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Terrible Tiger takes a tumble

Siddharth Shriram  |  Augusta (Georgia) 

No doubt that is a worthy defending champion, but he is not the story — unless he wins this year, too, which seems unlikely. The real story is still (even when he is nowhere near in contention). On Day 3, Saturday, they were paired and the performance of both was dismal. On Day 2, after a birdie par birdie start, Tiger fizzled out and could do nothing right. No further birdies but five bogeys in a round remarkable only for a perfect demonstration of his all-consuming temper, as he spat, swore and stewed in his own internal cauldron of misery. He cannot get out of this by abusing his clubs, as he did on the 16th tee, as though his nine iron was at fault. His behaviour at this level is petulant and the worst of any great champion in the history of the game. When hundreds of millions, including many youngsters who may idolise him, are watching the world over, and because this sport is played by many golfers right up to the time they can no longer walk (and then they play it in their minds) and they want to carry good memories of their heroes, it behoves a great champion to conduct himself with appropriate decorum.

At Augusta National, they prefer to honour great champions with bridges, plaques or other mentions, provided they are also thorough gentlemen and are known for a high degree of sobriety in public gaze. Thus, Jimmy Demaret, who won more Masters titles than either Hogan, Saraceni (Sarazen) or Nelson, does not find a mention because of his flamboyant dressing and much too sociable manners — nothing wrong with the bloke otherwise. I very much doubt that Tiger will ever earn a plaque here, as Nicklaus and Palmer have done, and it will not be because he is black. Mickleson might, because, besides being a three-time champion, he is a thorough gentlemen and gracious (he stood behind Palmer, Player and Nicklaus at the Honorary starting early on Thursday morning to add further flavour to the publicly-consumed event, though his starting time was some six hours away). This comes naturally and is not an act. Tiger’s public relations appear to be only a veneer. Suppose he had also come for this event and mingled, he would have been perceived differently. Now, he is older and less frightening to his peers, more or less, and, therefore, needs to draw deeper from whatever spiritual reservoirs there are within him, if he hopes to catch Jack Nicklaus’ 18 majors, leave aside overtaking this magic number. The Green Jacket is not his entitlement, but he behaves as though it is.

Another aspect of Tiger’s game is his frequent need to change swing coaches. Most of these coaches have not played professional golf and many of them, including the so-called greatest, will not be able to break 100 today. What trick can they teach an old professional? If Freddy Couples, at age 52, and other professional golfers can push the winning age higher, which champion’s swing can need a material change? It is almost impossible to sustain any change as you grow older because, sub-consciously, the mind and body quickly return to what comes naturally. After all this coaching sound and fury, Friday saw him hitting the ball like a 15-year-old, swinging from on top of his swing. By this stage, there should be an easy self-analysis of what went wrong after every shot, without rancour.

207 (9-under)-Peter Hanson (Swe) 68-74-65;
208 Phil Mickelson (USA) 74-68-66; 
209 Louis Oosthuizen (RSA) 68-72-69; 
210 Bubba Watson (USA) 69-71-70; 
211 Matt Kuchar (USA) 71-70-70; 
212  Lee Westwood (Eng) 67-73-72; Padraig Harrington (Ire) 71-73-68; Henrik Stenson (Swe) 71-71-70; Hunter Mahan (USA) 72-72-68; 
213 Paul Lawrie (Sco) 69-72-72.

Freddy Couples, crossing 50, has become a power to be reckoned with on the Seniors Tour and won there just two weeks ago. As a past Masters champion (not being in the top 50 in the world), he has popped back this side of the seniors and has carried his good form with him. Informed past champions opine that putting is Freddy’s real problem and that, in the final two days, when push comes to shove, he will yip, and, therefore, he cannot win. Westwood is looking great but now he has demonstrated that he kind of chokes and gets too loose on his chips as he approaches a potential victory and, therefore, cannot win. Really speaking, this leaves the field wide open to the likes of McIlroy, the maturing Jiminez, the surprise of Garcia, and a host of young and talented American players. They would like to see a US winner for a change, when the top players in the world appear to be from Europe and South Africa.

The puzzle of Ryo Ishikawa needs to be explored for a good solution. He may feel that playing on the US PGA tour will hone his skills and talents to the level of a Samurai Master, but, on the other hand, great centrifugal forces pull him back to the Japanese tour which has nurtured him. The Golfing Elders in Japan should generously “release” him from this filial obligation, particularly when he has the skill, talent and, very importantly, personal presence that can bring great laurels back to Japan with success on the US PGA tour, much as Isao Aoki did many years ago. This personal conflict has to be resolved so that his confidence may be built, allowing him to win in any company and tour. He will, thus, generate an additional massive momentum in Japan and Asia for many young people, men and women, to take to this game of life. Sadly, he missed the cut and he will have to earn his spurs to come back here next year.

The weather was very changeable on Day 2, hovering around the 50s for most of the morning and edging up to the low 60s as the clouds abated. The feared rain never arrived, the course dried out somewhat and the liberally sprayed green gravel of yesterday crunched reassuringly underfoot, rather than squelched. There were certainly less mud balls but equally the wind became more active and took its toll on number 12 and some other holes.

K J Choi, a popular player, stumbled out of the tournament with three uncharacteristic double bogeys. McIlroy took off like a rocket and threatened to overtake the field, but settled to finish one shot behind. Couples’ birdies attracted thunderous roars of applause owing to his very considerable popularity and respect for his grey hair. The degree of applause can inform the spectators at a great distance as to whether the player concerned is popular or famous or among the favourites or just one among the top 50. Thus, the applause for Couples’ birdie on the 16th reverberated through the several hundred acres of and most of the cognoscenti knew it was him. In the case of Tiger, there were only sorrowful murmurs and dying away groans as he sought to exorcise the demons within the swirling winds in his mind.

Gary Player, of course, a past champion and seasoned player, but also an objective observer, figures that Oosthuizen is showing all the hallmarks of a great champion to be. His huge margin of victory at the British Open is not a flash in the pan and the character he showed in rebuilding his round after a disastrous double on the Par 5 second, which yields the most birdies, demonstrates great reserves of inner resolve and strength. He could be the 24th South African major winner here this week.

The winning score is likely to be about -14, so everyone knows who has to make up how much to win. Tiger is clearly out, as he will need two 65s, which he cannot manage. On this dazzlingly beautiful emerald green course, where the bright sunlight filtering through the towering pines creates movements on the ground such as in a magic lantern show, the stage is being set for yet another dramatic Masters denouement.

The author is chairman, Honda Siel Cars India Ltd, and co-chairman, Usha International Ltd

First Published: Mon, April 09 2012. 00:14 IST