Bruce Frankel

Author of the new book "What Should I Do with the Rest of My Life? True Stories of Finding Success, Passion, and New Meaning in the Second Half of Life."

Where Did Watson’s Touch Go At The Masters Tournament?

April 10, 2010

Quips about bad backs, replacement hips, and AARP golf pros abounded at the Masters Tournament in Augusta Georgia yesterday after veteran golfers Tom Watson, Fred Couples and others struggled through the second round.

With 60-year-old Watson grimacing his weathered face as he stumbled through five bogeys, golf writers defaulted to blaming age. And as Couples, 50, winced and gripped his back as he fell from the leader board perhaps that was understandable. But Watson’s own words after he fell to three strokes off the lead and struggled to make the cut, point to a failure that afflicts us all, regardless of age: human insconsistency.

“I didn’t chip the ball well and hit a couple of poor iron shots, and that was the difference between yesterday and today,” Watson said, Helen Ross reported at PGATOUR.COM. “Yesterday I chipped the ball beautifully, got the ball right up by the hole. Today the touch wasn’t there.”

Why? Where did it go?  Here’s the answer provided by Stanford University electrical engineers Krishna Shenoy and Mark Churchland, who posed the question why Boston Celtics legendary Larry Bird once made 71 consecutive free throws but missed the 72nd:


Stanford Study


Age, of course, may have little to do with it. The wind was up and the pin placements were more challenging. As a result, the scoring average rose for the field to 74.512, more than a stroke over the first round. Then, too, something even more fundamental may be at work: “The main reason you can’t move the same way each and every time, such as swinging a golf club, is that your brain can’t plan the swing the same way each time,” explained Krishna Shenoy, one of two Stanford University electrical engineers who studied the the phenomenon of inconsistency of movement in 2007.

“The nervous system was not designed to do the same thing over and over again,” added co-author Mark Churchland. ” The nervous system was designed to be flexible. You typically find yourself doing things you’ve never done before.”  Here’s their short video:


Focusing on the period of planning before a movement, the researchers designed a test in which monkeys would reach for a green dot or a red dot.  If green, they were trained to reach slowly for the dot; if red, to reach quickly.  By monitoring the areas of the monkeys’ brains through fMRI, they observed activity in the AON prior to the move and during the move. Over repeated trials, changes in reach speed were associated with changes in pre-movement activity.  So, instead of perfectly consistent reach times by the monkeys, they saw variation, like we might see when trying to throw strikes with a baseball many times in a row.  Their conclusion was that this planning activity in the brain does have an effect on the outcome of the activity.  Previously, research had focused only on breakdowns during the actual move and in the mechanics of muscles.  This study shows that the origin of the error may start earlier. (See Stanford University story @ http://news.stanford.edu/news/2007/january17/movement-011707.html)

As for Watson, he will no doubt be bathed in cheers in round three today as the patrons at the Master hope he can recover his touch and offer them hope by turning back the clock. After all, as Watson said, “They’re all my age.”  His strategy is simple: “Playing my butt off and not making the same mistakes as I did today, the same attitude today I had 37 years ago when I first played here.”

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