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June 23, 2010

Truth and Rumors: Tiger's weakness, Dustin's caddie speaks, Northern Ireland's emergence

Whinin' Tiger
The news of the day yesterday seemed to be Tiger's willingness to throw Stevie Williams under the bus for some of his decisions in the final round of the U.S. Open. Today, Johnette Howard of NBC Sports thinks Tiger's whining is a sign of mental weakness:

That bargain between pros and their caddies is as old as tournament golf itself. And Woods knows the decorum as well as anybody. Yet there Woods was Sunday, complaining about some club selection advice that Williams gave him during a train wreck of a final round that featured six bogeys on his first 12 holes. Instead of Tiger the Worldbeater — which Woods seemed poised to return to after a sizzling third-round 66 on Saturday pulled him back into contention — what we got on Sunday was Tiger the Whiner.

There’s no use even mentioning the “old” Woods would’ve never yelped like he did about how Williams’ final-round advice doomed him, or about the difficulties of putting on the Pebble Beach greens, as Woods whined Saturday and Thursday before that...

And the odd thing was, Woods’ game shows promising signs now and then. What’s changed about him is this new fragility he’s showing, this inability to not only overcome setbacks but avoid turning them into public Shakespearean dramas where he tosses his head, drops his clubs in anguish after a bad shot, and later insinuates that the world or even those closest to him — like Williams, his caddie of 11 years — are betraying him.

Howard goes on to cite a bunch of missed opportunities, of which Tiger had plenty over the weekend. I think the most surprising part of Tiger's complaining doesn't have to do with Stevie at all, but with his bad attitude about the course. A player being frustrated with his caddie and taking him out back for a verbal spanking isn't exactly news (even for Tiger Woods) but the idea of Tiger complaining that Pebble was playing too hard is seriously surprising. When Woods decimated the course in 2000, it was playing just as hard, if not harder than this year. Suddenly complaining that the greens were too fast or the rough too deep is a tacit admission that Woods' game is just not as good as it used to be.

More Caddie Talk
It's hard to know what really happened to Dustin Johnson on Sunday, other than that he played one of the worst front nines in the history of 54-hole major leaders. While Johnson himself can barely explain it, Kevin Merfield of the Monterey Herald went to an even better source, Johnson's caddie:

"I know that Dustin feels the same way that I do," said Johnson's caddie Bobby Brown from his home in La Quinta on Tuesday afternoon. "Obviously, Sunday was very hard to go through, but I don't know how to explain it. We're not devastated. We're just disappointed. It's hard to explain the vibe that's going on, on the golf course when things aren't going good. But you just keep your head down and keep moving forward. You try not to show too much emotion. You keep waiting for things to turn around."

Besides overall impressions of the round, Brown details some of Johnson's most head-scratchingly ridiculous decisions, like hitting a left-handed chip from the deep stuff on the par-4 2nd:

"I was a little bit shocked to see him go at that thing left-handed, because the first thing I thought he was going to do was take an unplayable, or chip it back into the bunker," Brown said. "It all happened so fast. I was about ready to say something, and he kind of told me to get out of the way and said, 'I got this.' At that point, you kind of get out of the way. Maybe next time I won't get out of the way. I'm not sure." Johnson's third chip rolled up to 5 feet, but he missed the putt, taking a triple-bogey and completely erasing his three-shot lead.

At the end of the day, Dustin Jonson played one of the nuttiest rounds you're ever going to see in a major from a guy actually in contention (much less leading) on Sunday. Merfield hits most of the big points (and I highly recommend reading the whole article), but there's one question that I think remains unasked: what happens when Johnson shows up for next year's AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am? Has there ever been a two-time defending champion of a tournament who's most pressing memory of that course is going to be blowing the chance of a lifetime? That's one tee time I know I'm going to be watching.

When Irish Putts Are Sinking
From the disappointments to the victor, here's a charming piece from Conor O'Clery at GlobalPost.com about how Northern Ireland is becoming a force in professional golf:

Graeme McDowell from Portrush, County Antrim, has just won the U.S. Open championship at Pebble Beach, Calif., the first European to lift the title in 40 years.

Wonder kid Rory McIlroy from Holywood, County Down, broke the course record with a 10 under par 62 when winning the Quail Hollow Championship in Charlotte, N.C., on May 2 — becoming the only player other than Tiger Woods to come in first in a PGA tour event prior to his 21st birthday.

And in Dungannon, County Tyrone, they still talk about the day in February 2000, when local man Darren Clarke beat Tiger Woods 4 and 3 at La Costa in California to become the first European to win a world match play golf championship.

O'Clery has a few theories as to why Irish golf is on the rise:

First, practically everyone in the estimated population of 1.8 million plays golf at some time or other, whether it be on the local “pitch and putt” course, or as a member of one of 90 or so full-size courses which include championship links located along the windswept coastline. The pitch and putt concept was popularized first in Ireland and involves little more than a tin hut and a string of par three holes which are played with one iron and a putter.

Secondly, golf clubs in Northern Ireland are not “country clubs,” as they are known in the United States, with all the elitism that that name implies. They are mostly egalitarian and affordable. With one or two exceptions, the general rule is that champions of industry mingle with bricklayers, and they compete together and socialize afterward.

Green fees in this corner of the Emerald Isle are also cheap compared to the rest of the world. A round of golf at the Valley course attached to Royal Portrush Golf Club costs a mere 25 pounds ($37). Compare that with $495 for 18 holes at Pebble Beach in California.

“Not only does Northern Ireland have excellent courses and opportunities for young people to participate in golf, there are excellent coaching facilities,” said Robbie Doherty, twice captain of Rathmore Golf Club which produced McDowell. “The result is self-evident.”

It's interesting that with all the talk of the British Invasion earlier in the year, the Irishmen are suddenly in a prime position to make their mark on 2010. If Padraig Harrington or McIlroy can make a run at St. Andrews, we might be talking about Europe's secret Ryder Cup weapon: the Emerald Isle.

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