Tag Archives: Tiger Woods

Head Games

 

As Jack Nicklaus entered the final years of his playing career, he joked that he had become a “ceremonial golfer.” These days, he has fully realized that particular title, having become part of the triumvirate that fires off the opening shots at Augusta each year. The Golden Bear remained remarkably competitive well into his 50’s, particularly at the Masters, where he found himself on the first page of the leaderboard on Sunday several times. But despite the relative longevity of career that golf affords, physical and mental wear and tear eventually catch up with even the best players – particularly the latter.

 

At the height of their powers, Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Ben Hogan and Bobby Jones (all of whom were the best of their respective eras) were incredibly focused at their craft, and were so mentally tough that oftentimes they could pull off a tournament win without having their best game. One of Jones’s most memorable quotes cites the most important 6 inches in the game of golf is the space between a golfer’s ears. It’s also instructive to know that Jones retired from competitive golf at the age of 28, explaining that “(championship golf) is something like a cage. First you are expected to get into it and then you are expected to stay there. But of course, nobody can stay there.”

 

Hogan, of course, was ultimately done in by a combination of the aftereffects of a horrific automobile accident and a stupefying case of the putting yips. Woods’s is a story yet unfinished, but it’s pretty clear that since 2009, he’s fought an inward battle along with dealing with the physical ailments that have plagued him.

 

For most of us who play the game recreationally, if the word “tournament” is thrown into the mix, even on a course on which we regularly play, a nervousness [sometimes even a panic] sets in. Instead of the usual light-hearted banter and needling one generally hears on the practice range, there’s a grim silence punctuated only by shots of varying degree of quality and the occasional oath either muttered or bellowed. And this is just on the practice tee.

 

And then the round begins, and we are paired with guys with whom we are at least acquainted and oftentimes are good friends, but this is a tournament, dammit, we need to bear down! More often than not, this scenario results in shots that can only be defined as stupefying, turning otherwise decent, clear-thinking men or women into emotional mush.

 

I have to say that more often than not, I’ve been guilty of this. I’ve managed some decent tournament performances, and even have won a few, although I tend to think the reason for that was because the formats under which they were played were so convoluted that it was hard to know how I stood during the course of the completion, so I didn’t let that part of it enter my mind. Whereas in a straight-up stroke play competition, I was usually pretty much toast going into things.

 

The Golf Nerd Goddess has played in a number of two and four person team events, and has generally fared well. Recently, however, she decided (or was coerced, in her words) into our Women’s Golf Association’s Match Play event. The matches were seeded, with lower handicappers taking on higher handicappers in the first round. The GNG is in the latter group, so she wound up drawing the reigning Woman’s Club Champion in her first match, and was understandably concerned with this particular match-up.

I tried the usual pep talk – hey, you’re getting a lot of strokes; she’s going to be as nervous as you; it will be a good experience. Her circle of golf friends all told her “just go out and have fun” while also providing her with all sorts of advice on how to beat her opponent (which they all wanted her to do, as it would greatly improve their chances in the tournament). All of which did nothing to make her any less apprehensive. To make matters worse, her match was delayed a week due to heavy rains that came through the area.

We had gone out on the course a few times to prepare for the match, particularly from a mental aspect (those who know me would scoff at the thought of me playing the role of Sports Psychologist, and I would not blame them). Our main focus was to play one shot at a time and repeat the same routine each time. We seemed to be making some progress.

Match day arrived, and GNG was nervous (she had awakened me at about 2:30 AM that morning to tell me she couldn’t sleep and had mentally played all 18 holes. I had to laugh, as I’ve gone through that same ordeal). We went over to the club to warm up, and then met up with the WCC and her husband. At this point I should mention that all of us are friendly; we’ve play rounds and dined together previously. But this was a “tournament round.”

And it showed. Both ladies were nervous; I could tell that the GNG was playing much too quickly, but because of the “no advice” rule, I couldn’t really say anything to her about it. But she hit just enough really good shots (while the WCC hit just enough poor ones) so that they were even after nine holes.

Unfortunately, things unraveled for the GNG at the start of the back nine. Some bad shots, a (under any other circumstances) hilarious putting display by both players on 10, and a ball in the water on 12 suddenly put her three down. I felt horribly for her, figuring that she was broken.

I was wrong – a 50-foot putt on 13 halved that hole, and then another lengthy putt dropped for her on 14 to bring her back to two down with four holes to go. But a golden opportunity to close to within 1 went for naught, and the WCC closed her out on 16.

