Sunday 16 June 2019

Dermot Gilleece: Tiger Woods remains dangerously unique

Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods

Dermot Gilleece

Fireside chats among golfers of all standards are likely to have a common theme this Christmas. Indeed one can imagine intense speculation as to the competitive prospects for Tiger Woods during 2018 and beyond.

In this context, serious practitioners should pick their company very carefully. And those attached to the Albany Resort in the Bahamas, where Woods made such an impressive comeback to action earlier this month, might be advised to steer clear of the course designer and co-owner, Ernie Els.

It is 20 years since Els developed what his one-time mental coach Jos Vantisphout described as “Tigeritis”. This took the form of damaging deference towards Woods, ranging from glowing admiration for his formidable golfing skills to a deep-seated apprehension of confronting him head to head.

Recalling their early clashes on tour, Els admitted during the recent Hero World Challenge: “Competing with Tiger was a hard thing for me. He was such a great competitor with an amazing talent for the game; one of the best ever in any sport.”

Els would appear to have been deeply scarred by their first serious confrontation, which happened in the Johnnie Walker Classic in Phuket, Thailand, in late January 1998.

That was when the South African, as defending champion, seemed to be cruising towards a comfortable retention of the title, given an eight-stroke lead over Woods entering the closing round. With a stunning final 65, however, the American forced a highly improbable tie and then proceeded to beat an overwhelmed opponent by sinking a 15-foot birdie putt on the second hole of sudden-death. All in the native country of his mother, Kultida.

Els never recovered. Indeed a sense of inferiority about being capable of beating Woods in a head to head became all the more acute in the 2000 US Open at Pebble Beach where he was tied second, a staggering 15 strokes adrift of El Tigre. Curiously, Els didn’t seem to recognise the danger in deferring so candidly to a rival, unlike Tom Watson, for instance, who engineered a public spat with Jack Nicklaus during the 1977 US Masters, deliberately to avoid such a situation.

All the while, Woods prospered with an approach probably best summed up by Nicklaus. “Tiger knows what he has to do and he consistently does it,” said the Bear. “Usually pressure is a deterrent to a great performance but he consistently gets it done under pressure.”

US Open triumphs by Els in 1994 and 1997 seemed to herald an era in which he and Woods would share Majors between them. Vanstiphout claimed, however, that this possibility was effectively undone by a belief that Woods was unbeatable. When asked recently whom he considered his toughest opponent, Els confirmed: “Back in the day, it was definitely Tiger; he was by far the best.”

He went on: “That was tough for me because I felt I could really be the best player in the world, which I was for a short time on paper. But Tiger was really the man to beat. He was a very difficult competitor.”

All of which posed quite a challenge for Vantisphout when Els turned to him seeking help. I can vividly recall a chat I had with the mind coach back on the Tuesday morning of US Open week in 2003, when the little Belgian described himself as a former pop singer. This was while we were travelling by train from downtown Chicago to Olympia Fields.

“I’ve no diploma,” he admitted with disarming candour. Yet his psychological skills unquestionably helped another South African, Retief Goosen, win the first of two US Opens in a play-off at Southern Hills in 2001, before he guided Els to an Open Championship triumph at Muirfield a year later, again in a play-off. That latter success owed much to a remarkably simple device by Vantisphout.

Recalling the event with a wry smile, he talked of his client’s down at heel demeanour after squandering the chance of victory in the scheduled 72 holes.

Seeing the well-intentioned Belgian hovering around him some minutes before the play-off, Els turned angrily and barked: “What the f**k do you want?”

Vantisphout said nothing. He simply went off and got the South African a sandwich which he then handed to him. While thoughtlessly munching the food, Els’ mood suddenly changed. Then, re-focused on his grand objective, he proceeded to beat Thomas Levet, Stuart Appleby and Steve Elkington for the title. 

While reflecting on those moments, the self-created psychologist added modestly: “I’m the garbage can into which the stressed player can deposit all his negative feelings.”

Sadly, Vantisphout is no longer around to advise today’s leading practitioners as to how they should treat a resurgent Woods, should their paths cross in competition next season. But I could imagine him counselling that the worst thing they could do would be to listen to Els.

Great players can’t afford to think of being second-best, as the South African considered himself in the company of Woods. Mind you, they still need someone to advise them that Woods should never be dismissed simply as a once great player, no longer worthy of consideration in the destination of Major titles.

The fact is that there are no yardsticks by which Woods can be judged accurately. References have been made to the extraordinary comeback of Ben Hogan after a near-fatal road accident, to capture a second US Open at Oaklands Hills in 1950, as a 37-year-old. And how he went on to win the Masters and the US Open the following year, before achieving an astonishing Major treble of Masters, US Open and Open Championship in 1953, for the career Grand Slam. Apart from a broken body, the link with Woods is decidedly tenuous in that Hogan was never self-destructive in the matter of personal relationships.

Mention is also made of Nicklaus, and his “comeback” as a 46-year-old to capture an 18th Major title in the US Masters of 1986. This, however, is to overlook the fact that after his previous two Major triumphs in the US Open and PGA Championship of 1980, the Bear continued to maintain a regular competitive schedule, which delivered victories in the 1982 Colonial Tournament and the Memorial Tournament of 1984, quite apart from being runner-up in the 1982 US Open and the ’83 PGA.   

The fact is that, as a competitor, Woods defies comparison; nobody has ever displayed the sort of competitive intensity which characterised his dominance, especially at the peak of his powers. Therefore it is foolhardy, in my view, to attempt to predict what the future may hold for him.

Els has talked about “Rickie Fowler, Adam Scott, Jordan Speith . . . There are so many other really good players.”  And my advice to those among them, including Rory McIlroy, who may be tempted to scoff quietly at conjecture following recent events in the Bahamas, is to tread warily. This particular tiger is a dangerously unique animal.

Indeed Vantisphout was once moved to reflect: “I’ve talked with Tiger; I’ve seen him angry and I’ve seen him frustrated. But the only other sportsman I’ve seen with comparable strength to handle these emotions is the great racing driver, Michael Schumacher. In this regard, Tiger has been greatly influenced by the eastern mysticism of his [Thai] mother.”

Meanwhile, the current travails of England’s cricketers in Australia brings to mind a seasonal tale from 35 years ago when, in similar circumstances, solace was sought in the royal and ancient game. With a St Stephen’s Day start to the fourth Test in the 1982-83 Ashes series still a few days away, Alec Bedser phoned Royal Melbourne Golf Club. 

Certainly, he and his colleagues could play on Christmas Day, but the course and clubhouse would be closed. “We considered this to be quite a gesture from the snootiest club in Australia,” sportswriter Graham Otway recalled to me.

The golfers comprised six-handicapper Bedser, then chairman of the English cricket selectors and a long-time friend of former European Tour executive director Ken Schofield; seven-handicapper Otway, who was cricket correspondent of the Press Association at the time; John Thicknesse of the London Evening Standard (12) and John Woodcock of The Times and editor of Wisden, who played a modest game off 20.

“Having arrived by taxi with our clubs, we proceeded to climb over the boundary fence like a group of urchins,” Otway went on. “As you know, Royal Melbourne has two courses, but with no maps, no cards and not a flag in sight, we played for three and a half hours without the foggiest idea what holes we were on.”

He concluded: “Most memorable was the special glow we felt as we headed back to our hotel, where Christmas dinner never tasted so good.”

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