Monday 5 December 2016

Paul Kimmage Masters diary: Augusta hits boiling point for only shows in town

Published 12/04/2015 | 17:00

Rory McIlroy
Rory McIlroy

I asked Arnold if he was satisfied with his life. Arnold did not pause.

  • Go To

"Noooooooo!"

For one thing, he wasn't piloting his own airplane anymore. For another, he was playing tournament golf only in his dreams, and in those tournaments he never made it to the 72nd hole. Age had crept into his body and robbed him of his best moves. He didn't like it.

In the big picture, yes, he had led a rich life. He continued to lead a rich life. He had accomplished so much, in golf and in business. He had married twice and both times well. He had loving relationships with his two daughters. He had true friends and great wealth that did not trap him. He had a good appetite. His older grandson was trying to play his way to the tour and getting closer. But satisfied with his life as a day-to-day proposition? The truthful answer was no.

'Men in Green'

- Michael Bamberger

PÁdraig Harrington is standing in the hallway of a plush country home in the suburbs of Augusta, studying 'Ripple,' the latest golf ad from Nike on a mobile phone.

The scene where the little boy chases the ball around the living room and bashes it across the floor with a plastic driver . . .

Rory.

The scene where the boy is watching TV late one evening in a bar, as his father gathers empties and prepares to pull the shutters:

"How's he getting on?"

"He's four-under."

"What hole is he on?"

"The fourteenth."

Tiger.

The final scene where the boy has become a man and joined the man he has wanted to be all his life on the tee at a Major championship: the flashback to Rory's boyhood, his drive rocketing from the tee, the nod from Tiger - "Great shot" - before the camera fades to the clincher: Just do it.

Harrington smiles and hands me the phone. His flight from the Houston Open got in late the night before, he has laundry to sort and shopping to do - there's nothing in the house for breakfast - and an exciting return to the Masters on his mind.

"What do you think?" I ask.

He looks at me, vacantly: "About what?"

"The ad."

"Well, I'm sure there was plenty of dramatic licence used as there is with most of these things," he says.

"You're not impressed? You've nothing more to say about the Tiger and Rory show?"

"No, you're right there," he smiles. "This will be very much the Tiger and Rory show."

Monday, April 6:

'Is he here yet?'

Kyle, a nine-year-old boy from College Station in Texas, is standing with his father on the ninth tee. He's wearing a white baseball cap, a red polo shirt and cradling a small picture of his favourite golfer. He looks like the young Rory in the Nike ad, and shares the same dream; he'd like to be Tiger Woods.

It's been a long day on the golf course. They've followed Rory and Bubba and watched a bit of Jordan Spieth - a good Texas boy - but not the man they have come to see.

"Is he here yet?"

"No, Kyle."

"Is he here yet?"

"Not yet, son."

By 4.30, soiled and drained by the heat, it was time to accept defeat.

"We'll come back next year, Kyle," his father promised as they headed for the parking lot, but he knew that wasn't a given.

Would they get another ticket? Would Tiger still be around? He felt gutted for the boy.

And then, just as they reached the exit, they met scores of excited fans coming the other way and the word spread like wildfire:

"Tiger's on the course!"

The crowd following Woods was the biggest they had seen. They watched him hit a great wedge on three and a three-iron on four that drew a stupendous roar but it was hard to get close.

It was almost 6.0 when Woods reached the seventh green and they decided to push ahead to the ninth. The tee box was already starting to fill but Kyle wriggled between some legs to a brilliant vantage point.

Twenty minutes later, when Tiger strolled onto the tee, pulled a driver from his bag and stepped back to examine the fairway, Kyle's father's mind was racing . . .

'Go on Tiger.'

'Turn round.'

'That kid kneeling behind you on the rope idolises you!'

But Woods was in the zone.

He crunched a drive down the fairway, picked up the tee and tossed it absentmindedly to the right. It landed at Kyle's feet.

"Look Dad!" he beamed, running to his father. "It's Tiger's!"

It was hard to tell who was happier.

They followed Woods down the fairway and cheered him home, but for the scribes walking with them, it was the guy playing with Woods who fascinated most.

A year ago, Mark O'Meara had stood under the giant oak tree by the clubhouse and described their once-brotherly relationship in the following terms:

"I don't have a whole lot of communication with him, to be honest with you. I wish I could, I wish I did, but I don't. He's very secretive of what's going on.