The ladies hugged and I kissed the GNG, who wore an expression somewhere between disappointment and relief. “You made her sweat,” I told her.

We had lunch, ran a few errands, and then settled in for the evening. We talked about the match over several glasses of wine; I stressed how proud I was of her for not quitting and that the experience would help her in the future. She had seemed to accept the outcome all right, and we decided to turn in early.

I turned on the TV; we climbed into bed – and suddenly she blurted out – “I could have won that match! She was nervous; she did not play her best! I SHOULD have won!”

I tried again to explain that this was a building block, that she’d be better prepared next time .

“I don’t care! I lost. I feel terrible. How can anybody think this is fun?”

For that, I had no answer. I’m sure Jack, Tiger, Ben and Bobby would be at a loss, as well.

 

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Sound and Fury

A favorite motion picture quote comes from Billy Murray, who in the film “Tootsie” plays Dustin Hoffman’s friend and roommate. When Hoffman’s character reveals his scheme in pursuing his transgender acting opportunity, Murray furrows his brow and remarks, “Ok, we’re getting into a weird area here.”

Such is the state of the PGA Tour these days. Dustin Johnson takes a “leave of absence” from the tour for personal and physical reasons.  Various media outlets report that Johnson has been suspended from the tour for cocaine use. The Tour denies that he has been suspended. Of course, the Tour, ever image-conscious, never announces any fines or suspensions for alleged misbehavior – although John Daly, bless his heart, was having none of that when he took a break back in 2008. “Oh, no, I was definitely suspended,” said Long John, who felt that he owned it to his fans and the public to be honest about his issues.

Other juicy tidbits have emerged regarding Johnson’s suspension, including 1) speculation that his previous absence from the Tour (officially attributed to injury) was in fact drug-related, and 2) a rumor that he was involved with another Tour player’s wife (say what you will about Tiger Woods, but at least he confined himself to porn stars and Denny’s waitresses).

I wish the Tour would be more transparent in these cases so that we are not left to conjecture (and whatever issues Johnson is facing, I would hope he can learn to deal with him), but there has always been a curious relationship among the Tour, its players, and the golf press, all buttressed, naturally, by corporate sponsors that drive tournament purses. Professional golf sells itself as a clean sport, where never is heard a discouraging word. On the flip side, golf “journalists” have largely played along, trading “access” for relatively tame questions of the players. Stepping outside these bounds can have consequences to those covering the game. When noted writer Charles Pierce dared to suggest in GQ back in 1997 that Woods, while regarded potentially the most talented player ever, was a normal 21 year old and not the second coming of Gandhi (as Woods’s father suggested in a Sports Illustrated article), he was accused of “ambush journalism” and was largely blamed for Woods’s guarded relationship with the press going forward.

Running parallel to this is the notion of Woods being chosen for the US Ryder Cup team (a team, by the way, that is seriously impacted by Johnson’s absence).  I’m still amazed that captain Tom Watson has not put this to rest. It’s apparent to everyone (save for 90% of golf commentators and ESPN) that Woods is nowhere near top form and that his back is still an issue. Yet the golf world collectively holds its breath – on Wednesday, the Golf Channel waited for him to show up at Valhalla, and 1) provided commentary on his health based on him opening the tailgate of his SUV and stretching on the bumper, and 2) analyzing his shots on the practice range.

Words is that Woods is “desperate” to be chosen for the Ryder Cup – although “desperate” might be the word that would be best applied to the various media outlets who will cover the event and that seem to go into withdrawal when there he is not in the field. But has anyone even bothered to look at Woods’s Ryder Cup record? First off, it’s below .500. Secondly, there is always major consternation as to who will partner with him, although the question should probably be, “Who the hell WANTS to partner with him,” given his record. Finally – since 1999, the US has won exactly one (1) Cup, in 2008. Guess who wasn’t on the team that year?

Meanwhile, Rory McIlroy (who Jack Nicklaus has officially hexed by stating that he should win ‘”15 to 20 majors”) waits in the wings with a chance to win his third tournament in a row (two of them being majors), with a bevy of young challengers waiting in the wings.  That should be the major story going into the PGA Championship this week. I don’t need to watch Tiger Woods practice, and if he chooses to play (and if he were to make the cut), I certainly don’t need to watch him hit another 290-plus shots.  If he truly wants to benefit golf (and himself), he needs to shut it down until he is ready to play again, and stop kidding himself and us.

