Feeding off each other can have positive, negative effects for pros

OLD WESTBURY, N.Y. -- Before the question is even finished, Rory McIlroy knowingly nods his head, his mind quickly racing toward an answer as if he's been waiting for this opportunity to opine.

The topic at hand is whether playing partners can affect a golfer's performance. McIlroy reels off a few examples without hesitation, just off the top of his head. There's the positive impact: At the event formerly known as the Deutsche Bank Championship two years ago, he and Chris Kirk fed off each other's momentum, posting matching 65s on Sunday and earning a late tee time together for a Monday final round that was won by Kirk.

There's the negative impact: During last year's third round of the Masters, when McIlroy played with Jordan Spieth and -- stressing this was an explanation, not an excuse -- said the slower pace of play affected his focus.

Then there was the 2011 Masters.

"When I played with Angel Cabrera on the last day," explained McIlroy, "he was almost too quick for me and [it was] almost like I started to rush. I'm a fast player, but the pace of play was almost too quick, to the point where we were waiting so much on the group ahead instead of me maybe just taking my time and walking a little slower in between shots."

McIlroy didn't need to finish the story. It's already written into major championship lore. Leading entering the back nine, he hooked a tee shot so far left on the 10th hole that his ball found a section of Augusta National many didn't even know existed. He finished in a share of 15th place that day. And yes, he's still searching for that elusive green jacket.

For the next four weeks, there will be no PGA Tour-recommended feature groupings, no random computer-generated pairings. Instead, players will be slotted together based on their FedEx Cup standing, starting with the top three of Hideki Matsuyama, Justin Thomas and Spieth, the last two being both the most recent major champions and close friends. None of which sound like such a big deal.

But it is. It affects these players. Just ask them.

"It shouldn't matter," Zach Johnson said. "It shouldn't, but it does. If someone is going strong, it can only help you. It can lead to you playing better golf, and vice versa."

He pauses for a moment, as if he's trying to rationalize how and why an individual player in an individual sport can incur a final score in part determined by other competitors standing near him on every tee box. Then he acquiesces, again. "I think it probably does," he admitted, "to some degree."

The reasons are numerous -- and they can both help and hurt.

It's a fairly frequent occurrence for playing partners to pull each other along. From the rhythm and tempo of a finessed swing to a putting stroke that continually finds the bottom of the cup, players insist there's a real phenomenon that rubs off on those in the same group.

"A lot of times, you see a guy holing putts and you start holing putts," Robert Streb explained. "It's funny how the putts can all be going in or none of them are going in. I don't really know why."

The latter scenario is a very real thing, as well. Misery loves company, as they say, and there are certainly times when an entire grouping struggles to get anything going.

"When you're playing with two guys who are playing poorly, you kind of get dragged back with it," said Geoff Ogilvy. "The mood goes wrong when everyone is playing bad. And negative energy is negative energy. It's like when you're all standing on the same tees and greens, that negative energy is around. That's not a personal thing. It's just a how people are playing."

It all recalls the unsubtle reminders of Gary Potter, the Kevin Nealon character from "Happy Gilmore."

You gotta rise above it. You gotta harness in the good energy, block out the bad. Harness. Energy. Block. Bad. Feel the flow, Happy. Feel it. It's circular. It's like a carousel. You pay the quarter, you get on the horse, it goes up and down, and around. It's circular. Circle, with the music, the flow. All good things.

That sounds easy, but life doesn't always imitate art.

"I was playing in a twosome with a player who's slow and we fell behind," Brendan Steele recalled. "We're walking off the 10th hole and he starts running ahead. Then he turns to me and yells for me to run down the fairway with him, so we can catch up. I'm like, 'No, I'm good. I'm not going to do that.' I played a really bad back nine. It wasn't his fault. I know they're going to put us on the clock, so why would I hurry? I don't take a long time to hit my shot, so I'm not going to run down the fairway like an idiot."

Ask most touring professionals and they'll usually insist that there are extremely beneficial playing partners and ... other guys. Which is to say, when players receive their early-week text messages revealing first- and second-round groupings, most will celebrate the positive discoveries, but won't grouse about potentially negative ones.

