Of all the emotions Adam Scott feels on a golf course, fear is never one of them. Sure, nerves ramp up on the back nine of a Major championship Sunday when he’s in contention. But nothing on the course ever makes the Queenslander fear for his life.
That’s where surfing, his other passion, fills the void.
Scott recalls one occasion when he was surfing the famous Pipeline in Hawaii, a reef break on Oahu’s iconic North Shore. The waves were huge that day. But Scott had close friends and pro surfers Kelly Slater and Benji Weatherley to guide him.
“Kelly and Benji have taken me into some situations that are pretty uncomfortable,” Scott tells Australian Golf Digest as he shoots a smirk at Slater, the greatest surfer of all time, having just spent the day playing with him in the same group at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.
“Kelly kind of nudged me to swim out at Pipeline one day. I think his comment was, ‘Come on, live a little.’ It was big (surf) out there, for me. But it was an opportunity to see Kelly come out of a Pipeline barrel like, right in my face. It was amazing.”
Slater, a record winner of 11 surfing world titles, has negotiated fear throughout his career. To deal with it, he applies a technique learned from his earliest mentor, Todd Chesser. Chesser was known as one of the greatest big wave surfers before tragically drowning in 1997 at a break on the North Shore called Outside Alligator’s – a break he founded. Chesser famously nurtured a group of gifted young surfers in the 1990s, which included Slater and Weatherley, who are known as the Momentum Generation. Their story was enshrined in a recent, namesake documentary on HBO.
“Todd was a friend of ours who devastatingly drowned in giant surf,” Slater tells Australian Golf Digest, as Scott listens intently. “He’d be out on the biggest days and when a 40-foot wave landed in front of him, he’d laugh. It’s a trick you can play on yourself. If you can laugh in a scary situation, it numbs the adrenaline and your heart won’t beat as fast. You can trick yourself.”
“It’s a trick you can play on yourself. If you can laugh in a scary situation, it numbs the adrenaline and your heart won’t beat as fast. You can trick yourself.” – Kelly Slater
Scott, who grew up an avid surfer on Queensland’s Sunshine and Gold coasts, has estimated he is the equivalent of a single-figure handicapper when surfing. That day at Pipeline, though, was probably akin to playing Bethpage Black off the tips during a US Open. “Apparently, I was meant to relax when I was taking bombs on the head and getting sent to the bottom of the ocean,” Scott laughs.
Fortune Favours The Brave
Scott, 38, will tee it up at Augusta National this month for his 18th consecutive Masters. He is still one of world golf’s premier ball-strikers. But since he won the 2013 Masters, several young stars have emerged to make winning seriously tough. Jordan Spieth, Brooks Koepka, Jon Rahm and Justin Thomas, to name just a few.
Scott knows he is going to have to take risks and play boldly if he wants to compete. He needs to use his supremely gifted long game to his advantage – and not just at Augusta.
Fortunately, he has been inspired to roll the dice more often courtesy of having a few surfing trips with Slater and Weatherley under his belt. Weatherley caddied for Slater at Pebble Beach and, randomly, for Scott at the 2014 Sony Open in Hawaii.
“Hanging out with Kelly is just a reminder that to be successful in golf, or any sport, you’ve got to enjoy those uncomfortable spots every now and then,” Scott opines. “You can’t expect to play it safe and perform at a high level; you need to be OK getting uncomfortable.”
“Hanging out with Kelly is just a reminder that to be successful in golf, or any sport, you’ve got to enjoy those uncomfortable spots every now and then,” – Adam Scott
Slater chimes in: “You’ve got to open yourself up to making a big mistake and, to add to that, I think playing the odds in golf and playing the odds in surfing are similar. In golf, you try to play the odds by hitting the middle of the green. In competitive surfing, you look for the waves that are going to give you consistent scores, but then there are these outlier waves you need to take chances on.”
Slater may be the inspiration Scott needs at this point in his career. If Tiger Woods is an example of resilience, Slater is an example of sheer longevity. He still holds the record for youngest (aged 20, in 1992) and oldest (39, in 2011) to win surfing’s world title. “The greatest in various sports do things no one else really can, all the time,” Scott says. “And Kelly is still doing it, even though he’s… not to say he’s old but… ” Slater interjects, “I’m f—–g old,” before bursting into a fit of laughter.
Scott continues: “You watch him surf and it’s ridiculous. There are these rare phenomena in sport and I compare Kelly to Tiger in our sport for a while. Spending time around Kelly and also playing with Tiger, they’re both incredibly competitive. Kelly’s drive is unbelievable and there’s this thing within these champions that refuses to give in.”
Moving The Goalposts
It is getting harder and harder to win at Augusta National. Scott’s results show that, although he has handed in some respectable finishes since becoming the first Australian to don Augusta’s green jacket. He’s finished in the top-15 twice since 2013, with his best chance coming in 2017 when he began the final day three shots off the lead and eventually shared ninth place.
“It’s time to step up again at Augusta. I’ve not necessarily been in the thick of contention the past few years at the Masters, but I have played reasonably well,” Scott says.