Rory Revisited and Open Musings

[Originally posted July 21,2014]

Three years ago, after he had blown away the field at the US Open Congressional, I wrote a rather lengthy Facebook post that wondered if we were getting over-heated in our excitement over Rory McIlroy. As you may recall, his win came during the post-Tiger Scandal/First Tiger Injury era, when golf TV ratings had dropped dramatically. I suppose we were all anxious for the Next Big Thing in Golf to identify himself and I suggested that we all take a deep breath before proclaiming him The Next Big Thing in Golf.

[If you’re interested, here it is.]

After winning The Open Championship yesterday, McIlroy, now 25 years old, has won three of golf’s four major titles, which puts him in rarified air along with Mr. Woods and Mr. Nicklaus as being the youngest to do so. It has not always been the smoothest of rides. He left high-profile agent Chubby Chandler, flamed out again at the Masters, had a high-profile romance with Caroline Wozniacki that ended rather clumsily, and at times made statements that reminded us that, yes, he’s in his early 20’s and will say things that someone in his early 20’s will say.  At the same time, he had an awesome 2012 season, winning four times on tour (including another major rout at that year’s PGA Championship). 2013 was something of a dud, but after the breakup with Wozniacki earlier this year, he erased a seven shot deficit in the final round to beat out Thomas Bjorn to capture the European PGA Championship.

And then there was his performance in the Open, which was exhilarating – particularly the eagle/eagle finish on 16 and 18 on Saturday which effectively won the tournament for him. He drove the ball superbly, putted like a Zen master, and responded to his own hiccups and challenges from others admirably. Moreover, he was incredibly patient, not only on the course, but with a media that was obsessed with his recent spate of great Thursday/horrific Friday outings.

It’s a testimony to both Ricky Fowler and Sergio Garcia that they did their best over the weekend to try to make it close; Garcia, particularly. He has never been a favorite of mine; his whining over perceived injustices and outright jackassery on the course (spitting in the cup, kicking a microphone on the tee, throwing one of his shoes at spectators) have not been particularly endearing. But at Hoylake, he played with passion while eschewing the pouting. Even after the ill-fated bunker shot on the back 9 Sunday, he did not quit. And the way he embraced the applause of the spectators on the final hole was truly heartfelt. Maybe he has grown up. Or maybe he’s just someone who will always wear his heart on his sleeve. In any event, the thought of him winning a major no longer repulses me, which perhaps shows growth on both of our parts.

Fowler is no longer a golf clothing model – his work with Butch Harmon has begun to pay off; moreover, of all the contenders at the Open, he seemed to have the most fun. When McIlroy hugged his “mum” in celebration after play ended on Sunday, Fowler could be be seen smiling as he watched and walked by them in the background. Which is some you would never see Tiger Woods do.

Ah, yes – Tiger. Honestly, his issues on the course remain the same as they were prior to his injury; mainly, he can’t drive it consistently in the fairway. This point was driven home by the ESPN broadcasting team to a stupefying degree, primarily because we, the TV viewing audience, were allowed to witness the lion’s share of his 294 shots, which has to be some kind of record. A friend of mine said he felt somewhat sorry for Woods in this tournament. While I could not personally go that far, it was remarkable how quickly he deflated in his second round after a rocky start. He’s going through yet another swing change (one precipitated, no doubt, by injury), and at this point, even his most ardent supporters would have to say that he’s a mess (and please, let’s not get carried away by his opening round 69). He did meet with the media after each round, and for once did not mince words about his game or claim that he was “this close” to being the force he once was. He’s 38 years old, but not unlike Seve Ballesteros at a similar time of his career, it’s an old 38. Much is being made of the fact that Firestone and Valhalla, two of his favorite tracks, are upcoming. If he can’t hit it straight, he’s not going to win anywhere.

I find it amusing that articles are being written today about how Rory is “blocking” Tiger’s path to Nicklaus’s record of 18 professional major wins, when in actuality it’s a talented array of pursuers who could have the majors split among them. Justin Rose, Adam Scott, Bubba Watson and the criminally under-appreciated Martin Kaymer are all in or approaching their primes. Fowler is knocking on the door, and Jordan Spieth still can’t legally drink in most of the US. Phil Mickelson, Angel Cabrera, and Jim Furyk are all major champions in their 40’s who still have plenty of game left. Garcia might be more hungry than ever, and Henrik Stenson (if he can keep his emotions under control) has the game to be a major threat.

But Rory has the total package, has the most upside, and has seemed to have weathered the controversies in his life remarkably well for someone his age. He might not dominate like Tiger did, but he is the man. We might as well get used to it.