From Tour winner to not knowing where the ball is going, a lonely search for answers.

Fans invariably focus on the glamorous end of a leaderboard—triumphs, trophies—but stories are often no less compelling at the hardscrabble end of things, where blood vessels pop more often than flashbulbs. If there’s truth in the cliché that it’s lonely at the top, the bottom can be downright desolate.

While attention was trained on the WGC Dell Technologies Match Play in Austin, the PGA Tour’s foot soldiers—the best of the rest—were at the Corales Puntacana Championship in the Dominican Republic. In Thursday’s first round, Parker McLachlin teed off early in a strong wind and was 2-over par through eight holes.

“I felt like I was hanging in,” he told me Saturday morning from the bleachers of a Scottsdale ballpark, where he was watching his 8-year-old son’s season-opener.

On his 9th hole, No. 18 on the course, McLachlin thought his tee shot cleared the inlet to reach dry land. Finding it in the hazard, he returned to the tee. A poor second effort was wet and a rules official went back down the fairway to fetch another ball from his caddie. His third attempt started right, found the rocks, and rolled into the water. The official set off again. McLachlin made four with his fourth ball and signed for 10 on the hole, 87 on the day.

“It’s humiliating, to be honest,” he said. “The group behind is walking up and you’re firing ball after ball into the water.” Warming up before the second round, the recurring plantar fasciitis in his right foot flared, making it impossible to push to his left side. He WD’d, but won’t cite it as an excuse: “I played crappy before my foot started hurting.”

McLachlin was once good enough to win on the PGA Tour, claiming a seven-shot victory in the Reno-Tahoe Open in 2008. At 42, the memory is increasingly distant—he’s made just 5 cuts in 31 starts dating back to 2018—but still enough to sustain a belief that he can be that good again. A week before he went to the Dominican Republic, he played in Mexico. “I hit it the best I’ve ever hit it in my life,” he said. “Five-under through 10 without blinking an eye.”

His voice trailed off.

“I don’t know what I’m going to get from day to day. My swing was never the prettiest, but I just knew I was going to get the ball in the hole,” he finally said. “To go from that to not really knowing where the ball is going to go, and having that anxiety, makes for stressful rounds of golf.”

Day to day, McLachlin is now more teacher than competitor, thanks to a reputation for short-game wizardry. (In the final round of his win, he hit only one green in regulation on the front nine but shot even par.) He works with players from the PGA and LPGA tours and is much in demand for clinics. He concedes that teaching has replaced some of the pleasure taken by scorecards. “I get a sense of joy out of helping people,” he said.

Helping himself is an altogether different challenge.

The first of his three starts this year was at the Sony Open in his childhood hometown of Honolulu. On the morning of the first round, McLachlin woke at 3 a.m.

“The only thing I could see in my head was bad shot after bad shot. For the next two hours until my alarm went off, all I’m seeing is train wreck after train wreck,” he said. “It’s a weird place to be given it’s something I used to be really good at, that I do in front of thousands of people and TV cameras.”

He eventually shot 71-70 to miss the cut. “It makes me consider filling a flask with tequila before the round,” he admitted with a wry laugh. “I need a way to turn my brain off.”

Even for the world’s best golfers, the line between ecstasy and despair is perilously thin. McLachlin mentioned a tweet by Max Homa to the effect that every Tour player is one good swing from thinking he can win the Masters and one bad swing from retiring. “It’s always been the golf swing for me,” he said. “I would have belief in myself, but as I started to get more technical the belief in impact went away.”

McLachlin flew home Friday, discouraged but as yet undefeated. “It’s good to talk about, just get it out so it doesn’t fester,” he said. “There have been professionals who’ve dealt with this and amateurs who want to enjoy the game more. It’s something we can all commiserate with.”

Asked when his next tournament will be, he said, “No idea.” As a past champion, McLachlin can expect a handful of Tour starts each season, but with a young family and a thriving teaching business, the desire to chase Monday qualifiers and mini-tours isn’t there.

“I’ll probably get into one event this summer. Maybe I can get one thing to click and I’ll be as confident as I’ve ever been,” he said, with genuine optimism. “I don’t think it’s that far away. It’s not there currently, but it’s not that far away. It’s what all of us feel at the highest level.”

Published at Golfweek.com, March 26, 2022.

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