Thursday 23 November 2017

Tiger's travails generate opinions but no remedy

Dermot Gilleece

An ongoing crisis of confidence is evident in his erratic putting, says Dermot Gilleece

A close look at the line-up for this week's $8.5 million WGC-Accenture Match Play in Tucson reveals the significant impact of three years on the life of a tournament professional. Pádraig Harrington, seeded number three in 2009, no longer qualifies. And Tiger Woods, then making a comeback as the world's undisputed top player, returns as number 19.

Changed times for some of the game's more mature practitioners is illustrated perfectly by Ernie Els, who has scraped in as a replacement for the absent Phil Mickelson. "I know there were days when I didn't even go there," said the three-time Major winner, referring to his absence from the Accenture in 2004 and '05. "Now I'm very grateful to be in the field."

Of his recent Match Play involvement, the South African is probably best remembered for the 2009 tournament which effectively launched Rory McIlroy on the world stage as the 16th seed. That was when an American scribe infamously blurted "how can a player be in the world's top 20 and I haven't heard of him," only to have Els calmly predict that McIlroy would go all the way to number one.

Our Holywood hero is joined by Graeme McDowell and the 2000 champion Darren Clarke in a formidable Irish challenge, while Luke Donald, the defending champion, continues to top the world rankings. The Englishman's success last year provided an absorbing example of the contrasting qualities which can create a great match player.

In the case of Woods and Seve Ballesteros, it was relentless aggression allied to supreme confidence. Donald, however, epitomises the oft-quoted saying of Willie Park Jnr, and much-loved of Harrington, that "a good putter is a match for anyone." In this context, Ballesteros learned much from the patient plodding of Hale Irwin. "He would go par, par and sometimes birdie," said the Spaniard. "This creates much pressure. I know, I felt it."

As winner of this title in 2003, 2004 and 2008, Woods observed: "If we had match play every week, I think our playing careers would be halved because there are so many emotional ups and downs. In this tournament, you're always stressed, knowing you can be on the way home at any time, even if you play well. Essentially, you've got to outlast your opponent."

There was no indication of such mental strength, however, as he struggled last Sunday to an emotionally crushing final round of 75 at Pebble Beach in the company of arch rival Mickelson. The prospect of blood on the turf clearly stirred TV audiences in the US. Ratings soared with CBS posting an overall household rating/share of 5.1/10, its highest numbers in 15 years for the AT&T's final round and a 96 per cent increase over last year.

As usual, Woods' torment was accompanied by endless analysis from US pundits who couldn't seem to make up their minds whether his problem was mental or technical. Even Lee Trevino joined the fun. What would he do in Woods' shoes? "I would call a realtor in Henderson, Nevada, and I'd find out where Butch (Harmon) lived and I'd buy the house next door," Trevino replied. "I'd go over and ring the doorbell and say, 'Hi, neighbour,' and get back with Butch. That's exactly what I would do."

Though aware of bad blood between them, apart from Harmon being Mickelson's coach, Trevino believes it's time Woods buried the hatchet. "I don't know if Tiger is too proud to ask for help and if he asked for help would Butch give it to him," he added. "But I think they speak when they see each other at tournaments and if they do that, I don't see why two grown people can't sit down. He (Woods) is all messed up right now."

God help the poor man's innocence. Only last week, Harmon was admitting how he coached Mickelson on the special challenge of playing with Woods. As in: "If Tiger putts out first, the gallery is going to start moving ahead, so if you have a chance to putt out first, it's in your best interest to do so. If it's close on the back nine, Tiger will sometimes hit three-wood on purpose to make you wait. He's not doing anything illegal, it's just a little bit of gamesmanship."

All of which should be quite helpful to prospective opponents as Woods seeks some inspiration from an event which marked his much-anticipated return to action in late-February 2009 after he had spent eight months recovering from major surgery to his left knee. All indications are that he is suffering a crisis of confidence which, as any club golfer will be aware, becomes all the more acute the closer one gets to the hole.

Last Sunday, he three-putted twice -- "I couldn't get comfortable" -- most embarrassingly on the 72nd green. Still, a return of 31 putts for the round wasn't disastrous, even allowing for the fact that he missed nine out of the 18 greens. The real problem lay with his approach irons. He simply didn't hit the ball close enough to the pins to make regular birdie chances. And the more pressure that came on his putting, the more fragile his stroke became.

This at a venue where one would have anticipated the opposite effect, given his previous exploits there. Significantly, when he won the 2000 US Open by an astonishing 15 strokes -- the greatest single performance in the history of golf, according to Tom Watson -- he was first in greens in regulation. He also putted beautifully when carding rounds of 65 (24 putts), 69 (29), 71 (28) and 67 (29). With 110 putts for an average of 27.5 per round, he was tied sixth in that particular category.

When the US Open returned to Pebble in 2010, he was tied fourth behind McDowell and had only one really bad putting round. That was on the opening day. Scores, with putts, were: 74 (34 putts), 72 (29), 66 (26) and 75 (31). Interestingly, when the pressure intensified during the closing round on that occasion, his statistics were identical to last Sunday's.

Meanwhile, in a world-ranking system in which one can plummet down the order at a dizzying pace, it is interesting to note the way Woods is managing to fight his way back, despite all his troubles. No doubt Harrington, who has added the Honda Classic (March 1 to 4) to his schedule, will have noted this while being grateful to retain exemptions into the Major championships.

All of which should be quite helpful to prospective opponents as Woods seeks some inspiration this week. On the Ryder Cup front, the importance of World Championship events for European aspirants can be gauged from the rewards at Dove Mountain. For instance, those beaten in the last 16, as in winning only two matches, pick up close to €102,000. And those who win just the one match receive around €70,000 which is the equivalent of a top-five finish in most European Tour events.

When reaching the quarter-finals on his Accenture debut three years ago, McIlroy set his eyes firmly on the top prize. "I watched all of Darren's matches on television when he won at La Costa in 2000," he said. "It's my target to repeat that win."

It didn't happen for him then, nor when he reached the same stage in 2010 but, on current form, this could be his year. And never mind what Tiger might do.

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