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Fiddling With Technique

Michael Campbell struggles to regain form

Posted Nov 21, 2012 by Dermot Gilleece

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Just when it looked as if he was ready to win again, Michael Campbell crumbled under final-round pressure in the Hong Kong Open and slipped from a share of the lead after 54 holes to be eventually tied eighth behind Miguel Angel Jimenez.  In the process, he provided a further illustration of how difficult it is to return to the forefront of tournament golf having once scaled the heights as he did when winning the 2005 US Open at Pinehurst.

In that magical year, the New Zealander also became only the fourth player to complete a notable double by capturing the World Matchplay Championship at Wentworth.  That was his 12th international triumph, including eight victories on the European Tour.  He hasn’t won since.

Meanwhile, from the elevated position of number two on the Race to Dubai in 2005, he plummeted to 249th in 2009.  The following year was only slightly less painful with a final position of 244th and there was hardly cause for wild celebrations when he improved this to 181st, 12 months ago.

So what went wrong?  Statistics reveal that, almost predictably, his putting went from 1.77 per green hit in regulation in 2005 to 1.81 in 2011 and again this year.  This is a very significant regression for a tournament professional, but it tells only part of the Campbell story. “When you do what Michael did at Pinehurst, you must have something to follow on,” said Campbell’s long-time friend and admirer, Padraig Harrington, who has often credited the New Zealander with giving him the inspiration to make the breakthrough at Major level.

Harrington went on: “Michael saw the US Open as a platform from where he could step back, take time off and rebuild his swing.  The problem was that he finished up wanting to stay in bed for the year.  I know Michael and what he tried to do was go up a level from Major success and he ended up stepping too far into the technique of his game.  In the process, he allowed himself to be distracted from actually playing the game and by the time he realised what was happening, he was struggling simply to regain the normal form he had once taken for granted.”

Interestingly, Harrington made these observations while he, himself, was going through a similar process after winning three Majors in 14 months.  He, too, couldn’t resist fiddling with a technique which had brought him successive Open Championships and the 2008 PGA title at Oakland Hills.  Granted, he had resisted the temptation to view his first Major triumph as an end in itself, but the old flair continues to desert him.

The common observation on such happenings is that golf is a cruel game.  It is difficult, however, to feel much sympathy for Harrington or Campbell, given that they succeeded where most of their contemporaries will have failed, ie in capturing a Major championship.  At a time of year when some players have had to battle desperately to hold onto their card and thereby the means of making a living, we’re talking about elite competitors who have earned more money than they can reasonably spend in a lifetime.  

In this context, Campbell has amassed European earnings this season of €333,798 to be 77th on the European money list after 22 events.  But his tournament options next year will be seriously diminished by an extremely modest standing of 339th in the world rankings.

Still, things are looking a lot brighter than they did only 12 months ago.  Indeed only last month, he finished third behind Shane Lowry in the Portugal Masters and went on to pick up some useful cheques in the BMW Masters and in Hong Kong.  Completing the job, however, clearly remains a problem.  For evidence of this, one need look no further than a closing 72 in Hong Kong compared with a sparkling 65 from Jimenez.  It brought echoes for Campbell of a finishing 75 in the BMW International Open in Germany last June and a closing 78 in Malaysia, two months previously.     

But things are not nearly as bad as when he careered out of the world’s top-1,000. As he acknowledged in Hong Kong: “It is very important for me to grind out a score when I’m not playing so well.  And it’s also nice to be back in contention for events of this nature.”

Back in 2005, his proud homeland staged a welcome-home parade in Wellington for the newly-crowned US Open champion.  And while there seems little likelihood of the bunting being resurrected anytime soon, one suspects that Campbell will be pleased, simply to have stopped the rot.  

- Dermot Gilleece

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