Underdog rises to Challenge
According to Tom Watson, if you are a player with aspirations towards becoming a champion golfer, "it's up to you to find a way to get the ball into the cup on the crucial holes on the last day." It would be difficult to suggest a more appropriate summation of what Graeme McDowell achieved in his titanic battle with Tiger Woods last Sunday.
Sporting endeavour fascinates, and never more than when the impartial observer suspects an upset may be in the offing. This usually develops into a test of courage and resolve; the sort of situation in which you can almost share in the daredevil deeds of the gallant underdog.
It is especially absorbing in golf, where the non-reactive, unhurried pace of play evokes images of huge mental battles, largely against oneself. In these circumstances, competitive reputations become invaluable assets, as Woods discovered at the peak of his powers. As his great friend from basketball, Michael Jordan, observed: "Intimidation can be so successful. And Tiger has it."
After the self-destruction of Thanksgiving last year, however, it is doubtful if Woods' air of invincibility will ever return. And we can only speculate as to the damage which McDowell has done to his much-vaunted rehabilitation under latest coach, Sean Foley.
Meanwhile, the idea of an Irishman challenging the erstwhile great one seems to have a particular appeal for US television audiences. Last Sunday's "overnight" rating of 2.7 -- up 170 per cent on last year's -- was actually the highest for a final round of the Chevron World Challenge since 2002, when Pádraig Harrington drew ratings of 3.1 while beating Woods down the stretch. Four years later, Harrington beat Woods again, this time in a play-off for the Dunlop Phoenix Open in Japan. Mind you, win or lose, Woods remains the US tour's biggest asset, a point which commissioner Tim Finchem will be acutely aware of in forthcoming television negotiations.
The ability to compete can take contrasting forms. For Lee Trevino, it encompassed ball-striking unrivalled among his peers; for Nick Faldo, it was manifest in a relentless determination to succeed; for Woods, it was an incomparable short game. And for Jack Nicklaus, it stemmed from the greatest course-management skills in the history of the game.
Having observed Nicklaus up close in some wonderful duels, Watson concluded: "I've seen some great swingers; far better swingers than I could ever have hoped to be. But they didn't seem to have the talent to negotiate their way around a golf course. Nicklaus was the best at it that I've ever seen. By far the best.
"Trevino was pretty good, too. He knew how to play a golf course. They would go out with a target score in mind. I think that's awfully important towards being successful at the highest level. Nowadays they call it focus.
"Great players have good focus. It means that on every shot, you know where to hit it and where not to hit it; you can picture the shot you want to play. That's essentially what you have to do to win Major championships."
A perfect illustration of emotions held firmly under control was provided by Ben Hogan in a famous exchange with a competing amateur during the US Masters. "Mr Hogan," said the amateur, "why didn't you try to reach the green on the 13th (par-five)? You hit a good drive which put you easily within range." Hogan replied tersely: "I didn't need a three."
At Sherwood Country Club we had some of the ingredients of a Major, though without the stress of a coveted title and a brutally tough course. The quality of the leaderboard would certainly have done justice to a Major, but this was perhaps predictable given the select field of only 18.
Incidentally, it and Sun City's Nedbank Golf Challenge, which Lee Westwood totally dominated, both had $5 million prize-funds. Of the world's leading players, only Martin Kaymer (No 3) and Phil Mickelson (No 4) were not in action last weekend. Yet the only player from the world's top 40 competing in the Australian Open was Adam Scott (20th), indicating the enduring appeal of the almighty dollar.
Another notable happening last weekend was the emergence of Joseph Bramlett, the first black player in 25 years to get through the Qualifying School in the US. This, despite all the predictions in the wake of Woods' 12-stroke US Masters victory in 1997 about the likely flood of newcomers to golf from America's minority communities.
Two particularly memorable aspects of McDowell's performance were his play of the short 17th and the putts he holed on the 18th, when playing it as the 72nd hole and as the first hole of sudden-death.
On discovering his ball in an unplayable lie just off the 17th green, his subsequent demeanour again reminded me of Watson. This time, it concerned comments the American made after he had, by his own estimation, "backed into" a fourth Open Championship at Royal Troon in 1982.
Explaining the demands of competing at the highest level, Watson insisted it had nothing to do with the common perception of trembling hands or a tortured stomach. Rather was it about sound decision-making, as in recognising the wrong messages coming from an addled brain.
With Woods waiting, probably impatiently, on the green, McDowell went quietly about his business, assessing the various options associated with an unplayable lie. Eventually, he chose to drop the ball in semi-rough beside the ninth tee from where he proceeded to pitch and putt for a highly improbable bogey to be level with Woods going down the last.
Then, by way of climaxing a remarkable performance, he sank a birdie putt of 20 feet on the 72nd and one of 25 feet in the play-off, thereby doing to Woods, as one observer pointed out, what Woods had been doing to others for much of his career.
One has to look back no further than the early months of 2008 before his first enforced absence from the game because of knee surgery. On February 3 of that year, Woods sank an outrageous 25-foot birdie putt on the 72nd green to win the Dubai Desert Classic by a stroke from Kaymer. Little more than a month later, he holed a 24-footer on the last, again for birdie, to capture the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill.
"From what I saw in Dubai, Tiger really shouldn't have won," said Paul McGinley at the time. "If it had been any other player, he wouldn't have been given the chance after a very mediocre third round of 73." But what about Bay Hill? "I think that was something which transcended sport," replied the Dubliner. "Scientists will tell you that hitting putts of that length (24 and 25 feet) with a robot, fewer than 50 per cent of them will be holed.
"But great players seem to have the ability to defy the rules of physics and Tiger gives real meaning to the idea of willing the ball into the hole." Arnold Palmer took a more philosophical view, saying: "Putting is like wisdom -- partly a natural gift and partly the accumulation of experience."
McDowell became a great player by winning the US Open last June. The stunning confidence evident in last Sunday's performance was but one of the products of that achievement.