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Which Golfers Will Have a Nervous New Year?

Dermot Gilleece investigates

Posted Dec 29, 2010 by Dermot Gilleece

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Even at the height of his formidable powers, Vijay Singh would look with trepidation towards the start of a new year, wondering if he would ever win again.  This perennial sense of insecurity is, in fact, common to a lot of top-flight sportspeople as it is among their humble brethren some way down the pecking order.

 For instance, having recently completed his best-ever season on the European Tour, Peter Lawrie says: "I can fully understand those feelings, and they don't get any easier with the passing years. In my opening tournament of a new season, my dominant thought is to make enough money to retain my card as quickly as possible."

Lawrie went on: "Even with the exemption I got from winning the Spanish Open in 2008, I felt the same way.  I don't believe the anxiety will ever go away.  I don't believe I will ever feel secure.  I think I will always be conscious of having to maximise the opportunities that will come my way through any given season.  What the golf course and the tournament gives you.  And to try and have my card secure by April or May."

While it is perhaps easy to understand Lawrie's anxiety, associating these feelings with top-level players is a lot more difficult.  Yet I can think of four players in particular, who will face 2011 with a knot in their stomach. For different reasons, Tiger Woods, Lee Westwood, Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell will feel they have to battle hard to realise their ambitions.

Woods, of course, is the most intriguing of them.  Without a win since November 2009, he recently completed an extraordinary season of scandal, golfing uncertainty and plain failure, especially in tight situations.  Yet for all that, he still managed to secure fourth-place finishes in the US Masters and the US Open.

It was quite remarkable to see the one-time invincible Woods look tense and nervous while attempting to protect a comfortable lead down the stretch of the Chevron World Challenge in early December, in the company of Graeme McDowell.  And when he eventually lost after a play-off, his sense of resignation was palpable.

So can Woods win again?  More importantly, can he add to his Major haul of 14 and edge closer to his boyhood target of 18 which stands to the great Jack Nicklaus?  The truth is that it's hard to tell.  While his desire could become as strong as ever, there is the problem of facing rivals who no longer fear him, at any level.  Having seen him crumble down the stretch against YE Yang in the 2009 PGA Championship, they see no reason to believe that it won't happen again, especially after the events of 2010.

Meanwhile, from his lofty position as world number one, Westwood will be acutely aware of the urgent need to add a Major to his list of accomplishments.  Being close doesn't cut it, as they say.  Ironically, runner-up positions in the Masters and Open Championship in 2010 served only to highlight the absence of a breakthrough for the gifted Englishman.  It is a common belief that if a player goes close enough in the Majors, often enough, ultimate success is almost inevitable.  Players such as Doug Sanders and Christy O'Connor Snr, however, will testify that this isn't necessarily the case.

McIlroy's decision to relinquish his PGA Tour membership and concentrate his efforts this year on the European Tour, surprised many of his admirers.  But it's not difficult to understand.  The fact is that with only two tournament victories to his credit as a professional, the gifted 21-year-old has not won anywhere as frequently as you feel he should have done.   Though the 2009 Desert Classic and the 2010 Quail Hollow Championship were both splendid achievements, they look decidedly sparse on the McIlroy CV.  And he will be aware that it is easier to win in Europe than it is in the US.

Finally, McDowell will feel the need to consolidate his position among the world's elite.  This doesn't mean having to win another Major fairly quickly so as to emphasise the worth of his US Open triumph last June.  But given the fluctuations of the world rankings, it most certainly means getting into a challenging position at Augusta, Congressional, Royal St George's and in Atlanta, at some point over the four days.     

Winning is never easy.  And any player who feels a sense of entitlement in this context on the basis of career achievements, is in for a rude awakening.

- Derrmot Gilleece

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