January 06, 2010
Many fans wonder how a young, healthy person can get tired playing a leisurely game like golf. They see the private jets, the caddies carrying their bags, the agents handling their affairs, the on-site day care, luxury hotels, fitness trailers and other amenities, and they wonder: Why can't a tour player work more than 25 weeks a year? For many fans, playing golf every day is what they aspire to do when they retire.What wears the top players out is the fact that they have to post their scores to the whole world. The psychological, emotional and physical toll of doing this is, believe it or not, profound. Every day is an annual performance review, and the only measure is the score they shot. There are no co-workers to blame; no place for them to hide. Knowing that, they try their hardest on every shot. The concentration level not only is intense, it has to be sustained. When Phil Mickelson is five over par with four holes to play and is headed for a 77, he knows it's going to be news. The media are going to ask why he missed seven fairways, and whether he's still haunted by Winged Foot.The result is that players go through episodes of burnout, and they start dying for a break. You'll notice that when they come back, they always talk about how nice it was to recharge, not how they slept in every day.For all my bluntness of players, the fatigue factor is something I understand and sympathize with. In fact, I get tired just thinking about how tired I used to get when I was playing.
Of all the great holes I enjoyed watching players grapple with at Oakmont during the U.S. Open, my favorite was the par-4 17th (left). At 313 yards it looked to be a pussycat. Heck, the eighth hole, a par 3, was only 13 yards shorter one day. But the 17th turned out to be a beast and showed how the short par 4 can make a good course great. To me, it's more dramatic than the barely-reachable-in-two par 5.The short par 4 is delicate. The idea is to make going for the green irresistible. If you pull it off, great. But if you miss -- as Jim Furyk and Tiger Woods did on Sunday -- the penalty can be severe. Furyk took three shots to reach the green and made bogey. Woods barely escaped with a par. Both finished one shot behind Angel Cabrera and had to wonder what would have happened if they'd laid up and left themselves with a short pitch.
We know Arnold Palmer was the most charismatic player who ever lived, but just how good was his game? So much time has passed since Arnold could really play (his last PGA Tour victory was the 1973 Bob Hope). Two generations have no idea what his game was like and how he won 62 PGA Tour tournaments, including seven majors. I saw Arnold in the 1970s, when he could still post good numbers.Arnold was a terrific driver of the ball and a superb putter, but what made him great was the way he played the game. To Arnold, every hole was a new adventure. That is, he played every hole according to the way he felt at the moment. He didn't overthink. He didn't adhere to a game plan or worry about swing mechanics or past failures. He played every hole fresh, like a birdie wasn't just a possibility but a certainty. More than any golfer in history, Arnold's spirit trumped his technical excellence.The golfer who most closely resembled Arnold was Tom Watson. At the other end were Jack Nicklaus and Ben Hogan, tacticians who "worked" the game. Both styles are effective, but for entertainment, Arnold's way was the most fun to watch.