The Enforced Break Is Timely For Some Tour Professionals
WITH tournament golf in limbo around the world and even Sky Sports offering its customers the chance to pause their subscriptions because there is no live sport being played anywhere, there will be some Tour pros for whom the break could not have come at a worse time.
Tyrrell Hatton had just won his first PGA Tour title, Rory McIlroy had just recorded yet another top-five finish, Patrick Reed continued to dumbfound his critics and make them eat their words, Sungjae Im finds himself as the unlikely leader in the FedEex Cup standings and Brendon Todd had found a run of form that probably even he can’t logically explain. Trust me when I tell you that all of these individuals will be cursing the suspension of tournament play. McIlroy was desperate to win a tournament, while Hatton wanted to prove to the American public that his victory at Bay Hill was not a flash in the pan.
But there are others for whom the break could not have come at a better time. Take Brooks Koepka, for example. After going under the knife to have a troublesome knee injury repaired, the man who has dominated the game for the past two years returned to action and discovered that he couldn’t hit a barn door. He recorded his worst ever round of golf as a professional. He couldn’t find a fairway to save his life. And his putting touch had deserted him. He headed off to see Butch Harmon, father of his regular coach, Claude. Koepka told us that Butch had him sorted out within 10 minutes.
However, the evidence was somewhat different. He looks to be swinging the club exactly as he was when he was winning his majors but he has admitted that his confidence has taken a knock. You don’t become a bad golfer overnight, and you can be certain that Koepka will be pounding golf balls on the range as you read this, trying to work out exactly what is wrong. But there is nothing like competitive play to test where your game is at, and he and we will not know whether he has found his best form until tournament play resumes.
Tiger Woods will also have welcomed the break. After winning the ZoZo Championship and starring at the Presidents Cup at the end of last year, Woods began the season brightly enough but then his back began to play up again. Woods accepts that this is now part and parcel of his daily life, but this was serious enough to see him withdraw from a series of events, including the Arnold Palmer Invitational and the Players Championship. It was hardly the ideal preparation for his defence of the Green Jacket. Like he always does, Woods assured us that he would be fit for Augusta, but the chances are that he would have struggled horribly. So with The Masters now on the back burner until the end of the year, the 15-time major champion has a chance to rest and recuperate.
He will never again play a full schedule. Most tour pros play in 20-25 tournaments a year. This season will, of course, be entirely different. Woods will probably never again play in more than 12-15 tournaments in any one season as he tries to find the best way to cope with nursing his battered body through 72 holes. We all thought his career-saving back surgery was a turning point but the problem with serious back issues is that they never really go away. And the golf swing is not a natural motion. If you have an underlying back problem, golf will find you out. Time and again.
Woods is a determined character, however, and will be using this break to find a way to get his body back into shape. Write him off at your peril.
Spare a thought, too, for Tommy Fleetwood. After coming within a whisker of winning the Honda Classic, the following week he missed his first cut in more than two years. And it looked like he wasn’t going to make it to the weekend at the Players Championship either. Fleetwood will have mixed emotions. He will want to be back out there as soon as possible to prove that this was a blip. But he will also welcome the time off to ensure that any scar tissue has healed. And no matter what he may say, losing the Honda Classic the way he did most definitely hurt him.
Three years ago, Jordan Spieth won The Open Championship at Royal Birkdale in the most thrilling fashion. Nobody who witnessed his performance on the back nine that day will ever forget it. He hit a couple of magnificent iron shots and holed putts that no golfer should ever have the right to hole. In the process he broke Matt Kuchar’s heart and proved that his meltdown at the previous year’s Masters was a one-off. Except that it wasn’t.
Spieth hasn’t won a tournament since. In fact, you doubt he would win his club’s monthly medal. He can’t find a fairway to save his life. He routinely falls out with his caddie, Michael Greller, the same man to whom he gave such fulsome credit after that victory at Royal Birkdale. He has totally lost his touch and feel with a wedge in his hand and, most worrying of all, that magical putting touch seems to have deserted him. In short, Spieth is a shadow of the golfer he was back then. His world ranking has slumped and his confidence is at an all-time low. No golfer will welcome this break in play more than the American.
Spare a thought too for all the rookies on both the PGA and European Tours. They began the season with such high hopes and for many of them this will be a hugely worrying time as lucrative tournaments are cancelled and opportunities to secure their playing privileges for next season - and earn proper money - slip by. The world rankings will remain as they are for the foreseeable future, but that doesn’t help these young guys, many of whom have so far earned next to nothing in their first season as tour professionals.
You can head back to your home course, you can stand on a range and hit as many balls as you want but at the end of the day these young men and women want to test themselves against the best in the world.
Many of us are now working from home and lots of people are already saying that they are finding the lack of social contact extremely challenging. Phone calls and FaceTime are all well and good but it is not the same thing as sitting in and office and enjoying banter with colleagues. As this catastrophe continues to unfold, increasing numbers of people will find that they begin to suffer with mental health issues.
And why should our sportsmen be any different? Whether they be golfers, footballers, cricketers, rugby players, they are all used to routine. And in most cases their lives are organised for them, whether that be travel routines, training schedules or coaching sessions. The longer this situation continues, the greater the number will struggle with self-motivation. They may start to question the point of going to a driving range and hitting endless golf balls. And there will quite probably come a time in the not-too-distant future when they won’t even be able to do that.
Human beings are social animals - well, most of us are. We need contact with other human beings, which is why so many individuals are finding it so difficult to adhere to the social distancing guidelines the government and the medical community say is so important if we are to survive this crisis.
Thankfully, social media can be a force for good at this time and many professional golfers have been sharing posts on Twitter and other platforms. There is also a whole new world of fun on YouTube. We need to find new ways to communicate with one another and the evidence suggests that is happening.
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