Today at work I periodically checked out the PGA Tour tournament on TV. The final round was being played, and there seven or eight players within 4 shots of the lead. For a while it looked like the tournament was up for grabs (excuse the cliche). As time passed and the players played the last few holes, any one watching the coverage could tell by the players' body language that they were extremely nervous. There weren't many "big" names at the top of the leaderboard, and most of the players who had a chance to win had either never won on the PGA Tour or hadn't won in quite a number of years. These players weren't accustomed to the pressure of playing the last few holes with a tournament on the line.
Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson are used to winning a lot of tournaments and playing under pressure because they are the best players in the world, which puts them in tight situations more than everyone else. However, even Tiger, the best golfer in the world with a history of never losing when he has a lead, feels the pressure on the last few holes of a golf tournament. He is amazing for what he can accomplish time after time in the heat of the competition.
The man who ended up on top today had a history of losing final round leads. He had faced his nerves on numerous occasions, and had never beaten them. However, today he faced his inner demons and watched as his competitors beat themselves. Luke Donald is a 26 year old Englishman who had won one tournament today, in a rain shortened 54 hole event in 2002. He had never won a 72 hole tournament. Last year he was leading a tournament with 5 holes to play. Tiger was lurking, and when Luke felt Tiger's presence he crumbled.
I've played a good amount of tournaments myself, and I'm no stranger to pressure. I have had more than my fair share of meltdowns over the last few holes. I have also played well and lost to someone who played better. The nervousness I have felt can't be compared to anything else. It's not fear of anything physical. You won't die or be punished. The pressure comes from within. Your hands get sweaty. You know that a mere fraction of an inche can be the difference between a great shot and a disastrous one. You want to do one of the toughest things in the world, which is make a little white ball go exactly where you need it to go. Any one who has ever played golf can tell you how difficult the game is even when you are just playing with your buddies, and the difficulty is increased tenfold when playing competetively.
I watched amazingly good golfers screw up easy golf shots today. It was crazy to see how the situation made such a difference in how these golfers played. It was nice to see one guy hold it all together and actually produce better than average golf to win. There is always a winner, but sometimes he is just the one who has screwed up the least. Nerves are nasty.