"I send him a text and ask him how he's doing. Sometimes he doesn't respond and when he does respond he says, 'Yeah, the weather is fine or something'. It's just different now, is all I can say."

Now it was all fist-bumps and hugs.

What was going on?

Tuesday, April 7:

Business as usual

In his new book, Men in Green, Michael Bamberger presents some fascinating views of Tiger Woods from some legends of the game:

Gary Player: "I have heard Palmer, Nicklaus, and Watson all say the same thing, each in his own way: I wouldn't trade places with Tiger Woods for all the money in the world. Gary Player, too. 'Do I wish I had Tiger's access to private jets?' Player once said to me. 'Yes. Do I wish I could have played with his equipment? Yes. But would I trade any aspect of my career and life for his? No.'"

Ken Venturi: "Ken said he learned all he needed to know about Tiger Woods at the 1997 Masters. That was the tournament Woods won by 12 shots at age 21, playing in his first Major as a pro. It was all so unlikely. Woods' father grew up in a segregated country. His mother grew up in Thailand. To say the least, they were not country-clubbers.

"When Tiger holed out on 18 on Sunday, it was stirring. I was standing right there. 'He walked right by his mother on that eighteenth green and gave that hug to his father,' Ken told us. 'He showed no respect to his mother.'"

Arnold Palmer: "Tiger was somewhat of a robot golfer," Arnold said. "He was so endeared to his father and what his father had him doing that it is almost difficult to explain. I watched him practise at Isleworth when he was in the midst of it. As long as he stuck to the routine that his father had laid out for him he was going to succeed. Had he continued to do that, he probably could have established a record that would never have been broken.

"After his father died, and without getting into what happened and why it happened, Tiger got into other things. He went away from the routine and the work ethic that was so natural for him. It's happened before. It has something to do with the psychological effect of the game. If he doesn't try to go back to where he was five or six years ago, he will get worse instead of better. Could he go back to where he was? He could. Do I think he will? No."

Palmer's view is echoed by many in the game. Hank Haney coached Woods for six years and six Major wins. In the build-up to the Masters, he gave a long and interesting interview to Lawrence Donegan at ByTheMinSport.

"At this point he is 39 years old, he's had four knee operations, a back operation and I think (the question is not can he get back to No 1) but can he win again? Will he win again?" Haney said.

"Sam Snead's record and some pursuit of Jack Nicklaus's record would obviously be the hope. I don't think at 39 years old and with all the water that's gone under the bridge that it's realistic to think that he's going to supplant Rory McIlroy as the best player in the world."

Bamberger believes Woods will win again, but considers the real problem runs deeper. In a recent column for Sports Illustrated, he wrote: "The problem is not his changing swing patterns, and it is not his deactivated glutes. Those are symptoms . . . The problem is that Tiger Woods has had enough, and he doesn't know how to break the news to us, or to himself.

"He doesn't know how to break up with our expectations of who and what he should be. He doesn't know how to part ways with his spectacular past. The man's in a tough spot, his toughest yet. He doesn't have to find his swing. He has to find himself."

But where does he look?

It is shortly after one when the 111th-ranked golfer in the world enters the media centre. Sixteen players including McIlroy, Bubba Watson, Jordan Spieth and Phil Mickelson are to be interviewed before the tournament but for the first and only time the room is full.

"I'm excited to be back playing at this level," he smiles. "I feel like my game is finally ready to compete at this level, the highest level, and I'm excited to be here."

There are questions about his weight (he's thinner), his short game (it's back) and his caddie for the Par 3 contest (his two kids) but he isn't asked about O'Meara and what compelled him to reach out to his old friend for the first time in two years. He's selling calm and confidence and business as usual. "I prepare to win and expect to go and do that," he says.

But we're not buying.

WEDNESDAY, April 8:

How are you, Nick?

Woods: "I think it's anyone's choice whether they use the Internet or not. I refuse to go on and read what you all write, good or bad, whether you're friends of mine or not."

McIlroy: "It is such a big story, Tiger coming back to the Masters after a bit of a lengthy period where he has not been around. But I'm just here to play golf and you guys can write the stories, and I won't read them and we'll move on."

