Form might be Temporary but is class really permanent?

Thought for the Day
The day you are properly able to laugh at yourself is the day you grow up

Form might be Temporary but is class really permanent?
Perhaps because of my own recent form, I have been musing on golf slumps – those awful periods of ineptitude in which, according to cliché, I couldn’t hit a cow’s backside with a banjo. In reality of course, incompetence is my natural state on the golf course; the only times I’m surprised are those fleetingly rare days when I seem able to pass myself off as a reasonably proficient golfer.

But my regular travails are, in the wider context of my life, pretty irrelevant. It’s the pros I feel sorry for. The people who have shown remarkable aptitude for the world’s most frustrating game since they were toddlers. Who climbed every step of competition until they reached the Olympian heights of a pro tour, and still continued to taste success. We identified them early on as possessing special talent and watched, usually with pleasure, as their careers progressed through a series of challenges. Could they compete with the big boys – tick. Can they win a tour event – tick. Finally, are they good enough to land a major – tick.

For some, landing that holy grail of golf, a major championship, represents the achievement of everything they have dreamt about for decades and they find it difficult to recapture the energy, motivation and discipline to repeat the feat. Ian Woosnam has admitted that winning the Masters in 1991 was the culmination of several decades of effort, and having achieved a major, subconsciously perhaps, he found it difficult to devote the necessary commitment to try and do it again. Ian has said himself that motivation was harder to find after achieving all the goals he had set himself. Perhaps the same can be said for Mike Weir, the Canadian who was fitted for his own green jacket in 2003.

Or how about Martin Kaymer, who won two majors and holed the winning putt in the Ryder Cup, on American soil? For a few years he was the epitome of quiet, ruthless, Teutonic efficiency – golf’s own Vorsprung durch Technik. He had, it seemed, everything needed to stay at or near the top of the golfing tree, which he demonstrated by reaching number one in the Official World Golf Ranking in 2011. His current ranking is 2,287, although some of that precipitous decline is a result of his decision to take the LIV Golf dollar and therefore forfeit world ranking points.

Stewart Cink made himself the most unpopular winner of the Open Championship in 2009 when he beat Tom Watson and, in the process, possibly because became one of the least celebrated major winners in history, before enduring an horrific loss of form that lasted a decade. In 81 events after that win at Turnberry he missed the cut 30% of the time. Thankfully he bounced back with victories in 2020 and 2021 and now, having passed his 50th birthday, he’ll hopefully cash in again with the round bellies on the Legends Tour.

Then there’s Mike Weir, the left-handed Canadian who putted like a god to win the Masters in a playoff in 2003 and in the process became a national hero, being the first male golfer from his land of birth to capture a major. It was a career high he never came close to emulating and, like Stewart Cink, now plays with the seniors.

Even Tiger Woods, the most dominant champion of his era, won nothing in 2010 and by the end of the following year had tumbled to 58th in the world – although in Woods’ case we have to factor in his numerous injuries and a significant episode of marital disharmony. Talking of the best ever, Jack Nicklaus said in 1980 that for the previous two years he had just been ‘going through the motions.’ But of course, being Nicklaus he knuckled down and got back on the major-winning express.

That’s the problem with cliches such as the one that (almost) headlines this article. They often become cliches because they are also truisms but that doesn’t mean they are written in tablets of stone. Many players endure a horrific loss of form before recapturing the swing, putting stroke or mental equilibrium that took them to the top in the first place. Witness Brooks Koepka, who came roaring back to form in 2023 after tasting despair for several years.

But there are those who hit the skids and cannot arrest the plummet to the bottom. There is a difference, however, between good and talented golfers who catch lightning in a bottle at exactly the right time to land a major, and consistently good players who seem to suddenly lose it and find no way back. In the first group we might include Danny Willet, Charl Schwartzel, Todd Hamilton, Jimmy Walker, Shaun Micheel or Rich Beem, major winners all. But those who strode the upper echelons of the game for a considerable period and then struggle are a deeper mystery.

There’s David Duval, an enigma coupled with a conundrum, wrapped in a mystery. In a three-year spell, between 1997-1999 he won 11 times and looked to be the only man capable of challenging Tiger Woods, an impression reinforced when he won the Open Championship in 2001, at the age of 29. Since then, nada, zilch, nothing. I always felt that in Duval’s case he was too sane and rational to endure for long the alien life of a nomadic, driven, pro golfer.

For me, the greatest loss of terrific talent happened to Sandy Lyle, a man who played with unconscious competence. Seve Ballesteros was once asked which of his European Tour peers, including himself, Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer and Ian Woosnam, would win if they all played to their ability. Without hesitation he said: ‘Sandy was the greatest God-given talent in history. If everyone in the world was playing their best, Sandy would win and I would come second.’

The question that Sandy, Duval, Kaymer and many others must have asked themselves numerous times, is: Where did it all go? For most of us recreational golfers, who one day find we can’t hit the sea from the deck of an aircraft carrier, the experience is just part of being a golfer. We never achieve true class so don’t know what it’s like to lose it. But for the pros at the top of the golfing tree it must seem like the worst thing that life can throw at them.

The only consolation, which explains why so many keep battling away, is that for most, class does return – eventually.

Quote of the Week
Why do I tee the ball high? Because years of experience have shown me that air offers less resistance than dirt.
Jack Nicklaus

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