Leader Blues

Friday, June 26, 2009

SPORTS >> Taming the beast as important as talent at U.S. Open

Leader sports editor

Over five days last week, professional golf once again proved itself to be the greatest spectator sport around.

If you donít like golf or have never played it, I fully respect your right not only to disagree with me, but to consider me a daft old blue-hair with an undetectable pulse who has probably never witnessed the spectacle of a NASCAR race.

Guilty on all charges.

There are people who will miss the births of their children to watch a soccer match on a 12-inch black and white TV and who will just as vehemently tell you their sport is king. I canít see it, but then, my blindness hardly negates their assertion. If so many people are that passionate about a thing, then I am happy to concede its worth. (The lone exception may be the fervor with which a couple of people at our paper defend heavy metal music)

Itís been said before but it bears repeating: In no other sport (bowling maybe?) is the battle solely with yourself. Tiger goes out and shoots a 64? Nothing you can do about it but try to shoot 63. It used to be that a golfer could stymie an opponent if his ball ended up between his opponentís ball and the hole but that was abolished in 1952. Now, itís just you against the course and yourself.

There is, of course, no bigger enemy than your own self-doubt, an animal which often remains caged and quiet in the early rounds of a major tournament, begins to grumble and rattle the bars along about Round 3 (if youíre still in contention), then lurches to break free of its chains on Sunday.

Everyone knows the beast is lurking, but it is something that mostly goes unacknowledged because NO ONE wants to admit to losing a battle of nerves within himself. I tried for a while to convince others that my incessant yips were not actually yips at all but merely the result of a faulty putting technique. But I too often betrayed myself by everything from offering large sums of money for gimmees to standing over two-foot putts while groups behind played through to actually laying down on the green and sobbing

That is why people who have played the game are so riveted by the late holes of a tight major. How do these guys hold up under the immense pressure, which is heightened, it seems to me, by the pall of silence that awaits each and every one of their shots?

As much as it sometimes seems so, you begin to realize these guys are not robots. When Ricky Barnes eagled the 4th hole in the third round to go five clear of the field, he was playing carefree, in-the-zone golf. He barely missed a 15-footer for birdie on the following hole. Barnes, who also parred the sixth hole, had made only one bogey over the first 40 holes of the tournament and had gone 30 holes without one.

Over the next 24 holes, Barnes bogeyed 12 times. Meaning he went from a 2.5 percent bogey rate to a 50 percent bogey rate.

What happened? The beast got free. You could see it not just in the numbers but in the swings he was making. His already quick, near-lunging swing got quicker and lungier. His putting suddenly began to look familiar. He was using my stroke!

Meanwhile, there was NBC analyst Johnny Miller speaking those words which shall never be spoken: choke, fold, nerves. You knew he would, and itís what makes him among the best sports analysts around. Itís also what makes him resented by many of the pampered pros.

I remember one time hearing CBS analyst Gary McCord say, in the heat of a Sunday battle, ďthese guys are throwing up all over their shoes out there.Ē

The eventual winner himself, Lucas Glover, began to collapse at precisely the same point as his playing partner Barnes began his implosion. Seven under after the 41st hole, Glover went bogey, double-bogey, bogey, though he did play a bogey-free back nine, which included three birdies.

But the final round included three bogeys on the front nine and another on 15 to put him 4-over for the day.

It is that succumbing to nerves that makes us at home recognize these guys for what they are Ė fallible humans. They may play a game, as Bobby Jones famously said of Jack Nicklaus, ďwith which I am not familiar,Ē but one thing we as fans can relate to is that urge to throw up on our shoes.

Glover, 71st-ranked player in the world, was suddenly faced not only with his own imploding game but with the looming spectacle of crowd darling Phil Mickelson roaring back to tie him with an eagle at 13.

Yet Glover managed to wrestle the animal back into its cage and hit the shot of his life on 16 and cashed in a birdie to give him the lead. There it remained over the final two holes, allowing Glover to make a six-foot par save on 17 and a tricky two-footer for the win on 18.

Yes, they may be playing a game with which we are not familiar. It is what is going on above their shoulders that we can relate to and what makes turning away from a final round at a major unthinkable.