During one of their many legendary lessons, Tom Watson asked Byron Nelson about some technical aspect of the swing. Nelson smiled and said, “Son, there are two types of golfers: those who need to know a little and those who need to know it all. Which one do you think is easier?”
Watson, an eight-time major champion and the 11th winningest player in PGA Tour history, can’t remember what part of the swing he was questioning all those years ago. But he can recite Nelson’s answer word for word.
It’s a timeless message worth repeating. Golf is hard enough without overthinking. In fact, the thirst for knowledge can be a detriment, a corrosive agent that paralyzes instinct and browbeats talent and feel.
Which brings us to the latest first-time winner.
The LPGA Tour has few players more curious and better read than Madelene Sagstrom. As fluid and flawless as her golf swing appears, she is an even more gifted thinker, someone who can hold her own in conversations ranging from existential psychology to Southern American literature - quite a range for anyone, but throw in the fact that English is her second language and she has been playing professional golf since 2016, and this 27-year-old from Enköping, Sweden becomes off-the-charts impressive.
Sagstrom won her first LPGA Tour event, the inaugural Gainbridge LPGA at Boca Rio, later than most observers expected. She appeared in 2017 as a powerhouse, tall and long, with a golf swing that looked like flowing water. She hit high fades and made 10-footers like they were tap-ins. When Annika Sorenstam used one of her captain’s picks on Sagstrom for the 2017 European Solheim Cup team, few batted an eye, even though Sagstrom was a rookie. She had won three times on the Symetra Tour and was the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year during her tenure at Louisiana State University. Multiple wins seemed like a foregone conclusion. Sagstrom was Sweden’s next star. Everyone knew it.
But the wins didn’t come. She had four top-10s her rookie year but none the year after. In 2019, she missed nine cuts and failed to qualify for the fall Asia swing despite finishing tied for second at the Pure Silk Championship at Kingsmill and tied for ninth at the Meijer LPGA Classic. Sagstrom arrived in Boca Raton for the first full-field event of 2020 at 116th in the Rolex Rankings.
She knew why. She called them her “demons,” but most people recognize it as overthink – getting in your own way by failing to get out of your own head. Golf is a game of rhythm, feel, visualization and confidence. If you know the mathematical odds of making a much-needed 15-footer, or if you understand the biological reasons for your racing heart and shallow breath as you step in for a crucial shot, it’s hard to remain patient and let your natural talent shine.
“My whole goal today was to just go out and stay patient and do what I’d done the other days,” she said on Sunday afternoon with the trophy beside her. “I was, first of all, really proud. I had already won in my head today, not winning the tournament, but I had beaten my own demons, shooting 62 (on Friday) and following it up by a round of 67 (on Saturday), which is huge for me in general. And just being up the leaderboard and putting myself in that situation was a huge win for me. This (trophy) is just icing on the cake.
“We play on the biggest stage in golf. The best players in the world are out here. And everybody's so good. If you make a few mistakes, you miss some cuts. I have been very up and down these last three years. My first year was pretty good. But these last couple of years, I have really had to deal with my own emotions, my little demons in my head, my thoughts. I’ve had to figure out who am I, what kind of player I want to be, and how can I just get out the most potential that I have.
“I think I put a little too much pressure on myself last year. I wanted (to make the Solheim Cup) really badly. And I think I was just in the way of myself a little bit too much. I had a pretty long off season, so I’ve had a lot of time to work and prepare myself mentally for this.
“I have worked really hard over many years now, and I think that the biggest change or the biggest journey I’ve had is within myself and my mental game. Finishing second last year, I could really say, okay, I'm good enough to play out here, be in the top and potentially win. Now it's freeing that potential and getting it out there. Obviously I did this week.
“I mean, this is what we all dream about. This is what I have dreamed about my entire career, since I started playing golf. So it really hit me hard.”
Sagstrom laughed, she smiled, she talked, she relaxed, she played her own game all week and when it was all over she cried.
It might not be easy, but those who need to know it all can, indeed, win. And once they do, their talent and knowledge can take them a long, long way.