Golf is the most individual of sports, and therefore among the most difficult. You have no team to turn to for an assist or a clutch play when you can’t come through. You can’t play defense on the other competitors. Your true opponents are the weather and the course architect; the former cannot hear our complaints and the latter does not care.
Consider the odds against even getting a chance to participate. In professional football, there are 1696 players on NFL active rosters, and another few hundred can be added to that count via injured reserve and other lists. There are 450 players in players in Major League Baseball, some of who earn millions of dollars for 5 minutes of work. There are about 450 players in the NBA, and a player who lasts just one year in the league is guaranteed a pay raise from a minimum of $470,000 to a minimum of $760,000.
On the PGA Tour, there are 125 slots available. That’s it and that’s all. Every other major sport has a subjective process of selection. A coach or scout or some other “expert” determines whether you have the right stuff; often the experts are spectacularly wrong. The selection process in golf is totally Darwinian; if you are better than the others competing then you survive. If not you die. And while you are likely to make more money than you ever have with one of those positions locked up, there are no guarantees and no minimums. You eat what you kill.
Given these factors, it is little wonder that PGA rookie Charlie Beljan was having panic attacks during this week’s Children’s Miracle Network Classic. It is surprising that more golfers haven’t had the same experience under the crushing pressure of trying to get inside that magic 125 number. No doubt that in the past we have seen extremes in human emotion from those who are at the cut line. There have been tears of joy and of despair. There has been club kissing, club throwing and club breaking. Delirious laughter and blank stares from players and caddies. The fact is that the pressure of the high-stakes competition takes an incredible toll on the winners and the losers.
Beljan’s performance will be recorded as his first victory on Tour, one that guarantees his place on the Tour for the next two years. But this win will be remembered by the golf community for years to come, because Beljan showed both sparkling talent, human vulnerability and the toughness that makes men successful no matter what their endeavor. Beljan said that during Friday’s second round he felt like he, “was going to die.” He endured what felt like a heart attack to shoot an 8-under 64, spent the night in the hospital and finished the last two rounds to win the event. The only comparable performances in golf that come to mind have come in U.S. Opens. There is Ben Hogan winning the 1950 Open despite being in constant pain from a car accident that nearly killed him a year before. In 1964, Ken Venturi played the final 18 holes with his body temperature at 106 degrees, defying the doctors and all reason to take the championship. In 2008, Tiger Woods clinched the championship by winning an 18-hole Monday playoff on a broken leg.
Charlie Beljan’s victory was not on so grand a stage as a major championship; indeed, odds are that he will never win or even get close to winning one of those coveted pieces of hardware. But this week, Beljan learned that if he ever gets to the place where talent meets opportunity and he is in the hunt, he will not quit. They say that pressure bursts pipes but it also makes diamonds. Charlie Beljan is, thankfully, living proof of that axiom. Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy may be the face of the game, but Charlie Beljan and the guys like him are its heart and its soul. And the next time anybody questions whether golfers are athletes, make sure that Beljan is a part of your argument for the affirmative.