Nick Faldo walks off the driving range and rests his giant frame in a comfortable wooden chair. The lead analyst for CBS has spent an hour perusing the swings of Woods and McIlroy and is ready to share his thoughts.

"Have you seen the ad?" I inquire.

"I saw it this morning," he smiles.

"What did you think?"

"I thought his hero was Faldo," he laughs. "I thought he said he was Rory 'Faldo' McIlroy."

Eleven years ago, in February 2004, McIlroy was one of a dozen talented kids who travelled to Palm Springs in California for a special training camp with the six-time Major winner. A journalist was flown in to provide media training for the kids. It was my first time to interview a 14-year-old.

"Okay Rory, let's say that you're the favourite for the Masters and invited to speak to the media on the eve of the tournament. What's the one thing you don't say?"

I'd no idea the kid would be a superstar.

Neither did Nick.

"I remember we had Ollie Fisher and James Heath and Melissa Reid there," he says, "and I think Ollie was probably beating Rory at the time, so you didn't know. Then (three years later) we went up and played a practice round (before the Open) at Carnoustie.

"We're standing on the range and it's chucking down with rain and he puts his waterproofs on and stood up. I can still see that swing in full waterproofs - whooooosh! I thought, 'Cor blimey that was all right!' And I wimped out because it was chucking it down but he went and played 18.

"I've seen a few special swings over the years but that one sticks out . . . that rhythm, fully kitted-out in soaking waterproofs! And now he has taken it on to a new level."

"What about the pressure?" I ask. "He has arrived here as the world No 1 and the man to beat. Do you think he is coping with that?"

"He's fine, because when you're playing good it's fine. We bumped into him in the gym at our place this morning and he was doing his warm-ups and his routine and he has his game plan. And he talks to you, he's nice. He was hitting balls yesterday and I was watching but respecting his space and he was chatting away: 'How are you, Nick? What have you been doing?' And it shows he is comfortable in himself and in this environment.

"He is trying to do something amazing and there's a sense - and I think this also applies to (Jordan) Spieth - that he's going to get there. It may not happen this week but there's a sense that he's going to learn from every mistake. Because he's going to make them."

But what if he was cursed?

THuRsday, April 9:

How well can I chip?

David Duval, the former British Open champion and world No 1, knows better than most how it feels to lose your game. "When you have battled some demons," he says, "it's easy to grab a club and a ball on the range. The longest thing is that walk to the first tee. You have to expose yourself to that, take it head on."

It is just after 1.30 when Tiger Woods leaves the driving range. He jumps into a buggy, dips into the clubhouse and strides towards the putting green with almost every eye on the golf course trained to his shoulders. Two months have passed since his embarrassing performance and withdrawal at Torrey Pines and the stakes have never been higher.

"He has gone from total global dominance of the game to wondering, 'How well can I chip?'" Faldo says. "It's an unbelievable story. We don't know what's going to unfold."

His face looks taut and strained as he steps onto the tee to gentle applause. This could be a meltdown. He could be humiliated. We don't want to see that. We can't look away.

FRIday, April 10:

The wrath of the gods

The Sports Illustrated writer, Alan Shipnuck, wrote a brilliant piece recently about Rory McIlroy's strange relationship - one top-15 finish from six starts - with the Masters, the Major championship best suited to his talent.

"It began," he writes, "with his debut in 2009, when as a 19-year-old playing in his first Major as a pro, he left a shot in the greenside bunker on his final hole of the second round. In a fit of pique he either did or did not kick the sand, which should or should not have been a two-stroke penalty.

"After McIlroy signed for a 73 that allowed him to make a cut on the number, a controversy erupted as to whether he should have been dinged for 'testing' the condition of the sand. Smoothing a footprint is not considered testing the sand, but kicking it is.

"On the morning of the third round McIlroy was summoned to a meeting with Fred Ridley, the chairman of the Masters competition committee, who four years later would give Tiger Woods a controversial pardon for a questionable drop.

"McIlroy explained himself thus: 'I did a little smoothing of the sand . . . I might have done it a little vicious, a little vigorously, but that was my intent (to smooth the sand). It wasn't my intent to test the sand." Not exactly Judge Roy Bean, Ridley bought the explanation, saving McIlroy the ignominy of being disqualified for signing an incorrect scorecard.

