Dermot Gilleece: Tiger in throes of pitched battle to save his career
Dreaded yips can be more damaging than any physical ailment, says Dermot Gilleece
On a June weekend at Woodbrook in 1973, Paddy McGuirk was conscious of a worrying chipping twitch as he challenged for the top prize of £2,500 in the Carrolls International Tournament. Though he managed to keep the problem at bay for a memorable two-stroke triumph, his competitive future had effectively been decided.
McGuirk had just turned 23. Within a few years, he wouldn't have backed himself to chip the ball onto a putting green from a distance of no more than 10 yards, with both hands on the club.
That, and the putting yips, are conditions known to promote the so-called Nigel Bruce effect beloved of British golf commentators. Historically, this involves tossing in a timely "Oh dear!" as Bruce did so appealingly when playing Dr Watson, the befuddled friend of Sherlock Holmes.
On either side of the Atlantic, McGuirk and former US Open champion Andy North have been watching Tiger Woods with considerable interest, because of a chipping twitch which was exposed mercilessly at Phoenix.
They saw further evidence of the problem at Torrey Pines last Thursday. The player's withdrawal after 12 holes of the Farmers Insurance Open, however, was attributed to back spasms which, clearly, have not been resolved by surgery last spring.
"Sure, I saw Tiger hitting shots that I've hit," said McGuirk, who for years has been chipping with only his right hand gripping the club. And it is interesting that he was also crushed by serious driving problems, which is another Woods affliction.
"I remember situations where I wanted to hit a soft chip and I'd end up blocking it or thinning it. We're talking about feel, and when the hands don't respond like you want them to, there's no flow and you force contact with the ball. That's when it all goes wrong."
Celebrated exponents of the short-game, however, couldn't imagine anybody finding chipping difficult. I remember asking Harry Bradshaw what his preferred club was for pitches and chips from various distances off the green. "Oh," he replied with typical nonchalance, "I use the four-iron, five-iron, six-iron, seven-iron, eight-iron and nine-iron." Then came a pause before he added with a mischievous smile: "And I play them all with the nine-iron."
As it happened, the first quality player I observed chipping one-handed was a good friend of The Brad's, former Irish international, John Fitzgibbon, who was Portmarnock captain in 1981 when Tom Watson made a memorable visit there. And I recall the Scottish player Shirley Lawson going through chipping horrors during the 1988 Curtis Cup matches at Royal St George's.
Meanwhile, McGuirk went on: "What should be the second easiest shot in the game, after the putt, becomes impossible for some people. And of course it's mental. I remember watching the great Welsh player Dave Thomas. After driving the ball 300 yards, he would have to deliberately play around a bunker because he couldn't chip over it. And it was equally odd to watch the beautiful chipping of his pal, Peter Alliss, who couldn't putt because of the yips."
McGuirk has also been following the fortunes of 30-year-old Englishman Jason Palmer, a rookie this year on the European Tour who, predictably, has become known as the 'One-Armed Bandit' because of his chipping method. After his Woodbrook win, the Co Louth professional captured the Irish Championship at Waterville in 1976 and the Carrolls Matchplay title for a second time in 1982, but he never realised the rich potential of his European Tour breakthrough.
"Tiger has been such a remarkable player that I think it's too early to pass judgement on him," he went on. "You can't help thinking that he'll find a way around the problem."
Yet against the background of several leading players - notably Bernhard Langer - overcoming the putting yips, did McGuirk know of anyone who had conquered the chipping yips? "No," was his candid reply.
When assessing the prospect of a Woods comeback, much is being made these days of the various surgeries he has undergone, culminating in repairs to his troublesome back. This is coupled with the fact that prior to Phoenix, he hadn't played a proper tournament since the PGA Championship, captured by McIlroy at Valhalla last August, and is consequently short on tournament sharpness.
In this context, let us consider Ben Hogan's situation in the wake of a near-fatal car crash in February 1949, when his body was extensively broken. We're told that he looked dreadful and weighed only 8st 8lbs when released from hospital on April 1 of that year. Before 9,000 adoring fans in his comeback tournament the following January, however, he managed to tie no less an opponent than Sam Snead for the LA Open at Riviera CC.
By his own admission, Hogan was grateful that the play-off had to be postponed for eight days because of rain. In the event, he limped to the first tee and ultimately lost to his old rival by 72-76. Is it not reasonable to expect comparable play from Woods, who despite current problems, is physically in far better shape than Hogan would ever become after the accident?
North, a leading US commentator with ESPN, argued that every situation is different. "I would suggest that Hogan was just trying to get healthy and had a good idea of what he was attempting to do in swinging a golf club," he said. "Apart from being a bit rusty, Tiger's in the middle of technical changes right now with a lot of things going on in his head. Any time a player is thinking technical stuff, he's not going to perform very well."
North went on to highlight the dramatic effect a Woods slump can have on television ratings in the US. "Despite competitive leaderboards, it's not the same when Tiger's not playing well," he said."We need this to be only a temporary setback. If it goes on for six months, we clearly have an issue. Golf can be a very fragile game and once you lose a bit of confidence . . ."
In the longer term, North sees only one logical candidate with Tiger appeal. "Rory is well-liked, has a great personality and is identified with the States, where he plays a lot and has a home," he said. "I think that's a big part of his popularity. In fact, I believe he's the only guy who can do it. Now, if Rickie Fowler was to win five times and become a Major champion, obviously that would change things dramatically. For a logical successor to Tiger, that's what you need - a guy who can dominate the big events.
"Among a ton of good young American players right now, Rory is the dominant one, the stand-out player in a generation. And he looks like the guy who could be there for quite a while, irrespective of what happens to Tiger."
Which is why leading American observers followed events in Dublin's High Court last week with more than a passing interest.
In their quest for a ratings champion right now, McIlroy could be television's saviour.
Sunday Indo Sport