Momentum is an ambiguous term that’s hard to qualify, but nevertheless is used liberally across sports to explain phenomena ranging from upset victories to epic collapses.
Ryan Spears and Peter Malnati finished the first round of the Digital Ally Open only one stroke apart, but their outlooks following the first 18 holes of play were polar opposites.
One smiled brightly with relief, while the other’s scowl teemed with frustration and disdain as he walked away from the final green with such brisk purpose you could almost describe his motion as a jog.
At the center of the discrepancy was the notion of momentum, and the circumstances surrounding how each man ended his round.
“I’ve had a couple discussions actually with my mental coach, and he’s trying to convince me that momentum is not a real thing; that it’s only in your head, it’s only perceived,” said Malnati, a Missouri grad who will throw out the first pitch at the Royals game Friday night.
“But if that’s the case, it’s a very powerful perception.”
Malnati described his first 18 holes at Nicklaus Golf Club at LionsGate in Overland Park, Kan., as “erratic,” but he shot 3 under on his final 9 holes after making the turn at even par.
He preserved that score on the final hole, getting up and down from the right side of the green to save par.
“I feel like that perception of momentum is in my favor right now, where as if you go out to a hot start but then stumble in, you probably go into the evening feeling kind of bad,” Malnati said.
“I definitely don’t feel good about the way I’m playing right now. It’s a little bit all over the place, it’s not very clean … but I’ll go into dinner tonight feeling good, ready to come out in the morning and play well.”
Spears, a Wichita State grad in his third full season on the Web.com Tour, finished his day at 4 under — one stroke ahead of Malnati — but his superior performance ironically shaded his outlook with a much more bitter hue.
He was visibly angry with himself after a 3-put bogey on his final hole, which he said stained his perception of the entire round.
“I felt like I actually lost a lot of ground on the leaders after that front 9. I was 5 under through 9, so it just doesn’t sit well,” Spears said. “It’s a momentum killer. I’m going to try not let it (affect me). I can’t.”
Perhaps a contributing factor is the pressure Spears feels as he currently occupies the 31st slot on the Tour’s money list, six spots out of earning an automatic PGA Tour card, with only four regular season events remaining.
It’s a feat that Spears, 29, has yet to accomplish, and one he says has assailed his psyche in previous tournaments.
“It’s probably caused some of the negative stuff that has happened over the weekend when I’ve been in contention, so I think honestly you’ve just got to continue doing what you do and it’ll take care of itself,” Spears said.
But that is easier said than done for a man who played the U.S. Open in 2009 right as he was turning pro, and six years later has yet to compete in his second PGA Tour event.
“I’m definitely itchy to get out there on the big stage,” Spears said of his aspirations. “It’s every person’s dream playing golf to go out and play on the PGA Tour.”
Malnati is second on the Web.com Tour money list and all but guaranteed to get back to the PGA Tour next season. He played 18 PGA Tour events in 2013, the first year he earned a card.
His position allowed him to be relaxed and speak highly of the leader after the opening round, Craig Barlow, who finished his bogey-free day with a 9-under 62 for the outright lead and a 6-shot advantage over Malnati.
“Craig is one of the nicest guys out here, I’m rooting for Craig,” Malnati said, adding a caveat. “But definitely my goal here is to win the golf tournament.
“I’ll start looking at the leaderboard Sunday afternoon.”