Heartwarming Comeback Stories in Golf Lead to Tears of Joy
IT’S a funny old game. You spend weeks, months, even years at the peak of your powers, picking up titles for fun, earning loads of money, believing it will never end. And then, all of a sudden it does. Those four-feet putts that seemed so easy suddenly start playing tricks with your mind. “Is there a little break from left to right?” “I missed one of these on the last hole.” “I need this to make the cut.”
Or that fairway appears to be far narrower than it was when you played in this self same event 12 months ago. “Can I risk taking my driver? I am sure the rough on the right wasn’t that thick when we last played here.” Bunkers that you had never noticed before loom into view. "Where did that lake come from? Is that an out of bounds behind the green? I have never noticed that ditch before."
And so it goes on. Before you know where you are, your confidence has gone through the floor and, with it, so has your game. Now you battle to make cuts. Your world ranking is on the slide. Will you ever find a way back?
Then, from nowhere, you turn up somewhere that you may have played well at before and those familiar good feelings return. “Hey, maybe I can do something here this week.” You start with a couple of decent rounds and find yourself in contention. The nerves start to kick in, but in a good way. Yes, this is why you play the game. If you are going to fold it is going to happen on Saturday - moving day. But no, you hole your final putt for a 68 and gaze up at the leaderboard and there you are, one shot off the pace.
This feels good. Really good. But will you sleep? You go out for a meal and maybe a glass of wine, chat with friends, accept all the good luck messages and then you head to bed and sleep fitfully. But you try to remember the good days, the final rounds when you were able to keep it all together, hole the putts that mattered and finish the job.
You get up for breakfast and you feel nervous. Of course you feel nervous. Then you head off to the range. This will tell you how you are really feeling. Everybody you pass wishes you good luck. “Has it really been so long since I last won? Do these people actually believe I have a chance of winning?” You start hitting golf balls and the quality of the strike is not brilliant but you keep going, trying to relax, telling yourself that all you have to do is slow the swing down, maintain your rhythm. Everything will be fine.
Your opening drive is not the best and you miss the green with your approach. Then you hit a poor chip and leave yourself a 10-footer for par. Guess what? In it goes. Right into the heart of the hole. Three birdies on the front nine and now you are in front - for the first time in years. And guess what? You are loving it. A dropped shot at the 11th doesn’t matter because you pick up shots at the 12th, 14th and 15th and you arrive at the 18th tee leading by three. A routine par does the job. You sink to your knees. You cannot believe that you are a winner again.
And then comes the dreaded TV interview. No matter how hard you try, you can’t hold back the tears. But it doesn’t matter because you are a winner again.
Does that all sound a trifle far-fetched? It might do but it isn’t. The great thing with sport is that you seemingly wait for ages for a comeback and then, all of a sudden, you get five in little over a week - Lee Westwood, Matt Kuchar, Charles Howell III and Lexi Thompson. Let’s look in detail at what they achieved.
Lee Westwood, 2018 Nedbank Challenge
You know the game is up when you are named as a non-playing Ryder Cup vice-captain. Westwood began the year making unconvincing noises about how he would like to make Thomas Bjorn’s team as a player but his early-season form was unconvincing, so much so that he hardly played any golf worth the name. As a result, his world ranking tumbled faster than the pound against the euro. There seemed to be no way back for the Englishman. Now in his mid-40s, his best days were behind him. He showed some form late in the season, and was even briefly mentioned as a possible wild-card for Le Golf National. But it was never going to happen. With his vice-captaincy duties behind him, Westwood picked up his clubs in earnest and, lo and behold, he started to play some decent golf again. And when he arrived in Sun City for the Nedbank Challenge he was striking the ball really well - REALLY well. He played solidly for three rounds and went into the last round looking for a decent finish. He did rather better than that, producing a glorious round of 64 to catch and overhaul Sergio Garcia. It was his first victory since April 20th, 2014 - and he unashamedly cried afterwards.