"If you find yourself chatting with certain blue-blooded USGA types at a cocktail party, in a moment of candour they might opine that McIlroy's explanation strained credulity and that by clinging to it, he forever invited the wrath of the golf gods."

A growl of thunder rolls across the pines as he walks to the 15th tee. Rory McIlroy trails the leader, Jordan Spieth, by 15 shots and is flirting with the cut. This was not in his boyhood dreams. On Sunday, he felt primed and ready to play, when he left home in Florida and arrived at Magnolia Lane but the bounce has been seeping from his stride the moment he drove through the gates.

"The Masters does funny things to people," Johnny Miller, a three-time runner-up, said recently. "Some guys get Augusta fever. I know I did. It's such a sweet tournament, the course is so thrilling, the setting just reeks of golf history and once you get a taste of being in contention it can drive you nuts. It doesn't allow you to play your normal, comfortable game, because you want it too much."

Was that it? Was he suffering from Augusta fever or being cursed by the wrath of the gods?

He pulls the driver from the bag and watches his playing partners, Phil Mickelson and Ryan Moore hit from the tee. Phil's starting to roll and has drawn a boisterous crowd. "Yeah Rors! Show them where you live babe!" a fan cries as McIlroy stripes his drive.

But this doesn't feel like home.

A two-putt birdie on 15 moves him back to level-par; a chip-in on 17 and a birdie to close sets the pulses racing again but he looks a beaten man when he signs his card and joins us from the recorders hut. "I was standing on that tenth tee, three-over par for the tournament and just trying to get myself into the weekend, so to shoot five-under on that back nine makes me feel a bit better about myself."

He tried and failed to explain what had gone wrong. Was it burden of expectation, we prompted?

"No, not at all," he insisted. "I can't put any of the bad shots I hit out there over the last couple of days down to what it would mean (to win) or what I was playing for (a career Grand Slam). I'm just trying to play the best golf I possibly can."

We asked about his rivalry last year with Rickie Fowler. Was Jordan Spieth the rival now? But the disappointment was starting to choke him.

"Me and anyone at the minute would be nice," he smiled.

Saturday, April 11:

A funny old game

It is almost 2.0 when Graeme McDowell arrives on the 12th tee and glances at the giant scoreboard behind the 11th green. The leaders haven't gone out yet and the top of the board is unchanged . . .

Spieth (-14)

Hoffman (-9)

Rose (-7)

Johnson D. (-7)

Casey (-7)

Mickelson (-6)

. . . But the addition of a new challenger has provoked a roar of incredulity from the crowd behind the tee: Tiger Woods has posted three successive birdies and moved to -5.

Things they said about him this week:

"Asshole! He's trying to pretend there's just the two of them on the course." (Practice round, Monday)

"Mentally he hasn't been in a good place for a while. Maybe he is human! (First tee, Thursday)

"What's it going to be today? His release patterns or his glutes?" (Third fairway, Thursday)

"Let's see if he really has the yips." (Third green, Thursday.)

"He is nowhere near the best player in the world any more." (15th tee, Thursday)

"Lyndsey (his girlfriend, Lyndsey Vonn) must have wrapped a leg around him last night." (12th tee, Saturday)

Things he said that we didn't believe:

"I'm excited to be competing again and really looking forward to play." (Interview, Tuesday)

"I worked my ass off . . . People would never understand how much work I put into it to come back and do this again. (Interview, Tuesday)

"My greatest motivation? Winning. I like it." (Interview, Tuesday)

"My putting held me back today. We had trouble with the speed of the greens." (Interview, Thursday)

"I told you guys on Tuesday, I was at a pretty low one in my career, but to basically change an entire pattern like that and put it in a position where I can compete in a major championship like this is something I'm very proud." (Interview, Friday)

"I'm still right there. I'm 12 back, but there's not a lot of guys ahead of me. And with 36 holes here to go, anything can happen, you know. '96 proved that." (Interview, Friday)

Maybe the practice round with O'Meara and the hugging on the range and the outing (the Par 3 contest) with his kids had unlocked something inside him. Maybe the banter with Sergio and the smiles for the media and the autographs for the fans had made him feel like a normal human being. Maybe Bamberger was right. Maybe he had found more than his game.

Sunday Indo Sport

Read More

Promoted articles

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport