In the last two weeks we have seen two of the world's greatest ever golfers show the real depths of their mental strength. No two men could be more different yet more similar than Tiger Woods and Severiano Ballesteros. Woods, the golfing automaton is as predictable and precise as a Rolex; Ballesteros is, and has always been as uncertain as the weather. But both are born winners and both exude a self-belief that is as solid as the Forth Bridge and is made up of something harder than titanium.
Given Woods' position on the last day of the Masters, there were few that doubted he would take the green jacket with the principal paycheque. Those that doubted did not include Goosen, Els, Singh, et al. This they made abundantly clear in their collective determination to play the main supporting part to Woods' lacklustre performance in the lead role.
Woods does not need anyone to tell him about his capabilities, nor does he require anyone to remind him, far less persuade him that he is the best. Woods knows that he is the best and has long since come to expect others to acknowledge the fact and pay him homage. Simply his presence, coupled with the hype that surrounds him is intimidating and must also be mesmerising.
Seve needs no hype. His presence alone can be enough but it is his play that is mesmerising. Anyone in any doubt about this should ask Colin Montgomerie why he could not beat a man who failed to hit any fairway but the first, frequently failed to reach even the ladies tee and visited the Irish woods more often in one round than most Forestry Commission employees manage in a year. Monty lost his match with Seve not because the Spaniard is a better player for he currently is not, but because of Seve's perception of himself as a winner. The gallery at Druids Glen saw this and quickly formed a brigade to assure him of the fact. Everybody loves a winner, especially when he is an underdog, and their support lent fuel to Seve's fire and was like a continuous cold shower to poor Monty.
The ingredients of a winner coupled with charisma make for a heady cocktail. Poor Monty may have all of the necessary ingredients to win but falls a long way short on charisma.
But contrasting and comparing Seve and the Tiger is interesting for although they clearly have the determination to win in common, Seve's game is matchplay whilst Tiger's is assuredly strokeplay. Indeed, Tiger's matchplay record is not good - his Walker Cup exploits attest to that. Seve, however, only comes into his own in the one-to-one situation and shines at his brightest when he is confronted with the obviously impossible.
Seve has, of course, had his major moments but considering his talent his tally of three is inexplicably a long way short of the yet embryonic Woods' seven, already matching Vardon, Saracen, Jones, Snead and Palmer. Only Watson on eight, Player and Hogan on nine, Hagan on 11 and the incredible Nicklaus on 18 await his displacement from the record books.
Tiger will overtake them for he shares with them all the essential ingredient for strokeplay success - self-control. Apart from an occasional wry smile to acknowledge a bit of good fortune, Tiger remains expressionless from start to finish of every tournament. Nicklaus was exactly the same. The winner's expression shifts only from apparent indifference to a suspicion of deep concentration. The indifferent look conveys superiority; the concentration look implies winning intent. It is noteworthy that Seve only ever looks concentrated in a matchplay setting and good and bad fortunes are met with the same deadpan look. These are assuredly inborn characteristics that no amount of coaching can induce.
Enter the sports psychologist who's job it is to persuade the psyche of somewhat lesser mortals that their vacant expression is really one of disdainful indifference, and that their nose-picking is really displacement behaviour for deep concentration. Such shrinks are becoming as commonplace on the practice greens as swing coaches and money managers and their muttering mantras are starting to inhibit the very young and vulnerable.
One needs only stand on the practise tee of any minor event to appreciate that there are an awful lot of very good ball strikers with putting touches of near genius. Indeed, one wonders why they are not all major winners. But having iron in the soul is very different from having iron in the brain. It is the desperation in the eyes of such players that reveals why they will take recourse to quake medicines and, indeed, pseudo-sports shrinks.
Much has been made of Retief Goosen winning the US Open with the intimate mental assistance of a diminutive Belgian shrink. This chap has made much of Goosen's win and has had the world believe that he is in the process of exorcising Woods from Els' soul. He is now addressing management conferences on how he is managing to do this. One wonders if he recalls the details of Goosen's achievement and in particular the pig's ear he made of the 18th green before finding himself unchallenged in the play-off. One also wonders where this little chap was when Goosen really needed him in the last round of the Masters.
I find it amusing to think of Hogan, Palmer or Hagen listening to gobbledegook from anybody. Can anyone imagine Jones or Nicklaus in need of reassurance? Imagine how Woods would respond if someone tried to tell him that he could be the greatest of all time!
|| 26 - APRIL 2002