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A Tale of Three Golfers

Some Perspective on Tiger's Latest Failure

Posted Feb 15, 2012 by Dermot Gilleece

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While watching Tiger Woods collapse to a closing 75 in the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am on Sunday, the words of three very different golfers came to mind. And the sight of him three-putting the 72nd green in front of his fiercest rival, Phil Mickelson, emphasised the extent to which his strength of will has been crushed by events over the last 27 months.

In the wake of Woods’s victory in the Chevron Challenge before Christmas, rivals made diplomatic noises about how much they’d love to have him back.  And you wondered how sincere those comments were, especially from practitioners who knew just how formidable Woods could be.  It was equally interesting to note the comments after he was outgunned by the moderate Robert Rock in the final round at Abu Dhabi last month. 

After last Sunday, it may be appropriate to have another look at Padraig Harrington’s recent assessment of Woods. Regarding the way the erstwhile Great One’s confidence has been gravely undermined, Harrington said: “I thought he was harder, that he wouldn’t care what anybody thought.  It’s hit him emotionally a lot harder than I would have expected. You get the impression that because we are successful at golf, that makes us in some ways impervious to the realities of life. (But) I underestimated Tiger in many ways in that sense. I thought he would brush it off and come back out.”   

Harrington was referring to an extraordinary blunting of the Woods competitive edge.  It is a decline which must have hurt him grievously at Pebble Beach, not only because of the close proximity of Mickelson, but as the scene of his astonishing, 15-stroke triumph in the 2000 US Open.  No less a golf figure than Tom Watson, rated that as the greatest single achievement in the history of the game.

So I come to the words of the second of my three golfers.  About 80 years ago, the great Bobby Jones famously claimed that competitive golf is played mainly on a five-and-a-half-inch course:  the space between your ears.  One could imagine him nodding sagely at the problems Woods has faced in his game since an unscheduled altercation with a fire hydrant near his Orlando home in late November 2009.  Even for a player of his unquestioned dominance, the workings of the mind should never be under-estimated.

Which brings me to player number three.  While watching Woods hopelessly at sea as he grappled with a seriously ailing game during the most trying phase of his extended torment, CBS commentator David Feherty offered these deeply incisive words.  “There's nothing wrong with his golf swing and there hasn't been anything wrong with it since he was on the Mike Douglas Show at two-years-old," said Feherty. “Tiger's problems are mental right now.”

Feherty went on: “This is the most demoralizing stretch of his career. He's more worried about what might happen instead of what is happening. For the first time, he sees weakness in himself and strength in others."  Which is precisely what we saw in the body-language of himself and Mickelson as they came down the stretch together for a fifth time in a PGA Tour event.  And Leftie proceeded to make it five wins out of five by outscoring Woods by no fewer than 11 strokes on the day.

In the process, Mickelson set some very significant milestones.  This was his 40th PGA Tour victory and his fourth at Pebble Beach.  And it could hardly have been more appropriate given the events of 20 years ago.  That was when I happened to be present for Mickelson’s professional debut in the 1992 US Open at Pebble Beach.  And the indications were that it could turn out to be a sensational one, given an opening 68 which left him tied third, two strokes behind the leader, Gil Morgan, after the first round.

Even with caddie Jim Mackay by his side, however, on what would be the first of their 20 years together, Leftie came to grief on the second day with a crushing 81.  Improbably, it meant missing the cut by two strokes.  And when he returned there for the same event eight years later, he was tied 16th behind the rampant Woods.

Now, the change in their respective fortunes is difficult to fathom.  Unless one notes the wise words of some quite astute observers.

- Dermot Gilleece

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