LIVERMORE -- All professional golfers should be required to see their psychologist once a week. For their own protection.
If they still can't preserve their sanity, they might try a primal scream after each round. Or maybe a straitjacket. Or a visit with Dr. Phil.
For most of us hacks, golf is a diversion, a stroll interrupted by spasms of embarrassment and, every once in a while, a shot well-struck. Nothing more is expected if our ego doesn't get in the way.
For the Nationwide Tour warriors pounding out a living at this week's Livermore Valley Wine Country Championship, however, golf is the most dangerous four-letter word. They're prisoners, caged by a pursuit of perfection that cannot be achieved. They're all trying to climb to the PGA Tour, the next level. Many already have been there and back. In truth, they're chasing fame and fortune while speed-dialing their therapist.
Why? The difference between those who make it and those who don't is a lucky bounce, or one roll of the ball, or a mind-set that leans more toward "Hit it straight" over "Don't miss it."
Richard Johnson, the Nationwide's top money-winner in 2007, averaged 70.11 strokes per round. Atwater's Matt Hansen, 112th on the list last year, averaged 71.56. Today, Johnson plies his trade on the big stage while Hansen continues to slog in the game's Triple-A league.
The gap between them was only a swing and a half each day, which translates to virtually nothing, but, in golf, it's everything. Want to know why so many players lock their outward emotions into some secret compartment? Their zombie walk and 100-mile stare are used as their firewall, their only real protection against the golf goblins.
Those fancy clothes, wine booths, courtesy cars and spectacular scenery amount to a disguise. They provide cover for an often cruel sport, one where all the bleeding is internal.
And make no mistake, Hansen -- along with Modesto's Matt Bettencourt -- hemorrhaged their share at Wente Vineyards, the Nationwide's toughest course, in Thursday's opening round.
Hansen walked off the 18th green in a semi-trance. Four hours later, Bettencourt trudged toward the putting green after signing his scorecard. "Wore ... me ... out," he muttered to no one in particular.
Both put themselves in position for a good opening round. Both train-wrecked on the back nine for twin 74s (nine behind J.J. Killeen, who leads by one shot). Both looked like they needed to javelin-toss a gallery stake or perhaps fling a chair Bobby Knight-style. Both settled for a few cool-down putts because backstroking in the lake near the 18th green would have seemed, say, a bit over the top.
Bettencourt, laboring amid the long shadows late in the day, stood at even par through 13 holes, then unraveled by four-putting from 40 feet for a double-bogey 6 at the 13th. To his credit, he stabilized with pars on Wente's killer finishing holes.
"You've got to have amnesia. Forget about it. It's the best way to put it," he said later. "Tough to shoot under par with two three-putts and a four-putt."
Four hours earlier, Hansen bounced through the middle of his day in good spirits. He stood at 2-under through 13 holes on a course where journeyman Omar Uresti won at even par last year.
Then came a slow leak leading to a dam-break. Bogeys at 14 and 17 brought Hansen to the 469-yard 18th -- the tour's third most difficult hole in 2007 -- and Hansen attacked with a 4-iron second shot from about 200 yards.
His plan called for a low trajectory into the right-to-left wind, with the ball dying safely to the left of the flagstick. Instead, his ball cut higher than expected, defying the breeze and heading toward the pond on the right.
Splash. Double bogey. A promising round scuttled.
Afterward, Dr. Glen Albaugh of Stockton, Hansen's psychologist, tugged softly at his client's shirt. Few words were exchanged. No words could have salved the player's wound.
"Played good for 16 holes, didn't really make any putts, and then 17 and 18 happened," Hansen allowed. He appeared shaken, as if someone had just sideswiped his car.
"It's golf. That's the way it is."
Here in the land of rueful smiles and gallows humor, that's often the most plausible explanation -- it's just golf. One moment, you're waving to galleries and pulling holed birdie putts from the cup. The next, about 50 guys lap you on the leaderboard.
Playing partner Paul Stankowski, a two-time winner on the PGA Tour who still spends most of his time on the big circuit thanks to a medical exemption, understood Hansen's plight. The 15-year veteran, healthy for the first time since 2002, has fought on golf's front line since his prime in the mid-'90s. He spoke patiently about long battles with confidence following his 17-par, one-bogey 73.
"There is no magic or secret. There is no code that you have to follow. You just have to let it happen. If you've got the game, you'll make it," Stankowski said. "If you look at your career as a whole, you're going to have bad stretches of holes and bad weeks. If you're devastated by a ball in the water, your dinner is not going to taste great but it shouldn't go anywhere beyond that."
Then again, a primal scream never hurts.
Bee sports columnist Ron Agostini can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2302.