Monday, April 09, 2012

Only half a brain left

Anybody who watches three games of football in a row should be declared brain dead. 
Erma Bombeck

Over the weekend, I watched a large part of the Masters.  The player I thought would win, Louis Oosthuisen, hit an albatross (double eagle) yesterday.  He did it on the second hole, with an iron from about 265 yards out.  Watching that shot on TV (which they replayed frequently) it looked like it was ordained.  The greens slope so that if the ball lands in the right way the ball will take the slope and roll toward the cup.  In this case the ball rolled about 90 feet, orthogonal to its flight, and went in.  It was so unusual to witness.  Oosthuisen was two shots off the lead at the time.  Since the leader bogeyed, he took a two-shot lead.  Immediately after that it appeared the tournament was his was for the taking.

Almost to confirm that, Phil Mickelson, the media darling and the only one among the leaders who had already won a Green Jacket (Phil has three to his credit) had a bizarre experience on the par 3 fourth hole, where he got a triple-bogey six.  He had hit the grandstand on his shot from the tee and it bounced backward into some scrub.  It was an incredibly unlucky break for him, one that would ultimately cost him the tournament.  The announcers, I think, called it wrong from there.  He had no good choice at that point.  You could hear him think it through.  He could take an unplayable lie (I believe lose a stroke for that), but where he would drop he wouldn't have a swing at the ball.  He could go back to the tee, hitting his third shot from there.  That may have been the better alternative.  But it was a tough par three and doing that he might still end up with the triple bogey.  What he opted to do was hack it out.  He could only get his club on the ball swinging right handed (Mickelson is a lefty).  So with his club "upside down" he took a right handed shot at the ball.  The ball moved a little but not that much.  He then did it again, knocking the ball into the sand trap.  It was very weird to watch this.  As I said, the announcers were saying that Phil had unraveled at this point.  It felt that way but in review I'm not sure that's true.  Once you're in a bad circumstance, your performance is apt to look poor thereafter.

The tournament winner, Bubba Watson, was Oosthuisen's playing partner.  I now have a theory of golf tournaments seemingly born out by the events this weekend, that if the tournament is close a player wants his playing partner to do well, though they are competing against each other.  The partner's good karma will somehow elevate his own performance.  Further, it may be that staying close but coming from behind is easier mentally, since the expectations are not as high as if you have the lead.  Watson started the round in fourth place, three shots out of the lead.  He played the final round in four under par, which is an extremely high level performance given the pressure of the situation.  Oosthuisen, apart from the albatross, played his round in par.  It is psychologically tough to be the leader, when the lead is not large, and remain patient and level headed with that.  Oosthuisen seemed to have the right temperament.  The commentators talked about that all weekend.   But actually you could see it get to him a little bit.  Watson could grind without having to deal with being the leader.  He tied for the lead on the 17th hole in the final round.  Only then did the closeups of his face reveal just how intense he was feeling.  He won the tournament on the second hole of the playoff, with a shot only he could pull off.

As if to set up the magical ending, earlier the former champion and now commentator, Nick Faldo, talked about Watson on the practice tee, hitting weird shots, slices and duck hooks with his wedge, as long as 170 yards.  Nobody else does this.  So Faldo had us wondering why Watson would practice these sort of shots.  Watson is known as a player with enormous talent, the longest hitter on the tour, also with a great imagination for shot making, but unorthodox in his approach.  His footwork is not good and he seems off balance at times.  He's never had a formal golf lesson.  He developed his own idiosyncratic style without tutoring.  So Faldo, whose own game was in the classic style, was critical of Watson earlier in the tournament, but Faldo had to temper that criticism because of Watson's performance in the final round. On that second playoff hole, Watson was deep into the pine straw with a seemingly impossible shot.  Yet as the announcer Jim Nantz observed, Watson had an "opening".  He hit a duck hook wedge about 150 yards, through the opening and curving onto the green.  Afterward he said it curved about 40 yards.   Seeing the ball roll on the green you could believe that; it was still curving then.    Watson had taken the advantage with that shot and put the pressure on Oosthuisen, who had not gotten on the green with this second shot.  He ended up with a bogey, and that was the tournament. 

I know a lot of people feel golf on TV is dull as dishwater and sometimes that is right.  This, however, was high drama and compelling to view.  It did last a long time.  While on Saturday the broadcast came on at 2:30 PM, on Sunday they started at 1 PM.  With the playoff and presentation of the Green Jacket afterward, it was almost 7 by the time it was all over.

It's a good thing golf is not football.

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