IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

If only a psychologist can help him, Woods must give that his best shot

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 11, 2014

IT'S not just where he's finished this year: 80th, 41st, a withdrawal, 25th. It's not just the Sunday stumbles: In 17 events since 2013, he's broken 70 twice on day four. It's not just the misses: This Sunday he hits fans, the rough, bunkers, water, before he hurts his back. It's how young golfers see Tiger Woods which is so telling.

Jordan Speith, 20, says in January of his first round alongside Woods: "I wasn't intimidated" and then played like he wasn't. Patrick Reed, 23, wears a Tiger-red shirt on Sundays. It's effrontery, it's a salute, it's a mental tactic, it's a hoot. Reed finds his inner Tiger and wins Doral, Woods can't locate this fellow he once knew and has a 78. The mimic is better than the original.

Woods needs a doctor. Make that plural. For swing, for back, for brain. It's OK, champ, everyone needs reassurance. Even the self-assured Roger Federer did something radical in Dubai recently - he turned to his box after winning a set. It's lonely out there, which is why Woods might want to flick through his contact list and start with a call to Jay Brunza - an early caddie, a family friend and also a psychologist.

Reading Woods' mind is guesswork, for no champion has been so relentlessly opaque. No long interviews. No autobiography. Favourite answer: "It is what it is." Only his toughness spoke, in his calm, in his finishes, but now he's a hollowed-out hero whose mind might need repair. He doesn't look a man who trusts his game.

Pressure is an ancient sporting fiend and every athlete's talent is measured by his ability to journey from fear to the other end of the spectrum which is courage. As Jack Dempsey, the boxer, said: "A champion is someone who gets up even when he can't." Yet even as athletes highlighted the "mental game", it was their bodies they polished more than their minds. In sports' macho world there was an in-built resistance to advertising frailty: ah, psychologists, they were only for head cases.

But sport has had to react to its new universe. At one level has arrived recognition of the minuscule margins that determine victory. I need an edge, the athlete thinks, and it might be a new shot or a new mantra from a psychologist. At another level, in a highly-paid profession - where every facial tic and choice of fingernail polish is replayed and commented on - the stress is staggering.

And so the psychologist has gone from affectation to weapon. Phil Mickelson used mental coach Julie Elion and Major winners Keegan Bradley and Darren Clarke worked with the famed Dr Bob Rotella. No university degree is required here. Boris Becker has one from the court, which is why he's in Novak Djokovic's corner.

English football's hiring of sports psychiatrist Steve Peters was belated but brave. An under-achieving team, from a football land, with an unforgiving media, whose penalty-non-kicking is a national conversation - yes, they qualify for expert help.

Peters wrote a book, The Chimp Paradox, and Ronnie O'Sullivan, snooker's five-time world champion, is well-tutored in his theory. As O'Sullivan writes in his own book, Running: "The chimp is the emotional bit. You know every time you feel like putting down your cue or taking the first train home... that's your chimp having too much say."

The opposite of the chimp is the human, who is "all reason and logic, and if you start listening too much to the human you think too much and tend to become over-deliberate or too cautious... Dr Steve says the perfect balance ... is when the human and chimp are working in harmony."

O'Sullivan won the 2013 world championships after playing a single competitive match that entire season. Magic is too glib an explanation. This was fluent hand-eye skill at work but also a clear mind and both are equal instruments. It is this harmony Woods craves. As he stands over a shot - in a stop-start sport which lends itself to over-thinking, as does snooker - he smells of uncertainity.

England's players kick penalties with their nation's history of failures perched metaphorically on their heads. Woods' burdens are more abundant. He is vilified for his behaviour, is divorced, has two young kids, a bad back, is Major-less since China hosted the Olympics and his chase of Jack Nicklaus' 18 seems more curse than exciting countdown.

But Woods revels in remaking himself. He altered coaches and caddies and said once, "You can always push to get better". It will be torturous for a secretive man to reveal himself to a psychologist for it is also an admission that his mind, his sharpest weapon, has dulled. But perhaps it is time to ask for help. His late father, Earl, may have approved. After all, he majored in sociology. But his minor was in psychology.

rohitb@sph.com.sg

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 11, 2014

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