Following the second round at this weekend's HSBC Women's Champions, Katie Futcher commented on the playing style of friend Angela Stanford after joining her in the lead.
Futcher said Stanford, who won the tournament out of a four-way playoff, is "probably the toughest competitor out here." She added that "you're not going to find anybody that's going to grind it out harder than Angela."
Those comments aren't unique. Lots of athletes are described as gritty, as grinders, as tough competitors, to the point where those words become cliche and overvalued. No professional athlete could get by on skill alone, just like no professional athlete could find success merely by having determination. In the vast sea of athlete commentary, those comments seem like just another wave.
But that doesn't mean they aren't true, and that's doesn't mean that mental toughness isn't a necessary component for success. Stanford's victory this weekend is evidence of that.
After taking a two-shot lead Thursday, Stanford managed to stay in front after the second and third rounds, along with Futcher and Jenny Shin. She was steady throughout those two rounds, with a combined five birdies and two bogeys. She didn't have a lot of energy during the second round, and couldn't settle into a rhythm during the third.
The rounds required patience, and Stanford managed to have it, even if it wasn't easy. But her greatest tests came during Sunday's final round.
She bogeyed the first hole to fall a step behind immediately, and trailed Shin for most of the round. She watched as world No. 1 Yani Tseng rose up to share first place with Shin, only to fall back down the leaderboard. Stanford had a birdie at 11 wiped out by a bogey at 12, but used a birdie at 15 to draw within a shot of Shin heading to the 18th hole.
"My caddie has been all over me lately about grinding it out," Stanford said. "And we talked about it last week when I didn't have a chance to win it, and he was like, 'Well, you might as well work on it, you know. Let's grind away.' And he just kept telling me [to] stay in it, stay in it. So really he deserves a lot of credit, because there was more than one time today I thought I was done."
Nothing came easy for Stanford during the first 17 holes, but everything changed with a storm that passed over the golf course, forcing play to be suspended for an hour and a half with just one hole left to play.
"To sit there and have to wait and you're just looking at it, I mean it's tough because you know it's only going to be three to five more shots," Stanford said.
In Stanford's case, it turned out to be five. She had a chance to win the tournament after a nervous Shin hit her tee shot into the woods, but missed a five-foot par putt. Stanford tapped in for bogey and entered the playoff. Stanford needed to summon more determination. She needed to grind some more.
Stanford said the 18th at the Tanah Merah Country Club has always been tough for her, so the playoff format - playing that hole repeatedly until a winner was decided - presented a challenge in itself.
But she made par on the first extra hole, when Shanshan Feng was eliminated. Stanford parred it again on the second playoff hole, when Na Yeon Choi was knocked out by a bogey. Then it was down to Stanford and Shin, again, playing the 18th for the fourth time that day. Shin missed a short putt for par, while Stanford knocked in her three-footer to win.
"It's not a hole somebody is going to birdie in a playoff. So, really, it becomes about hitting good shots and making pars and making sure you stay in it," Stanford said. "So that was kind of the thought process the rest of the way is just be the last one standing."
And after three playoff holes and three pars, Stanford was the only one left.
Futcher had said that she gives Stanford a hard time for not talking or smiling much during rounds. She chalked it up to Stanford's competitive nature and being "out there to kick everybody's butt."
It's not like Stanford was the only player who wanted to kick people's butts this weekend, and it's not like she was the only player to face mentally challenging situations. But when faced with those situations, Stanford managed to grind through them. And when it was all over, when she was holding the champion's trophy, she was definitely smiling.