Matt Kuchar, 2018 Mayakoba Classic
Kuchar is a money-making machine, a man who achieves top-10 finishes for fun. Year after year he makes millions of dollars. There have been a few victories along the way, but his career has been most notable for the near misses, never more so that at The Open Championship at Birkdale in 2017 when he was on the receiving end of Jordan Spieth’s extraordinary finish and had to settle for yet another runners-up finish. He vowed to be back. Kuchar had also suffered at the 2016 Olympic Games when Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson played out of their skins to win the gold and silver medals respectively and heeded up with the bronze. But 2018 was a poor season, during which he failed to make the 30-man field for the season-ending Tour Championship. It hurt. But not for long. He turned up in Mexico to take on a strong field at the Mayakoba Classic, holed everything he looked at for three rounds, survived a final-round wobble and defeated Danny Lee by a shot. Like Westwood, it was hist first win in four years. Even more remarkably, both men last won on the same day in 2014 - April 20th. You couldn’t make it up. And if you did, nobody would believe you. There were no tears from Kuchar but there was one of his trademark huge smiles.
Danny Willett, 2018 DP World Tour Championship
Willett was on top of the world after he won The Masters in 2016. Many people remember that tournament because of Jordan Spieth’s extraordinary meltdown at the par-three 12th hole, when he took seven shots on the final day after twice finding the water. But Willett reduced Augusta to 67 shots and fully deserved to claim the Green Jacket. What he didn’t deserve was what happened next. By his own admission, he probably agreed to do too much. Suddenly he was in demand. Everybody wanted a piece of him, and he was more than happy to give it. He ignored his body when it told him he was overdoing things. Willett has always struggled with his back but now the problem was chronic. Before he knew where he was he could barely swing a club. He missed cuts, he became throughly grumpy and quickly began to fall out of love with golf. As weeks turned into months, there was no improvement. He sacked his caddie and his coach. He withdrew from tournaments because of injury. He cut a sad and forlorn figure - was it really all over almost as soon as it had begun? So it seemed. But Willett is hewed from Sheffield steel and he refused to give up. There were several promising performances throughout 2018 - he even found himself on the leaderboard at The Open for a brief time. And when he arrived in Dubai for the season-ending Dubai World Championship there were signs of a full-blown recovery. He went into the final round tied for the lead with Patrick Reed, the current Masters champion. Most people believed Willett would crack under the pressure. Instead, it was Reed who buckled. Willett played superbly for his first victory since that Masters triumph. And then he shed tears of joy along with the rest of us.
Charles Howell III, 2018 RSM Classic
Howell is similar to Kuchar, a man who has carved out a pretty successful career for himself on the PGA Tour, with earnings in the region of $40m. In anybody’s book, that is not to be sniffed at. When he first emerged on tour he was tipped for greatness. He seemed to have everything. Although slight of build, he hit the ball miles - and he usually did so with unerring accuracy. On top of the that, he was a wonderful iron player and had a terrific short game. He would surely pick up two or three majors and win one or two tournaments every year. It didn’t quite turn out that way for the man from Georgia. Time after time he would get himself into contention and time after time he would fail to finish off the job. His last victory came in 2007, and there was a sense that he simply wasn’t hungry enough. The RSM Classic at Sea Island is a tournament where he has performed well in the past, but why should the 2018 version be any different? Why would anybody believe that Howell III could finally end the drought? He led after three rounds and most sages expected him to fold. He dropped a shot at the first and when he found water at the second and finished the hole with a double bogey, even Howell admitted that he began to think: “Here we go again.” But he rallied and played brilliantly for the rest of his round. And he only went and won for the first time in 11 years. And then he shed tears of joy.
Lexi Thompson, 2018 LPGA Tour Championship
Thompson’s achievement is slightly different to the others listed here, but no less worthy for all that. She is a regular winner on the LPGA Tour but has become best known for the four-shot penalty she suffered at the 2017 ANA Inspiration - she had replaced her ball incorrectly during the third round and was informed that she had been penalised while leading the women’s major during the final round. Incredibly, she battled back and forced her way into a playoff which she ultimately lost. She was the subject of a great deal of adverse publicity and was trolled on social media. Afterwards she went on record as saying that it had all had a profound effect on her state of mind. And it is hardly surprising - no golfer wants to be labelled as a cheat. It came to a head just before the Women’s British Open when she announced that she was withdrawing because she needed to take some time away from golf to clear her mind. Several weeks later Thompson also revealed that she had been struggling for years with body image issues. It surprised many as this, to all intents and purposes, is a confident young woman who was happy to take part in photo shoots. It turned out the reality was very different. Thompson played in the season-ending LPGA Tour Championship with her brother on her bag and smiled from start to finish as she returned to the winners’ circle. And then she shed tears of joy.
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