I grew up in the 1950s and learned to play golf in the 1960s. The first article I ever read about golf was in Sports Illustrated, circa mid ‘60s, in which Arnold Palmer was quoted saying, “Golf is 80 percent mental.” (I know, Jack Nicklaus said it too. My favorite is golf coach Jim Flick’s “Golf is 90 percent mental, and the other 10 percent is mental too.”) Since then, I considered that every bad shot I made on the golf course was the result of a blip in concentration, a misjudgment of conditions, laziness or over-aggressiveness; in other words, nothing physical, just momentary mental lapses that creep into your mind at the top of your backswing or as you are stroking a putt.
The Wee Ice Man Cometh Back
I also recall reading as a youngster the inspiring story of Ben Hogan and how he won the 1950 U.S. Open at Merion just 18 months after his car collided with a Greyhound bus, breaking virtually all the bones in his body that were necessary to strike a golf ball properly. No one ever questioned Hogan’s mental toughness, which translated, often enough, as a taciturn and unfriendly nature. The discipline to come back from those physical injuries was beyond impressive. (The Brits called him “The Wee Ice Man.”)
If I were older than 2 in 1950, I might have been rooting for Hogan, although I am an admittedly contrary fan; I don’t like to root for the guy (or team) that most everyone else is gaga about. When I was young, my favorite baseball team was the Brooklyn Dodgers -– “The Bums” -- and my least favorite, the one I rooted against, was the ever-successful New York Yankees. I was gleeful when the Yankees hit that multi-year bad patch as the ‘80s turned into the ‘90s, yet I almost started feeling sorry for them after a few years, when they became the second most popular team in New York City. Almost.
Tiger Burning Bright
Which brings me around to Tiger Woods and his play over this last weekend at the PGA Championship and, indeed, his play over the last two months at the major tournaments. I think there is a case to be made that his comeback, which will almost certainly result in a win in one of the majors next year, might rank as nearly the most impressive of all time. In that prediction I am ignoring his terrible back problems, which are bad enough and worthy of a comeback award alone; more impressive, because golf is a mental game, is his comeback from the public fall from grace of that Thanksgiving eve crash into the tree, the smashing of the back window by his club-wielding wife, the agony of being separated from his kids, at least for a while, and the overall public humiliation and reckoning with his reputation.
Golf is indeed a mental game, and it takes an enormous discipline to retrain the mind to shut out the residue of public and private humiliations for 72 holes of high-pressure golf. It is a different type of discipline than coming back from the debilitating injuries of a head-on car crash. Yet on a golf course, the mental comeback may be tougher.
Although I am not a Tiger Woods fan, I will be pulling for him to win a major next year and complete what will be one of the greatest comebacks ever in golf or any sport. Once that happens, I will go back to rooting for the underdogs, or at least for those who will be getting much less attention than Tiger.