By Clair Goodwin
Look into the eyes of fierce competitors and you’ll see the steely glint of determination or perhaps the focus that seems to block out everyone and everything.
That sounds good, but I can’t say that the fiercest competitors that I’ve known over the years set themselves apart with their Ray Floyd-like stares or special demeanor. They had confidence, but not swagger.
Fierce competitors are not those guys who get angry and throw clubs when they make bad swings or miss putts. They may occasionally display an emotion. But it is only for a fleeting moment. They know lingering anger can invite the suffocating malaise of negativity and doubt that can impact decision- making and the effectiveness of their swings.
My idea of the fierce competitor is the golfer who is still trying to make putts or chips on the 18th green even though he isn’t going to win.
The F.C. (fierce competitor) tries to blank out of his mind the ball hooked into the water or sliced into the rough. He puts aside such thoughts by the time he is ready to hit again.
Although he may or may not have a target score in mind, he does have an approach that will reduce his risks. He will rely on safe, predictable shots and will gamble on low-percentage shots only if the situation dictates a gamble. Everything is kept in the perspective of his goal.
My idea of the Fierce Competitor is Ben Hogan, who stayed so focused that he didn’t notice galleries as he walked down the fairway. Jack Nicklaus was the master of determining the strengths and weaknesses of courses and then exploiting them. He, too, wasn’t easily distracted.
Others on my Fierce Competitor list include Byron Nelson, Sam Snead, Bobby Jones, Gary Player, Billy Casper, Arnold Palmer, etc. Modern players I would put in that category include Rory McIlroy, Luke Donald and Tiger Woods.
Simply, put, you don’t win regularly on the PGA Tour — or on any tour, for that matter — if you can’t manage yourself and your swing.
The truth is that the Joplin area, with its popular and prestigious stroke-play tournaments, has developed a wealth of players who I consider Fierce Competitors. Just take a look at the roster of the winners of the Joplin Globe City Championship, Ozark Amateur, Twin Hills Invitational, Briarbrook Invitational and other individual events here and across the region.
That brings to me to my choice of fiercest competitor I ever saw around here — Barry Franks.
Barry had a good swing, but not a great one. His strengths were driving and chipping. He was long off the tee and didn’t miss a lot of fairways. If he missed a green, he usually got the ball up and down in two. There were other players who could hit the ball farther, who would hit more greens in regulation and who could putt as well or perhaps better.
But Franks never gave up. You couldn’t tell on the final hole of a tournament whether he was winning or losing by four shots. He was always grinding to make a chip or a putt.
I remember Barry playing in a money match at Twin Hills Golf and Country Club against a solid player who kept doubling the bet every time he lost a hole. His plan was to make the bet so large that Franks would buckle under the pressure. But he didn’t.
One of the top players in the area later told me: “Pressing a bet against Barry doesn’t work. He just focuses more and gets better.” It was an expensive lesson, I suspect, for the loser.
On another occasion, Franks was leading a tournament when he drove the ball off the fairway and into a grove of trees. I thought he would chip out sideways or perhaps lay up short of a small creek. But Barry brought out a 5-wood, swung easy through the rough and launched a perfect cut shot that caught the left edge of the green. He eventually won.
When I asked him about the shot over the water, he laughed and said something to the effect: “I knew I could hit it. Otherwise, I would have chipped out.” No fuss. No muss. Just the matter-of-fact words of the player I considered the ultimate Fierce Competitor.
I didn’t try to list all of those all of the Fierce Competitors I’ve known because I was afraid I would leave someone out. But here is a short list. I ask for forgiveness from anyone who should have been on it and wasn’t.
Consider: Bob Smith, Jim Hatfield, Terry Key, Dave Dennis, Dan Tourtelot, Odie Wilson, Robert Russell, Joe Borland, Gary Borland, John Inman, Glen Borland, Brian Black, Boyd Downey, Dennis Goettel, Mike Maier, Paul Ash, Marshall Smith Jr., Evan Wood and Kyle Long.
I apologize profusely if I haven’t mentioned someone who you, the reader, thinks should qualify. Sitting here looking at a computer screen late at night while rummaging through my brain trying to find a balance between quality players (of which there are plenty) and fierce competitors (of which there are fewer), I know that I haven’t considered everyone.
If you have a nominee, drop me a line.