John Gaffney told his son numerous times over the years that golf someday would become easy. Billy would grow taller and stronger with age, but most importantly he would overcome the mental barriers of a sport that can drive the absolute best completely bonkers.
The elder Gaffney knew a thing or two about success. He was among the top amateurs in the region for years and passed along his passion for the game to his son. Billy listened to his father the best he could and kept the faith, but with the message remained a lingering question:
Billy earned a scholarship to Youngstown State and played in elite regional and national amateur tournaments with mixed results. He competed in golf's minor leagues while each facet of his game took turns working against him. He longed for the day in which everything came together.
"I was getting to the point where I was just sick of it," Billy Gaffney said via cell phone from Houston. "Yeah, I'm playing in tournaments and shooting even par or a couple under. It just wasn't fun. I was playing well but not well enough to make money. It was really agitating."
Last year, Gaffney, 24, began seeing Corrin Matthews, a mental-skills coach at Extraordinary Change in Buffalo. She used several methods that tapped into his subconscious and helped him get out of his own way. All along, he had the physical talent to go low, but he needed to clear the space between his ears.
Gaffney had no idea the therapy would – voila! – lead him to the best round anybody has ever played in the history of Brookfield Country Club in Clarence. Two weeks ago, after refurbishing his state of mind for a year, he shot 61 on his home course and shattered the record Ben Hogan held for 68 years.
Yes, that Ben Hogan.
"Our thoughts can run away with our abilities," Matthews said. "We do the kind of stuff that overrides without you knowing it's overriding it. You perform without thinking. Athletes have this thing called, 'being in The Zone.' They're not thinking. They're just focused. That's one of many things sports-mental coaching does."
Gaffney had a tendency to preserve solid rounds for fear they would slip away rather than remaining aggressive and allowing his talent to emerge. He prevented good rounds from becoming great rounds, leaving him on a maddening and crowded plateau with players who were good but never good enough.
Matthews extracted feelings of trepidation and doubt and replaced them with competitive spirit and confidence. In essence, she led him over a mental bridge that many never get a chance to cross. Never mind their names. There's a reason you wouldn't recognize them.
"It's hypnosis," Gaffney said. "I really don't know what happens. I remember what we talked about before the session – keeping the hammer down and don't get comfortable with being 4-under. Try to get to 6-under. You really have to not care were the ball goes. Hit it, find it and hit it again."
The funny thing about the ridiculous round, and perhaps the reason it happened, was that it came when it was least expected. Gaffney was running late for his tee time after a lesson with Crag Burn pro Mark Kirk. He hit fewer than 10 shots under Kirk's supervision. They talked mostly about the mental side of golf, often the toughest aspect to conquer.
You can find amateurs everywhere who can birdie any hole on the course, but only a select few have the capacity to keep it together over a full round. The players who best endure the grind and consistently perform at a high level are the ones you're watching on television.
Gaffney planned to play nine holes when he met his father after racing to East Aurora from Clarence. He headed straight for the tee, had little time to think before hitting his first drive and shot 31 on the front. He decided to stick around and see where the round took him, thus avoiding getting tackled by his father in the parking lot.
"I was going to stop," Gaffney said, "and then my dad said, 'Are you kidding me?' "
Billy sensed a special round coming when he made eagle on No. 13. He hammered a drive more than 360 yards and was almost pin high on the par-4 14th hole before making an easy birdie and moving to 8-under. He drained a 20-footer for eagle and was 10-under after the par-5 16th hole. He was in The Zone.
"The putts I was making, I knew I could make them," Gaffney said. "But I didn’t know I could make all of them."
On the par-4 finishing hole, he hit a 3-wood more than 300 yards off the tee and a wedge to 3 feet for an easy birdie, completing the 11-under par 61 and beating Hogan's record from the 1948 Western Open by three strokes. Everything had come together without warning, confirming it was in there – somewhere.
Finally, it clicked.
"It was a blessing to chase Mr. Hogan's record," Gaffney said. "It was something I always wanted to do. The hardest records to break usually stand for a long time. It feels good that it was Mr. Hogan, but it's a different game now than it was back then. It was definitely more difficult back then. We're not talking about the same game. But it is the record, and it feels really good. I hope someone beats it someday."
The next step for Gaffney is seeing where his new approach will take him. It wasn't as if one therapist would solve all problems and lead him to the PGA Tour. But the same kid who repeatedly failed to qualify for the Porter Cup played well enough in qualifying school to earn a spot on the Web.com Tour.
He's one step away from the PGA Tour and has been gathering up sponsors such as OnCore Golf and Artisan Golf to help him pay some $50,000 in expenses while living in Texas with relatives who supported him. He has leaned on Joran Meeks, a swing coach in Houston who also helped him manage the mental side.
Now that Gaffney knows he can reach a level previously beyond comprehension over a round, the challenge is keeping his game intact over a full tournament or a full summer. Golf is never easy, but lately it has come easier for him, as his father said it would. It's no longer a matter of when he would put everything together.
We know how low he can go.
The next question: How high can he go?
"I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself," Gaffney said. "I'm going to continue working really hard. I can definitely see myself competing at the highest level. It takes time and experience. It's something I obviously have to prove. It's not just something I can say. I know it's there. I know that it's coming. I just need to prove myself."