OK, truth be told, this is probably the most important thing on this list and the one that costs would-be AOYs the title most often. They can’t — or don’t — mitigate their damages.
No tournament angler wins all the time. We know that. It’s also true that no one makes a check in every event — though VanDam comes remarkably close. What truly separates the champs from the wannabes is damage control. When the best have a bad event, they finish 60th. When the rest bomb, they really struggle and finish near the bottom. The difference is everything.
To win AOY at the Elite level you don’t need to finish in the top 20 every time out. In fact, no one’s ever done that for a full season. Instead, you need to string together four or five very competent finishes, sprinkle in a couple of great events (including maybe a win that we’ll cover in a moment) and post only one performance that’s below average.
Of the seven eventual AOYs, the worst performance ever turned in during the season was 68th place at Douglas Lake by Brent Chapman in 2012. Iaconelli in 2006 and Reese in 2007 each had a tournament nearly as bad. Only Reese in 2009 and KVD in 2011 went the full AOY season without a finish worse than 56th, which is just outside the first cut.
When you mitigate disaster by making your worst finish something that’s not in the bottom third of the field, you keep the door closed for challengers who hope to jump in when you stumble. Statistically, this is the biggest difference between VanDam and the legion of anglers who post a season or two near the top of the AOY race. His “bad” tournaments really aren’t so bad. Their “bad” tournaments leave them muttering to themselves.
The real reason KVD has won so many AOY titles and challenges virtually every year is that his worst finish in any Elite event was 59th at Clear Lake in 2010. (He’s also the best of all-time, and that doesn’t hurt.) VanDam barely missed the cut in his worst tournament! Everyone else who has fished at least one full season in the Elites has a finish of 79th place or lower.
Some baseball minds I respect say the reason Ty Cobb won so many batting titles is because he never took an at-bat “off.” Even if his team was winning or losing by a dozen runs in the final inning, he went to the plate determined to get on base. He never stepped up there, took three quick swings and went back to the dugout, content that the at-bat didn't matter. They all matter. That's how he hit .366 for his career.
VanDam is like that. If he has a rare bad first day, rather than call the tournament a lost cause, he regroups, reassesses and redoubles his efforts for Day 2. Instead of letting a poor start spiral him into 85th place, he turns things around and moves up, often inside the cut and always into the range of a respectable finish. In terms of attitude, I’m convinced that’s what sets him apart from the rest of the field.