousness of surgeons. And the perseverance of the masons who built China's Great Wall. Derek Jeter, that baseball guy, once told a journalist: "My folks taught me that there may be people who have more talent, but there's never any excuse for anyone to work harder than you do." You look at these workers at this range and you think: A lot of golf parents must say that.

Ball after ball after ball is hit. In her off-season, Lexi Thompson says she practised "a few hours" just of putting every day. Jang Ha Na confessed she trained during winter from 4.30am to 9pm. Yesterday at the range, club covers were lying on the grass - obviously at a precise distance - and players were hitting to them. Humans looking to be robots. This game is a bit like target shooting: It's a chase for a perfection that doesn't really exist.


Lexi Thompson hitting a tee shot at yesterday's pro-am curtain-raiser for the HSBC Women's Champions at Sentosa Golf Club. The American says that despite seeking excellence, golfers are "not perfect, we're human". PHOTO: HSBC GETTY IMAGES

But it's too late now for practice, for today is Thursday and it's starting day. It's the fourth tournament of a new year with 31 left but you want to do well now. But will practice translate? Will the changed chipping stance work? There's always anxiety but it's hidden behind stoic faces. Let's be clear, the most unrecognised actors in life are athletes. If their faces could tell you what they really felt, it would be all mad opera. No wonder Thompson, just 22 and a Major champion, opts for meditation.

Will practice translate? Will the changed chipping stance work? There's always anxiety but it's hidden behind stoic faces. Let's be clear, the most unrecognised actors in life are athletes. If their faces could tell you what they really felt, it would be all mad opera. No wonder Thompson, just 22 and a Major champion, opts for meditation.

Today is when it starts again: The pressure of competition, of being someone, of goals chased, of improvement pursued. Rory McIlroy used to write down his goals on the back of a boarding pass in January. Ko's goals aren't a number of wins but simple consistency. All of them are armed with ambition and cloaked in hope. By June, injury and bad form will start to erode optimism but for now the year is too young for scar tissue. Anything is still possible for everyone.

"If I didn't think I could win I shouldn't be out here," says the charming Angela Stanford. Of course, she clarifies, some weeks you think you can win more than other weeks. "There are weeks," explains Ko, "when you feel your swing is better and you can see lines better on the putting green."

March has just dawned and so much is new. Some have new clubs, some new coaches, some new caddies. Ko has all three. Cristie Kerr had knee surgery and for the first time in five years has a trainer. Park In Bee, who wears calmness like a cape, is returning from a thumb injury and is adapting to golf after her longest break from the game. No challenge presented by golf is ever the same.

Rhythm might not come, but bad days will. Swings awry. Bad bounces. Lip outs. Which is when they might think of Raymond Floyd, who said: "They call it golf because all of the other four-letter words were taken." But golfers don't play courses, they manage them. They put their heads down, first literally then figuratively.

Ko, in strife, always returns to her basics and might check her grip, which she says "is almost half the swing". Thompson says: "You have to stay positive. We're not perfect, we're human." Which is when she tells herself, "Ok, tomorrow is a new day".

But today will be someone's day. Maybe even week. For reasons sometimes unknown, every now and then golf becomes what you train for.

Easy.

"The hole looks this big when you're putting," says Ko, using her hands to signal a foot. "Every fairway you look like you can hit it, every pin you can go for." It's a divine place which amateurs read about and professionals very occasionally enter. The zone. "Nothing gets in your way," says Thompson, "and you don't get nervous."

Will someone get there this week? No one can say, so they keep sweating, grinding, swinging. All of them trying to get better, trying to play better, trying to finish better. All of them knowing that the HSBC Women's Champions is an excellent and inclusive title for a competition but really there's no plural in golf. On Sunday there will be only one champion.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 02, 2017, with the headline 'Golfing perfectionists caught in stoic struggle to be better'. Print Edition | Subscribe