Monday, January 07, 2008

What makes a player choke? I should know, for in truth, I did it as often as anyone. Although to give myself a little credit, I generally had the good sense to do it before I got into contention. That way it was considerably less embarrassing.

No, what I'm talking about is why a man suddenly spasms and snatches defeat from the jaws of victory, so rendering himself incapable of remembering who he is or where he lives until he is back, safe in the arms of inadequacy.

The land of failure is a comfortable place because you have so much company. Successvile, on the other hand, is a ghost town filled with responsibility and further expectations, and is inhabited by only the selfish and the brave.

Well, I've been selfish a lot, but only occasionally brave, and in those rare moments when I have overcome my anguish, it seems as if I have suffered some kind of selective memory loss.

I wish a different kind of amnesia to Jean Van de Velde (whose name, ironically, means "John of the Fields"), who butchered the British Open by spending most of his week in Scotland hitting the wrong club, in case you hadn't noticed. He pulled out his driver when other people were making tentative passes with their middle irons. So perhaps what appeared to be an incredible brain fart at the 72d hole was merely a continuation of the policy that got him there in the first place.

Whatever way you look at it, that bloody Sunday was a perfect example of why this is the world's greatest game. What theater! We had a playoff among three players, two of whom felt like they had won the lottery just by being there, and one who had the winning ticket under his beret, but threw his hat in the air by mistake.

But to be fair, we have to talk about Carnoustie, which was set up by people who should be put on some kind of medication for the rest of their lives. The reason there were so many odd names on the first couple of pages of the leaderboard was that the course was, to say the least, pretty odd, too.

Carnoustie, without a blade of rough, is a magnificent test of golf, and that is an inarguable fact. The way it was set up, with goat-choking weeds and fairways narrower than Adolph Hitler's mind, it was a test of how much of the Barry Burn you could swallow without throwing up. You have probably read a load of crap about the great players in the world and how they whined about the conditions, but the truth is, they had a very good point. Jack Nicklaus once said that golf wasn't meant to be fair, but I believe that it wasn't meant to be stupid, either.

That last bit was mine, not Jack's. But I digress, as usual. The worst I ever felt with a golf club in my hand was on the 17th tee of the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island on the Sunday of the 1991 Ryder Cup. I was two-up with two to play on the then-U.S. Open champion, but I had lost two holes in a row.

Payne Stewart had hit a fabulous shot onto the green, which to me by this stage looked about the size of my ball. The club felt incredibly light in my hands, and I experienced giddiness as I teed the ball up. I remember that every message my brain tried to send to my hands was intercepted by a mysterious pair of gonads, which had somehow taken up residence on either side of my windpipe.

I can honestly say that I have no recollection of the swing I made. I don't remember how it felt, how the ball flew, or for that matter, how I even made contact. No, the only thing I remember is turning around to see European captain Bernard Gallacher, his arms outstretched towards me and former captain Tony Jacklin, who was facing backwards with his hands over his eyes.

Apparently he had even less faith in me than I did. The ball finished about 30 feet left of the hole and I won the match 2 and 1. That much I do remember.

Good players teach their bodies how to perform and then when the curtain rises, they somehow find the ability to switch off the old gray matter and allow their bodies to take the stage.

This was one of the few times I was able to perform such a feat. The other occasion I felt such horror and helplessness was also in a team event, the 1990 Dunhill Cup, in which I had the honor of captaining the notorious Irish side. In the finals, we played England, the old enemy, and after a tie, yours truly went out to play Howard Clark for all the marbles in a sudden-death playoff.

We halved the first and second at St. Andrews and then headed to the dreaded 17th hole. Howard found the left semi-rough off the tee and I hit a heely scunge that somehow found the left edge of the fairway. After Howard missed the green short and left, it seemed unlikely he could chip it close to the hole, which was cut directly behind the world's most awful bunker.

I was left with just over 200 yards into a right-to-left wind, and I knew that one good swing would probably win it for Ireland. There ensued a violent struggle between my brain and my body. Neither had said a word to the other for the entire week and, as a result, I had managed to play extraordinarily well.

But on this occasion, my brain felt the need, like some idiot CEO, to take charge at this crucial moment. Somehow, body found the courage to tell brain to go empty the garbage or something and while brain's back was turned, body made the swing.

Again, I don't remember it, but that's probably because my mind was over by the water cooler. My 3-iron shot soared majestically at the center of the green and was wafted gently toward the hole by the breeze. It bounced softly and came to rest about 15 feet behind the hole.

The crowd roared. My brain turned around violently from the water cooler and was just about to fire every muscle in my body when it realized that the bottom line had just been improved. Naturally, during the acceptance speech, it took all the credit.

I have always felt that if you want to be a great golfer, it is a tremendous advantage to be either really, really smart like Mac O'Grady or dumb as a rock like Gary McCord. Either you use your superior intellect to quell your self-doubt and anxiety, or you don't realize you are in contention until somebody hands you a check. Anything in between and you are probably buggered.

Van de Velde was like most of the rest of us -- that is, in between. It wouldn't have mattered where he drove it off the tee on the final hole of regulation or what he hit for his second shot. He was going to find a way to lose because deep down inside, he didn't want the responsibility that comes with being a major champion. This does not make him a bad person.

Paul Lawrie, on the other hand -- and here is the really sad story -- did want the responsibility. I say it's a sad story because after the impossible drama of Van de Velde's 72d hole and the following farcical playoff, one of the greatest shots in major championship history was forgotten.

Lawrie was faced with 225 yards of terror, with out of bounds to the left and a little claret jug behind. He found the courage of the man who wants to be champion. What he does with the responsibility is up to him.

I just hope that he, unlike me, can remember the greatest swing he ever made.

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