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He Knew Secret of Survival

You know why I knew Nick Price was going to win the PGA, his second major tournament in a row?

Easy. Murray’s first law of tournament golf was at work.

Murray’s first law: “In every tournament, every player, including the eventual winner, especially the winner, will have one cold round, 18 holes in which the ball goes off the club erratically, takes unfortunate bounces, disobeys orders. Confidence ebbs, anxiety increases and the golfer feels he has been temporarily deserted by his talents. It is inevitable, inescapable.”

It works this way: The golfer might have a pattern of a hot round, another hot round, then a cold round, then a hot round. Or his rounds might be cold-hot-hot-hot. Or hot-cold-hot-hot. In any event, one round will be cold. Below par, maybe, but cold. You can take it to the bank.

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The trick is to keep your cold round from being catastrophic. The good, veteran players find a way to do this. They recognize the cold front approaching and set about to defang it.

Youngsters on the tour usually cannot find a way to do this. They do not understand what’s happening to them. They get badly rattled. They fight back. The more they struggle, the worse it gets for them.

Veterans know how to recognize the early signals of a cold round. They learn to live with it. They don’t fight it. They learn to head it off at the pass, so to speak. They humor it, romance it, soothe it.

Watch them some time. They see what is happening and stop trying to shoot 63s. They know that the trick is to turn a potential 80 into a 74. Or a 78 into a 73. Cut their losses. Defend themselves against the course, not attack it.

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It’s a high art. Inexperienced players don’t catch on. They misread the signals. They don’t know they’re bucking a pat hand with treys. They are like gamblers who double their bets to get even. Instead, they get deeper in the hole.

The great players know better. When the course starts to fight back, you need enormous patience. You have to resist chance-taking.

Young players disdain this. In 1956, when he was still an amateur, though a brilliant one, Ken Venturi had an eight-stroke lead over Jackie Burke going into the final round of the Masters. He couldn’t find a way to stave off a final-round 80. He fed it trying to counter it. Like a fighter throwing crazy rights, he left himself wide open to the course’s counterpunching. Burke made up nine shots and beat him by one.

When the dreaded cold-round 80 is beginning to descend on you, what you have to do is man your defenses. Don’t panic. Don’t throw good money after bad. Don’t try for miracle shots. Don’t call and raise when you don’t have the cards. As the song says, know when to fold ‘em. Don’t say “Hit me!” when you’ve got 18. Or maybe even 16.

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You can’t have a cold last round. You can have a cold first round. Ben Hogan won a U.S. Open in 1951 after opening with a 76. But Hogan never had a cold last round. Hale Irwin won an Open in 1979 with a final-round 75, but that was the highest final round in 30 years. And nobody has had one that high since.

I knew on Saturday that Nick Price was going to win the PGA when he turned his cold round into a par round. It was a lesson in the art of steering a potential wreck, say, a truck with the brakes gone safely into the garage.

It was a classic of cold-war golf. It was the third round and Price started the day with a five-shot lead.

But he missed eight fairways. You can’t do that in a major. Price knew it was his cold round.

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But he kept the wheels on. He didn’t ask more of the course than it was willing to give. He didn’t shoot the moon. He played the cards he was dealt that day.

Even when the opposition was chipping away steadily at his lead, Price didn’t get hysterical. He knows golf for the old strumpet she is. When she gets in one of her moods, she responds better to flattery than aggression. Price, in a sense, brought her flowers.

He managed to protect his score. It is the notion here that he turned a 75 or 76 into a respectable 70.

Now, what this did was change Sunday’s final round. Instead of Price going into that final round with no cushion, having to charge to catch his opposition, it was the opposition who had to play catch-up.

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If he had posted his 75--as he probably should have--it would have allowed his competitors to play safe, sure golf, confident golf. Instead, they had to go for broke. Take all the chances. They had to catch the leader. They had to fire at the pins, go boldly for the holes on the green, no lag putts. They had to risk three-putting. They were like guys playing with the rent money. And like all guys playing with the rent money, they lost.

Price had put his cold round behind him. Gotten it out of the way with his 70. He knew he was due for another hot round. He was. He shot 66 Sunday.

But it was not his 66--or his opening rounds of 65-67--that won Nick his second PGA. It was the 70 he salvaged on Saturday.

It was like crawling through enemy territory with your powder wet, your gun jammed, your sword rusty and one hand tied behind your back. Sometimes, to survive is to win. Sometimes, the best offense is a good defense. That’s why golf has a Price on its head today.

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