JOHNS CREEK, Ga | On the back nine of Atlanta Athletic Club on Friday, Grant Waite, the former PGA Tour player from New Zealand who won the 1993 Kemper Open and the 1992 New Zealand Open and now coaches several LPGA Tour players including Patty Tavatanakit and Jennifer Song, took a break behind the 15th tee and said, “A lot of people think that you have to be aggressive to win major championships. But I can tell you that the two most conservative players in majors were Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. Jack would shoot the most boring 65 you’ve ever seen – fairways and greens, hit it in the middle and let other guys beat themselves. And Tiger looked aggressive. But he was always just trying to hit the percentage shot that the situation required. It was guys like Lanny Wadkins, who was the most aggressive player I’ve ever seen, and Greg Norman who were constantly firing at flags. I think if you compare records, you see which one the better way is to go.”
Waite wasn’t talking about any player in particular at this year’s KPMG Women’s PGA Championship. He was speaking generally. But his message about conservatism - the discipline to play away from certain flags, to pick targets that fight the hand and to take your medicine and get back in play when you get out of position – applies to everyone on the first page of the leaderboard heading into the weekend.
“I think it's building up a game plan prior to the week and identifying which holes are going to be center-of-the-green, two-putt and move on,” Lizette Salas said after firing her second consecutive round of 67 to enter the weekend at 10-under, one shot behind leader Nelly Korda. “I think accepting that in your game plan is good for me. And just kind of analyzing how I've been hitting it throughout the rounds and knowing what kind of pins I can go at (is key).
“On that back side (at the Highlands Course on Friday) we didn't really go at a lot of pins because I'm not the longest player out here. So I have to visualize a little bit more. But I understand my game right now and I know when to be aggressive and when to not be.”
Korda, who equaled the course record with a 9-under 63 which included a 7-birdie 29 on the front nine (her final nine on Friday), doesn’t think in terms of being disciplined or undisciplined. That’s because everything she does has a purpose and a plan.
“That's when you rely on your caddie and when you have a good caddie that kind of tells you and warns you in a sense, bud, this is not a good pin to go at, par is a good score out here,” Korda said after closing with six consecutive birdies.
Her biggest test of discipline will come on Saturday when she has to follow up a 63 with another good round. “That’s when you try to completely forget about it,” Korda said. “Like it's a clean slate, honestly. Just going out here and try to compete with the golf course, try to beat the golf course, and see what kind of monster it is that day.”
Celine Boutier, who shot 64 in the morning wave on Friday to climb to 7-under par for the week and enter the weekend tied for third with Cydney Clanton and Alena Sharp, has given the question of discipline a lot of thought.
“I like challenging courses,” the Frenchwoman said. “I think it makes the game a little bit more challenging for sure. But I think it definitely separates the better players from the rest. And I feel like you have to be a little bit more in the zone, like more focused and prepared. You have to be prepared, whether it's with your swing, but also strategy with your caddie and everything has to be in sync.
“I mean, especially when the course is difficult, I feel like some decisions can be tempting. But I feel like, because the course is so hard, you have to also be conservative at the same time. I feel like I've always been more on the conservative side.
“For example, even on (the par-5) 18 today, I kind of was really torn between going for (the green) or not. I had like a hybrid 3 (over water to the green). And I was really torn between going for it or laying up because that pin is a little bit tricker than you would think, like if you miss left or in the bunker behind, you're kind of screwed. So, it's not that easy, but my caddie, I think, is making me try to go for it more, be a little bit more aggressive when, obviously, he thinks it's good. In that case, he helped me be more confident and aggressive with the shot. I think it's a discussion with your caddie and yourself on what you're comfortable with doing and taking the responsibility for the shot if it's not going the way you want it to. At the end, just trust yourself on the decision.”
Trust and confidence win a lot of golf tournaments. But in majors, discipline is key. Just ask Tiger and Jack. And whoever wins the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship on Sunday.