WEST CALDWELL, NEW JERSEY | “It's very hard to be happy when you're not playing well.” Those words, uttered by German LPGA Tour winner Caroline Masson early at the Cognizant Founders Cup at Mountain Ridge Country Club struck a nerve with every golfer, man or woman, professional or amateur. Nothing fouls the rest of your day like a miserable round of golf. Food doesn’t taste as good; your interactions with others don’t seem as upbeat; even your dog avoids you. And those are the feelings of a person who beat it around their home club on a Saturday morning. Imagine if you make 10-footers for a living, if your paycheck every week depended on the little numbers on a scorecard the size of a hotdog wrapper.
Masson hasn’t had the best year inside the ropes. Before teeing off at Mountain Ridge, where she broke through with a runner-up finish to Jin Young Ko, the 32-year-old had six missed cuts and withdrawn from another event after the first round. She’d only had two top-10 finishes prior to this tournament. Her best week of the year before the Founders had come at the Marathon Classic where she finished tied for fifth. After that, she hit the airport for a whirlwind run. By October, her mind and body were as tattered as her passport.
“I think we all invest so much into golf from a very young age that it's very hard to say it doesn't really matter,” Masson said. “It's what we do most of the time and it's super important to us. But as I'm getting older, I have a really good balance in my life, which really helps. I mean, Jason (McDede, her fiancé who caddies for Nelly Korda) and we are hopefully getting married soon. We were supposed to be married already for about a year.”
COVID-19 put a stop to that. The couple live in Florida and Caroline’s family is in Germany. November is the first time they will be able to travel to see their daughter.
“A good personal life definitely helps me keep the balance,” Masson said. “I do have to remind myself all the time that a bad round of golf doesn't define me.”
Easier said than done. Golf requires such mental discipline that when things go sideways, it’s easy to chase bad rounds down a rabbit hole instead of remembering that you are a good friend, a good fiancé, a good daughter and a wonderful player.
Hopefully this week put a few of Masson’s demons to rest. She put up four rounds in the sixties on one of the most challenging courses of the year, a major-championship caliber test that had the entire field raving. Her seven-birdie, no-bogey 64 on Sunday was the round of the day in the worst conditions of the week. Rain peppered Mountain Ridge all day and temperatures peaked in the low 60s.
“You would think that I feel right at home being from Germany,” she said with a chuckle. “We have a lot of this (weather) at home. But I just had a really good mental approach today. Okay, we know it's going to be tough; it’s going to be raining. Take it shot by shot. I was really, really calm out there and didn't get ahead of myself. I think that was really the biggest thing. It's not so much how you hit it, it's more about embracing the situation.”
Then she got serious. Her face tightened with memories of the struggles she went through earlier in the year, especially at the Trust Golf Women’s Scottish Open, after the Olympics, before the Solheim Cup, and wedged between The Amundi Evian Championship and the AIG Women’s Open. That week in Scotland she withdrew to focus on her mental health. Then she put up a couple of miserable rounds at Carnoustie and flew home for a month of rest and mental reset.
“I had a really tough week at the Scottish Open, just mentally not in a good place,” she said. “I think (when that happens) you have two choices: You can either not say anything and just crawl in your little hole or you can actually be outspoken. I have had great response from (sharing my story). A lot of players, people in general reached out and said, ‘That was really cool that you did that and I'm proud of you.’ We've all been there or we're maybe there right now. I think the more we can talk about it, the more it'll help.
“It's just about accepting that (mental strain) is a real thing and that it can hit anybody. As mentally tough as we all are being out here, it can still affect you.”
The problems she described can’t be remedied with cold, pitiless numbers on a scorecard. They require something deeper and more profound, something that Masson is getting closer to finding.
“I can't tell you how big this is,” she said of her runner-up finish at the Founders. “It's been a little bit rough this summer. Honestly, mentally, it was a really, really tough stretch, probably the toughest of my career. So, to come back out and have a good week last week and feel like I'm getting really close - I know I'm pretty far away from winning this week score-wise, but (the game) was pretty close - it’s pretty amazing. I’ve just got to thank everybody on my team for being there for me.”