In addition to the 20-something brigade, and resurgent veterans such as Justin Rose and Sergio Garcia, Augusta itself is getting tougher. This year, the notoriously difficult fifth hole has been stretched 40 yards and will now play at 495 yards with a 313-yard carry over the deathly bunkers on the left side of the fairway. However, that shouldn’t be a problem with 321 yards leading the average driving distance on the US PGA Tour so far this season.
The new fifth tee has been built across Old Berckmans Road, which has been closed to traffic since 2015. Elsewhere, Augusta National has purchased land from adjacent Augusta Country Club – close to Amen Corner – which will eventually allow a lengthening of the par-5 13th also by moving the tee back.
But Scott is very much capable of winning a second green jacket. He’s climbed back up the world rankings to No.31, helped in part by a runner-up at Torrey Pines and a seventh placing at Riviera Country Club this February. He is listed by Australian bookies as a creditable $36 chance to win the Masters.
“I think experience counts for a lot at Augusta; there is no secret why the past champions do so well around there,” Scott says. “I don’t know if I can be Freddie Couples, but I certainly feel capable of contending still at Augusta.”
Should Scott become just the 18th multiple winner of the Masters, there is no doubt Slater will be among the first to congratulate him. In 2013, Slater posted on Twitter when Scott downed Angel Cabrera in their playoff: “#AdamScott!!!!! #MastersChamp!!!! Love you, buddy. Congratulations. Way overdue but it’s the one to win. Time for a surf trip!?”
A Gifted Athlete
As Slater and Scott strolled along the fairway at the par-4 fourth hole at Spyglass Hill during the second round of the Pebble Beach Pro-Am, Scott convinced Slater to pry his eyes away from one of the best courses on tour – as if to remind Slater of his day job. With the ocean and eye-catching Seal Rock adjacent to the fourth hole, Scott pointed out some gigantic waves that were breaking in the distance. Slater looked eagerly at the ocean before continuing his walk down the fairway.
Slater is a low single-figure handicapper who rarely hits the ball offline, although he is not overly long off the tee. Years ago, he started a group among the pros on the World Surf League called the ‘Golf Geeks’. Among its members are Australians Stephanie Gilmore, Julian Wilson and Jake Paterson. On lay days at surfing tournaments, the group either play rounds of golf or watch PGA Tour coverage on TV.
“Golf Geeks is mostly Aussies,” laughs Slater. “Although we do have a French kid, Alain Riou. We’ve got Steph, Jake, Julian and Stephen Bell, who we call ‘Belly’, he’s an Aussie who has lived in France for 30 years. It’s a big diverse group of people from around the world who love to play golf.”
As 47-year-old Slater talks, it’s evident he is golf obsessed. He is a regular at the Pebble Beach Pro-Am and Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in Scotland, the two highest-profile celebrity golf tournaments on the planet.
“I started playing golf when I was 23, so I’ve been playing half my life,” Slater says. “My first round, I just went with a buddy to play one day and I hit one really good shot. I can still remember how it felt flush off the club, how I compressed the ball and how it went straight. I thought, That’s pretty cool, and I was addicted straight away. Now, it’s a lifelong passion.”
Naturally, Slater has made sure to play all the best courses in world golf. But he doesn’t have a clear favourite. “It’s so hard to pick one… but my top three? I’d say, St Andrews, Cypress Point and Pine Valley. “The course I most want to play that I haven’t is Tara Iti in New Zealand, but I’m playing it in March on the way to Australia. I’m so excited about that.”
But what attracts Slater to golf?
Scott says it could be that golf presents the same challenge surfing offers: that it can never be perfected, and so much is up to the elements and chance.
“That’s another similarity to golf,” Scott says. “There are so many variables. Mother Nature throws up ridiculous obstacles for surfers. They never know which wave is coming for them in a heat.”
Although Slater plays the celebrity-laden Pebble Beach Pro-Am regularly, Scott may be reconsidering it on his schedule going forward after a missed cut and a made-cut-did-not-finish in the past two years. The 2018 edition ended a long absence from the event for Scott.
But the pair soaked up what was a rare week-long opportunity to play together at a US PGA Tour event. “I hear it over and over. People say, ‘Adam has the most beautiful swing in golf’… and he does. Wait, that doesn’t sound very masculine, does it?” Slater laughs.
“But it is. Every time I see it, it never fails to impress me. Even on errant shots he stays so composed. I could learn a lot from his temperament and technique for my own golf game.”
Whether or not Scott contests the Pebble Beach Pro-Am again, he hopes playing with Slater has positive effects on his mental game as another Major championship season kicks off at the Masters.
“I’ve learned to embrace (Pebble Beach) and to play with Kelly is fun,” Scott says. “Of course, I’m trying to win, but it’s a nice way to spend a week because you never know when Kelly and my schedules will line up this perfectly again.”
“It’s fun for us to play with the pros; we’ve all looked up to Adam for a long time,” Slater adds. “It’s great to see the pros go about their business but, at the same time, this is an official tournament they’re trying to win. We don’t want to get in the way.”
Professionals playing in their own tournament alongside amateur partners. No other sport can offer that on its biggest stage.
“Well, it’d be pretty funny to throw a few amateurs out there in the waves during a heat alongside (Slater) at Pipeline… see what happens,” Scott says with a laugh.
Perhaps that is where the similarities between golf and surfing end.