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Dermot Gilleece on Hogan, Woods and the upcoming Matchplay Championship
Posted Feb 23, 2009 by Dermot Gilleece
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With the comeback news of Tiger Woods breaking during the Northern Trust Open at Riviera CC, comparisons became inevitable with Ben Hogan's return from injury at the same venue in 1950. And if Hogan's performance is to become a yardstick, then the omens are decidedly good for Woods in the Accenture Match Play Championship, starting in Tucson on Wednesday.
In an horrific car crash on February 2nd 1949, Hogan sustained a double-fracture of the pelvis, a fractured collar-bone, a left ankle fracture, a chipped rib, and near-fatal blood clots. Simple survival was what his many admirers prayed for: a return to competitive golf seemed unthinkable.
Yet 11 months later, with his legs swathed in bandages from ankle to groin, Hogan battled bravely through four rounds of the Los Angeles Open. And he did it in some style, with rounds of 73,69,69,69 earning him a play-off with Sam Snead on 280. Mercifully for Hogan, the play-off was postponed until eight days later because of heavy rain, yet Snead still won by 72-76.
In June of that year, Hogan defied the odds once more to capture the US Open at Merion. This was the scene of a marvellous, one-iron approach to the 72nd green, which produced arguably the most ironic photograph in golfing history.
Now Woods is set to take another step on Hogan's illustrious path, having already won all four major championships - on three occasions. His absence has been for eight months and his injuries less severe, which probably explains the high level of expectation from his rivals this week.
From an Irish perspective, there are wonderful memories of 2000, when Darren Clarke scaled the heights by beating no fewer than six Ryder Cup players en route to the Accenture title. Even more impressive were his semi-final victory over then world number two, David Duval, followed by a stunning, 4 and 3 defeat of no less a figure than Woods, in the decider.
By way of preparing for La Costa, Clarke played Riviera where an opening 73 was followed by an equally dispiriting second round of 74, causing him to miss the cut by six strokes. All of which called for remedial action. When his manager, "Chubby" Chandler, offered the choice of going directly to La Costa or heading to Las Vegas for a coaching session with Butch Harmon, Clarke declined the bright lights. "I saw Butch only last week and I think I can do myself more good at La Costa," he said. "It means I'm going to get in a few extra days' practice."
At Riviera last Friday evening, Padraig Harrington considered his position after a second successive 72 left him three strokes outside the cut. As a gentle attempt at lifting his spirits, he was reminded of Clarke's experience in 2000. Ever the pragmatist, the Dubliner gave a wry smile. "Just because one player has done it, doesn't mean I can do it too," he said.
Just the same, he went on to take similar action to Clarke's, by heading down to Tucson on Saturday. There, along with a few extra days' practice, he has a planned meeting with psychologist, Dr Bob Rotella. Looking at a logo for Northern Trust, the sponsors at Riviera, Harrington murmured: "Trust. That's what I'm lacking at the moment." Which was another way of explaining the choice of Rotella over swing coach Bob Torrance at this time.
Though matchplay golf is more a reactive exercise than strokeplay, it generally demands a higher level of confidence. As Woods explained: "It's always more difficult to win a matchplay event because you can go out there and
shoot a great round of golf and somebody just out boatraces you. In medal play, the same thing can happen but you have three other days to make it up. That's the big difference."
The Great One added: "You always have to be on your game in matchplay. There have been days when I have shot six or seven under par and lost. But there are times when you go out there and you boatrace somebody and just blow them out of the water and you get done early. But matchplay is always a different type of animal because you know it's 18 holes and anything can happen."
Just as he experienced against Clarke at La Costa, this time nine years ago.