Saturday 16 December 2017

Major ambitions rest on hurdling mental obstacles

Darren Clarke will know key to taking British Open is all in the mind, writes Dermot Gilleece

Golf, Bobby Jones once observed, is a game played on a five-inch course: the distance between your ears. Among the contenders at Royal St George's this weekend, no players have lent more credence to those words than Open Championship leader, Darren Clarke and one of his closest challengers, Thomas Bjorn.

In their different ways they bring sharply into focus the true nature of a notoriously demanding pursuit. And they make you wonder how much money it takes to compensate for being ripped apart emotionally, often in full view of a largely uncaring public.

Memory remains fresh of the Smurfit European Open in early July 2004 and Bjorn's later recollection of a horrendous opening day at The K Club. Standing on the first tee, he had the eerie sensation of seeing the fairway shrink before his very eyes and the green become "no bigger than the hole".

"Why," the tortured Dane asked himself, "am I feeling like this? Why do I have 500 thoughts running through my head when I should be thinking one shot at a time?"

By the sixth hole, he was four-over par and in no state to continue. That was when tournament director David Garland came to his rescue and drove him back to the clubhouse in a buggy. The only coherent explanation Bjorn could offer the waiting media was that he was "fighting demons" and felt "unable to face the tournament situation".

He played only three further tournaments between then and the end of August, missing the cut in two of them. And by way of acknowledging his plight, Ryder Cup skipper Bernhard Langer invited him onto the backroom team for what proved to be a highly successful European venture at Oakland Hills.

A month later at Mount Juliet, Bjorn finished runner-up to Ernie Els in the lucrative American Express Championship. This was it: his rehabilitation was complete.

Back at The K Club the following July, however, the demons returned with a vengeance. With the tournament at his mercy, Bjorn finished with unimaginable figures of 6-11-6 to hand victory on a plate to England's Kenneth Ferrie. So, he would hardly have welcomed the reopening of old wounds over the last few days here at Royal St George's.

In the background, psychologists wait for the call into this most fertile of sporting terrain. Often, their solutions are extraordinarily simple. Like the Open at Muirfield in 2002 when the little Belgian, Jos Vantisphout, hovered with the best of intentions around his charge, Ernie Els, only to be asked angrily "what the fuck" he wanted.

It happened during the time-gap just before a play-off after Els had squandered the chance of victory over 72 holes. Vantisphout said nothing. He simply went off and got the South African a sandwich. Suddenly the mood changed and a re-focused Els went on to beat Thomas Levet, Stuart Appleby and Steve Elkington for the title.

On hearing that Dr Bob Rotella had been working with Clarke during the 2007 PGA Championship at Southern Hills, I mischievously asked the psychologist if he needed any remedial help. Rotella laughed. He seemed to enjoy being challenged by Clarke to the extent of sending a five-page hand-written letter to the player some time prior to that, with the assurance that he believed in him.

Clarke was flattered that someone of this stature would take such an interest. And they're back together at Sandwich, where the Ulsterman reached the weekend in buoyant mood, largely because of his success with the blade. His 88 putts for 54 holes, an average of under 30 per round, told its own tale.

In his marvellous book In Search of Tiger, author Tom Callahan recalled an occasion when Clarke, on being asked if he ever got into the head of the erstwhile world number one, replied with a grin: "It's a bit like his wallet. Tiger doesn't open it too often."

For his own part, however, he always acknowledged putting as his Achilles heel. The extent to which this can infuriate him has to be seen in the context of practice at Royal St George's last week when he showed himself capable of hitting glorious shots in the wind which were beyond the talent of partners Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood.

It is something he shares with no less a figure in the game than the supreme ball-striker Ben Hogan, who couldn't quite grasp why putting should be so decisive in determining a player's score. With the putts dropping, Clarke is among the most placid of practitioners but when they start rimming the hole it is only a matter of time before a petulant, self-destructive 14-year-old emerges.

I remember the 2004 US Open at Shinnecock Hills when I asked a member of his management team on the eve of the tournament how things were. The response was that all efforts had been concentrated over the previous few days on simply attempting to convince Clarke that he wasn't the worst putter in the world.

Meanwhile, he is receiving additional mental help this weekend from British psychologist Mike Finnegan, by way of emphasising the seriousness of his intent. "Realistically, I'm only likely to get the chance of winning in three or four more Majors," Clarke said. "And this is one of them."

From a competitive standpoint, he seemed to be set fair after the Accenture World Matchplay of 2001 at La Costa. That was where he carded no fewer than 15 birdies in 33 holes from the half-way stage of his 4 and 3 semi-final victory over David Duval until entering the back nine of his 36-hole final victory over Woods.

"Look at people who have won Majors and you'll see very few who hadn't some near-misses before their breakthrough," he went on. "Though I had a chance in the rain at Augusta, I've really put myself in a position to win a Major only the once. That was at Lytham [where he was tied third behind Duval in the 2001 Open]. Without question, that's one I could have won.

"With the way I hit the ball that week and the amount of chances I gave myself . . . Unfortunately, my putter was stone cold. Looking back, I don't view Troon in 1997 [when he was tied second behind Justin Leonard] as a real chance, because I simply wasn't ready. But Lytham was different.

"Obviously I'd love to win any Major championship, but I've always dreamed of winning the Open. That's the one, mainly because I enjoy links golf so much, from my experiences on great Irish links courses, like Royal Portrush. And it's the one I think I would have the best chance of winning."

For Clarke, Bjorn and their ilk, golf has brought undoubted wealth and privilege. But it has come at a price. Maybe that's what makes the Ulsterman's dominant position this morning in pursuit of a coveted trophy so intriguing.

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