February 11, 2008

Groundhog Day on the Champions Tour

Can You Teach An Old Pro Some New Tricks?

Every day can seem like Groundhog Day on the Champions Tour. There is Hale Irwin tugging on the brim of his cap to acknowledge a birdie; Tom Kite twisting his head in disbelief when a putt doesn't drop; Jim Thorpe corkscrewing into that fullback's follow-through of his -- the scenes are as familiar as a Seinfeld rerun. Beyond a little less cartilage and (in some cases) a few more pounds, are these guys, like much of the electorate, up for change? It depends on who the old pro is and what the new tricks are.

The news that Bruce Lietzke played exactly one round of golf between Oct. 21, 2007 and Jan. 16, 2008 -- by choice, not because of snow cover, injury or illness -- will not bump Britney off the CNN crawl. He has long been the best hibernating act in golf. Lietzke doesn't take fruit with him, but once a caddie, disbelieving his boss' claims not to touch a club between one season and the next, placed a banana in one of his headcovers. Come January, the fruit was rotten, but Lietzke's swing was as fresh as ever.

Lietzke and Kite, a fellow Texan for whom long, sweaty sessions on the range come as easily as breathing, have debated the subject many times. "Kite and I have had many a conversation about what he thinks I could be if I had practiced all my life and what I think he could have done if he had just gone home and put a fishing pole in his hand every couple of days," Lietzke said. "I tested it a few times and found out my game wasn't any sharper the weeks after practicing than when I had been completely away from it."

I haven't worked on anything new. ... I haven't done one thing to change my swing since 1974.'

-- Bruce Lietzke

The high fade Lietzke stores every autumn reappears in winter, as reliable as a Macy's white sale. It has gotten him to age 56, and it will take him to the retirement which he has rehearsed so ably. "No," he said emphatically when asked at last week's Allianz Championship if he had picked up any new shots as a senior. "I still play my fade 99 percent of the time. The only club I try to hook is my 3-wood. Every other swing is either going to be a little fade or a big fade. I haven't worked on anything new. I don't want my swing to be any better tomorrow. I want it to be exactly like it was yesterday and exactly how it was three weeks ago and, in my case, exactly like it was 34 years ago. I haven't done one thing to change my swing since 1974."

When Curtis Strange was the best player on the planet, he would listen to skycaps and waiters, if they had a swing tip. Listen, mind you, not necessarily adopt. At 53, he is still looking for his first senior win, still looking for the secret. "Every day there's something wrong. I don't care what you shoot," he said last week. "You're just trying to get better. I don't know if there is such a thing as muscle memory, but it certainly affects your conscience if you don't practice. But I haven't picked up any shots out here [on the Champions Tour] except that pull-hook. I didn't hit one today, and it might have been the first day in four years I haven't hit one."

John Cook is working on distance control with his irons, something his longtime teacher, Ken Venturi, always stressed. It never ceases to amaze Irwin how much more of an effort it is to hit knockdown shots with current equipment than with the clubs and balls he used to win three U.S. Opens. "We came out when you could move the ball all over the place," concurred 66-year-old Dave Stockton. "I'm better now when I'm forced to create a shot. As you get older, I think you lose your ability to see shots. Now, if I'm in trouble, then I can see what I'm supposed to do."

Jay Haas tweaked his putting technique to improve his game as he approached 50, but an attitude adjustment helped him just as much. "As a younger player, when I did get in [contention], I probably played a little too scared," Haas said. "I've listened to myself tell my sons that this is what you work for -- to maybe win a tournament -- and to take advantage of it. If you're in a situation where you can't spit or swallow, and every shot is magnified, it's somewhat of an uncomfortable feeling. I tell my sons, if you're comfortable, you've probably missed the cut or you're in 50th place and nobody gives a rip. I've tried to brainwash myself a little."

If Lietzke started moving shots right to left, we really would be in "Manchurian Candidate" territory. "Can you show me how to hit a low hook?" Lietzke asked after the gusty final round of the Allianz, where he closed with a 68 and tied for second place. "I needed it out there so many times today. But you know what, I'll call you. Don't call me, OK?"