Thursday 23 February 2017

Swinging the blues

Increasingly complex techniques make one-off horror shows inevitable

Karl MacGinty

'Golf can be a humbling game sometimes,' Graeme McDowell tweeted after firing an 80 last Thursday. Photo: Getty Images
'Golf can be a humbling game sometimes,' Graeme McDowell tweeted after firing an 80 last Thursday. Photo: Getty Images

He plays a game with which I am not familiar! The late, great Bobby Jones was first to utter those words in 1965 after watching Jack Nicklaus romp to victory in the Masters, smashing Ben Hogan's 12-year-old tournament scoring record in the process.

Thirty-two years later, an awestruck Nicklaus passed on precisely the same compliment to Tiger Woods in the wake of his mould-breaking first Major championship victory at Augusta National in 1997.

Conversely, it's tempting to suggest that during last Thursday's shocking first-round 80 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, Graeme McDowell played a game with which many of us are all too familiar.

Might we apply the same logic to the second-round 80 on Friday at the Open de Andalucia which ensured Shane Lowry would be free to spend the entire weekend practising in Malaga? The answer is a resounding no!

Because the modern elite professional golfer lives and performs on a knife-edge which even the greatest of their predecessors find difficult to comprehend.

Take McDowell, for example. This is the guy who stared down the best in the world as he strode to US Open victory at Pebble Beach. He clinched victory for Europe at the Ryder Cup. He clawed back the Tiger and saw him off in sudden death at the Chevron.

In between spectacular course record-equalling rounds on Sunday at the Hyundai in January and this month's Honda, the Ulsterman took four weeks off.

Astonishing

Okay, his swing had felt a little out of kilter since his return ... still, it was astonishing to see the world No 4 leave a trail of three-putts, nuts, bolts and mis-struck irons behind at Bay Hill last Thursday.

McDowell himself took it philosophically. "Golf can be a humbling game sometimes but that's part of its intrigue," he tweeted on Thursday evening. "The second you start taking anything for granted, it bites you."

No question about that.

Yet when it comes to players of the calibre of McDowell and Lowry or Woods and Padraig Harrington, a lot more is going on besides.

In this age of hi-tech 3-D computer imaging, super slow-motion and micro-analysis, the elite player's golf game has become as highly-tuned as a Formula 1 racing engine.

And as the margin between success and failure shrinks to near-microscopic proportions, it's just as temperamental. If the timing is even slightly off, the engine will stop dead or fail spectacularly.

It was fascinating last week to hear tournament host Arnie Palmer express bewilderment at the decision of Woods to embark on yet another lengthy change of direction with his swing, this time with Canadian coach Sean Foley.

And when asked about the growing influence of swing coaches on Tour, he said: "I know the swing coaches, some of them, and I certainly don't want to step on their toes, because if that's what the people want, a swing coach, that's fine.

"My father was my swing coach, and I saw him at least once a year for about 70 years and he never changed anything. He watched me for five minutes and went home," Palmer continued with a smile. "It's like he put my grip on the club and my hands on the golf club when I was six years old and he said, 'Boy, don't you ever change it'.

"Well I haven't changed it ... and I'm 82 years old."

Most amateur golfers can relate to that. The vast majority of us are happy to find a low reliable swing that still will be there or thereabouts every time you go to the garage and blow the dust off the golf clubs.

We're happy to turn the key in the family saloon and hear it tick over contentedly. Yet if you're lucky enough to have a high-performance golf game and want to push it to the limit on the professional fairways, you'll need someone with all the right spanners to keep it tuned -- a good swing coach.

The downside of all of today's modern technology and computer diagnostics is that it makes an essentially simple game seem infinitely more complex and gives obsessive individuals like Woods and Harrington the opportunity to indulge themselves, often to their detriment.

In turn, slow-motion analysis of the game has become so infernally precise that players are under increasing pressure to swing with sterile perfection. Little wonder they sometimes end up as highly-strung as thoroughbred stallions.

With every hole they play subjected to instant global scrutiny, McDowell and Co are vastly more exposed to the shock-horror media response evoked by a round like last Thursday's. How plaintive this tweet from Lowry last Friday: "Have to park myself on the range for the weekend. Seriously need to find somethin before next week!"

Such is life at the top in professional golf. A couple of weeks back after four months sidelined by a broken wrist and, already, the pressure's on. Have patience, young man. It'll come!

Let's leave the final words to Palmer. As he headed out to play the Pro-Am at Bay Hill, Arnie said: "I really did not make any swing changes in my career. I started with a pattern when I went out on Tour and I'll go with it today and hope to hell I can hit it in the fairway and hit it longer than I have been.

"I hit it so far these days, that I hear it land," Arnie added with a smile. Now that truly is a game with which many of us are familiar.

McIlroy's razor-sharp wit cuts Poulter down to size

Rory McIlroy's wit is as cutting as the metal spikes on his golf shoes.

Ian Poulter was on the receiving end from his Ryder Cup comrade last week after a furious tweet from Bay Hill insisting there was "no need" for players to wear old-fashioned footwear and cut up the greens.

"I wear spikes ... Problem!?!" McIlroy retorted. "Yes, problem," Poulter tweeted back: "There is no need for spikes and if you say it helps, that's bulls**t. Soft spikes give just as much traction. XXXX."

In an instant, McIlroy replied: "If you got your swing speed over 100mph you might need spikes too...... ;)".

Sharp or what?

Ireland's national treasures are coveted the world over

WHILE celebrating Paul Lawrie's magnificent win in Andalucia and US-based Martin Laird's second PGA Tour victory at Bay Hill, 'Golfweek's' Alistair Tait lamented Scotland's failure to produce a successor to Monty as a regular European Tour winner.

"Contrast Scotland with the rest of Europe," he wrote, "and you'd be forgiven for doubting that the game was invented in Lawrie's homeland. English golf is booming right now ... Ireland can boast about Padraig Harrington, Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy as bona fide world-class stars."

It's nice to know we Irish still have a few national treasures worth coveting.

Irish Independent

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