Golf is a Team Sport
By Michael Williams
Special to GolfWRX
I had the best run of my life picking games in this year’s NFL playoffs. I predicted the Giants and Patriots in the Super Bowl at the beginning of the playoffs (oh, yes I did).
I was so dialed in that I was predicting turnovers and two plays later they would happen. I missed on only two picks: the Steelers-Broncos game and the Super Bowl. And in both cases I got it wrong cause I bet on a superior player being able to overcome a superior team. Ben Roethlisberger is clearly a superior player to Tim Tebow, but the Steelers were decimated by injuries and were sufficiently diminished as a team to make them vulnerable. In the championship game, Tom Brady’s brilliance could not overcome the combination of a stellar performance by his opposite number Eli Manning the fact that the Giants’ superior personnel at virtually every position. In each case, the better team beat the better player.
As we continue to read the tea leaves of Pebble Beach for indications of what is coming in 2012, one thing is becoming clear. More than ever, today’s PGA Tour is a team sport.
Football is the analogy that comes to mind because the comparison of Brady and Manning fits so nicely with the premise. Brady and Tiger have both had their time as the absolute rulers of the roost. Their combination of skill, charisma and the ability to perform at their best when the stakes were highest propelled them into the pantheon of the greatest in their respective sports. Manning and Mickelson, though extraordinarily gifted in their own right, have been considered to be lesser versions of their storied rivals. Although the stage was not as grand as Manning’s in the Super Bowl, Mickelson produced a dazzling display of golf, trumping his rival Woods yet again in a head to head matchup. But it wasn’t just Mickelson alone. It was Team Mickelson.
A modern golfer has three basic components to his or her team. First is the caddy, a combination of coach, conspirator, consultant and confessor. The only member of the team that is on the field of play with the athlete, they have to have the physical strength to carry a 70 lb. cart bag six miles uphill, and the internal strength to trust their livelihood to athletes who have psyches more brittle than a frozen DVD. Second is the swing guru, who is responsible for giving the athlete the practical tools to enable them to win. The best of them like alchemists, able to take a player’s raw talent and turn it into gold. The third component is the family. The wife and children are front and center at most tournaments for a reason; they are the teammates that are present in other sports. They share the training table meal, travel on the planes, checking into the hotels and cheering on the sidelines. A stable, healthy and happy family is crucial to the ongoing success of the athlete.
When you match up Team Woods vs. Team Mickelson, the team concept gains credence. At the height of his power, Team Woods consisted of Tiger, Steve Williams, Butch Harmon and a gorgeous wife with two lovely children. Steve Williams won’t win Miss Congeniality, but he is one of the best in the game at what he does. He caddied for some of the best in the game before landing the Woods gig and he earned every one of the billion pennies that he made, managing the on-course performance of maybe the biggest prima donna/SOB in sports. But, as the saying goes, it takes one to know one. Butch Harmon was and is the greatest swing coach in history, end of story. Don’t talk to me about Harvey Penick, Jim Flick, etc. It’s all about Butch, baby. And despite the crash landing, Elin and Tiger started out as a happy couple that produced the heir that Earl so badly wanted to see before he passed away. With these three anchors in place, Tiger went on a run seldom seen in the game. He wasn’t even competing with the field; at every event he was paired in a foursome with History, Legacy and Destiny. He gave them two strokes a side and beat them going away.
Now, Team Woods has had a complete turnover at every position. Now on the bag is Joe LaCava, a guy who spent 20 years with Fred Couples and most of last season with Dustin Johnson. He is experienced and professional, but it’s a little different handling two of golf’s acknowledged nice guys and one of its most petulant performers. The guy who flies F-16s is a pilot; so is the guy who flies for JetBlue, but you wouldn’t expect to swap them out and not notice the difference. The latest swing guru is Sean Foley, who seems to have convinced Tiger of his methods but is seriously lacking in the “what have you done for me, ever” category. I think everyone knows the story of the home life.
Contrast that with Phil. He has his caddy Jim “Bones” Mackay, who has been with him his entire career and knows him better than he knows himself. Bones reads moods and greens equally well, so he knows exactly when Mickelson needs a kick or a cuddle. Butch Harmon is now in service of Mickelson, and every time Phil commits to Butch’s swing principles he wins. If Phil ever decided to put in the hours on the range with Harmon that Tiger did, history might look different. Lastly, Phil has a devoted family that has only been strengthened by their recent trials. Now that they are healthy and happy, both athlete and family can concentrate on winning.
Advantage, Team Mickelson.
The issue that golf enthusiasts have with the belly putter is that the club should not be anchored to the body. The plain truth is that every club, every swing is anchored to the mind. The more stable the mind, the more productive the golfer. In stressful times, you have to able to trust yourself; you learn to trust yourself by trusting others. Phil has built a formidable circle of trust, and it will be fascinating to see how far it takes him. For Tiger, it seems that the one person that he ever trusted thoroughly, his father, left his team and this life. In this chapter in his life, the key to regaining his ability may hinge on his lifelong quest for stability in Team Woods.
Michael Williams is the contributing editor of Newschannel8 Capital Golf Weekly and Bunkershot.com, as well as a member of the Golf Writers Association of America.
You can follow Michael on twitter — @Michaelontv