DOCTOR Bob Rotella, by some distance the most influential of golf’s psychologists, believes Tiger Woods is displaying signs of “panic” in his restless quest to surpass Jack Nicklaus’s record of 18 major titles.
The 64-year-old, famed for helping to steer Padraig Harrington and Darren Clarke to their Open triumphs, said of the world No 1, who has failed to win a major in over five years: “It is possible that Tiger is starting to be nagged by the question, in chasing all his dreams and ambitions, of: ‘What if I fall short?’”
Trying to explain this malaise for Woods, still smarting from recording his worst score in a major at the US Open last month, Rotella traced the problems back to an incident during the Open at Royal Lytham last year.
Woods eventually finished joint third, all hope of victory squandered by an uncharacteristic error at the par-four sixth – where he had tried to escape from the deep green-side bunker, only for the ball to ricochet off the bank and almost hit him in the face.
“When Tiger was up against the lip of that bunker and ended up making triple-bogey, most of the time he would have sensibly chipped the ball back,” Rotella said.
“If he had, he probably would have won the tournament. Instead, you sensed that he got in the bunker and thought: ‘I’ve got to do something incredible.’ That’s the first time you saw him panic, put pressure on himself a little, and try to force something.
"Given that he had been so patient throughout his career, that moment was very interesting.”
The moment was ascribed by Rotella to Woods’s growing agitation about overhauling Nicklaus, given that he remains five majors shy of his target at the age of 37. This season, too, there has been a marked difference between his performances on the regular tour, where he has won four times in six months, and the two majors to date, in which he has finished fourth and 32nd.
“In the last bunch of majors he doesn’t appear to be in the same place,” Rotella admitted. “He probably has a greater concern, in terms of ’When am I going to win one again?’ He is so exceptional, though, that it is hard to believe that he is not capable of beating Jack’s record. It is his reason for getting up in the morning.”
Rotella, the self-avowed “counsellor to champions” who has mentored 74 major winners, envisages a set-up to suit Woods at Muirfield this week. Already the fairways, baked dry by the sustained summer heat, are assuming the straw colour so reminiscent of Hoylake in 2006, where Woods exhibited peerless control on the fast-running surfaces to win his third Claret Jug by two strokes.
“The No 1 priority here is: ‘Can you deal with the ball bouncing all over the place?’ ” Rotella said. “You’re not in control of everything when the ball’s on the ground. It brings a lot more uncertainty into play. On the tee there can be this incredible urge to over-control the ball, to guide and steer it. But I teach guys that they gain control when they lose control. Just trust in it.”
It is this type of trust that Rotella maintains Rory McIlroy must demonstrate to overcome a wretched few months since switching to Nike clubs. “This young man is an unbelievable driver of the ball, and when he finally gets his equipment to his liking he won’t have to think so much,” he said. “Then, he can go back to being ’unconscious’ with his long game – at his best all he had to do was look at the target and let it go.
“In every sport you reach a level where you think: ‘This is ridiculous.’ Whether it is when he drops out of the world’s top five or top 10, I don’t know, but there will come a point where he says, ’To heck with everything. I need to go back to playing golf how I know to play it’.”
Rotella, who wrote the bestseller Golf is Not a Game of Perfect, has based many of his teachings upon a maxim of renowned 19th-century psychologist William James: “What people do depends broadly on what they think of themselves.” He perceives it is the type of truism that will again manifest itself in this sun-drenched corner of East Lothian.
“If a player doesn’t entertain the thought of himself winning, then he is sure to find some way to sabotage it,” he said. “All it takes is for there to be one tiny doubt. You go to the range and you see that all these guys can hit bunker shots, they can all shape the ball. But it is about doing it with the tournament on the line.
“They call me a sports psychologist but I don’t know if that talent lies in the mind, the soul, the heart or the human spirit. I just know that it is in all of us somewhere.”