"I usually play well when I have a fun group, guys who I like," Pat Perez said before the opening round of The Northern Trust. "This week is going to be fun as s---. I've been playing against [Charley] Hoffman since I was 7. [Brian] Harman is cool as s---. We're going to have a great group."

Players often have favorite playing partners, but those fellow competitors aren't necessarily their best friends or those with which they have the most in common.

"I always play well with Bill Haas," said Harman. "He hits it so good, he just inspires me to hit it better. He's probably my favorite to play with."

"The best guys are Adam Scott or Charles Howell III, because they're good guys, they play quick, they hit great shots," Steele explained. "It's such an easy, comfortable pairing. You're going to see good things all day; they're going to be supportive of you, too. Everything just works out. That's my dream pairing, those two guys."

Paul Casey played with one of his dream partners in an ideal situation this year. In his threesome for the first two rounds of the Masters was past champion Fred Couples, who even at 57 years old, walks and plays and carries himself in his own unmistakable style.

"Just the way he flows around the golf course, his attitude, even the way he positioned the golf ball," Casey recalled. "I'm standing there going, 'Look how good this is.' He never got flustered. He embraced the crowd, as he always does. He missed in the right spots. He never got flustered. He just played great, wonderful golf. I was just in awe of everything he did and tried to emulate it. I was just watching him, thinking, 'This is beautiful.' He definitely helped me. It might be tough to measure it, but he played wonderful."

Since those two rounds, Casey has tried to emulate Couples even more.

"We've even said a few times," he recalled of conversations with caddie John McLaren, "let's go play Freddie golf."

Sometimes a playing partner's status in the game can help elevate the performance of those around him.

During his prime, Tiger Woods was often said to hold an intimidation factor over his opponents, but at least one player believes his mere presence spurred him on to better play.

"Every time I played with Tiger, I played well," Ogilvy said. "Don't know why. Well, I assume it's [because] you're more into it. You're more focused. There's so many people around. ... I think it's easier when you're in that Tiger-type circus when there's people everywhere, because it's just a general noise; and it's easier to block out 20,000 people than it is to block out two people, if that makes sense. You get that one marshal wandering around the green or you hear every little noise when you're kind of out there in a normal group. When you're in those groups, it's kind of like, you just get this big blur and it helps you focus.

"That's probably the biggest effect of playing with those big guys. That, and the fact that it's inspiring watching somebody do something that well. I think it's a pretty well-talked-about idea or concept that when you play with great swings and you play with great putters and great players, it just naturally kind of rubs off on you. You play with Ernie Els and by the end of the day, your rhythm is better. It happens. It's one of those phenomena. And usually great players have stuff that kind of rubs off on you, and you see how they go about it. It's just being in proximity of guys who are doing something as well as they are doing it at that time. It can't help but rub off on you."

Last year's Open Championship featured one of the greatest two-man duels in major championship history. Henrik Stenson shot 63 during the final round, besting playing partner Phil Mickelson by 2 strokes. He won with an overall score of 20 under, while Mickelson was 17 under; no other player was within double digits of them.

Looking back on that day, Stenson credits neither an uncommonly friendly pairing nor a burning desire to vanquish his foe. He does, though, believe that the pairing helped him earn his first major triumph.

It was a familiarity with Mickelson -- and with his game -- that Stenson thinks helped him the most that day.

"You can either pull each other along or you can hold each other back," he said. "I had played a lot of golf with Phil last year. We played together at The Players, the U.S. Open, the Masters and the British on the Sunday, so we were like every other week. Yeah, so I was quite familiar with his presence."

From pace of play to familiarity, from competing alongside legends of the game to attempting conversation with someone new, a professional golfer's playing partner can have either a beneficial or adverse impact on their mood, rhythm, tempo and yes, even their final score.

Most players are quick to say that their mental fortitude should be strong enough to keep them from being affected by the guys standing near them on tee boxes and fairways, but they also admit that it invariably has an effect on their performance.

As it turns out, Johnson said it best.

It shouldn't matter. But it does.