Oosthuizen vs. Poulter: Talent vs. tenacity


We've reached the bonus-golf season in the great Northeast. Any round played after Halloween is like stealing candy from Mother Nature, who tried to end things early by sending Hurricane Sandy our way last week. For all the destruction the superstorm caused, for all the people in this region whose lives were so adversely affected, we lost a grand total of one tree at the Little Brown Dog.

Less than 72 hours later, we were back out there swingin’ and cussin’, thankful to be so fortunate, at least until we reached the second tee. Some of my buddies were without electricity in their homes until the weekend. We lost power only briefly, but my short game is missing and my 60-degree wedge now lives at the bottom of the pond in front of the 10th green.

I’m sorry, but sometimes, an innocent club must bear the blame for a man’s physical inadequacies. My insurance agent has since informed me that my policy does not cover wagers lost because of chunked chips, skulled bunker shots and other various round-killers. The 60-degree has been replaced, but those 60-degree days are likely gone until April.

It leaves me wondering if I should skip the rest of the bonus-golf season and take up knitting. Golf can be a really fun game until you actually start playing it.

ALL DISAPPOINTMENT is relative. Whether it’s turning a 76 into an 82 because you never get up and down, or leading a strong field by five shots after 36 holes before finishing T-6, as Louis Oosthuizen did in China this past weekend. Or, for that matter, if you’re hosting an unofficial/official World Golf Championship without Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, as was also the case at the HSBC Champions.

Let’s address Oosthuizen first. We’re talking about a guy who trampled the field at the 2010 British Open, joined the PGA Tour the following year and managed one top-10 (T-9, U.S. Open) in 13 regular-season starts. Heck, Oosthuizen finished 148th in the 2011 FedEx Cup standings, meaning he didn’t qualify for the playoffs, then had to come back to America for two Fall Series events just to reach the 15-tournament minimum.

His weak performance throughout 2011 revived whispers that Oosthuizen wasn’t a hard worker, that he wasn’t passionate about competitive golf and found more enjoyment doing other things. Valid or not, Oosthie rebounded nicely in 2012. The Masters playoff loss to Bubba Watson left him a whisker short of becoming a multiple major champion – a week after shooting a front-nine 41 to surrender the 54-hole lead in Houston.

He had three top-fives and made $1,832,067 in the final seven weeks of the season, however, a stretch reflective of Oosthuizen’s considerable skill. Very few players swing the club as beautifully or as efficiently. And when Oosthie gets hot with the putter, which was the case in the third round at TPC Boston a couple of months ago, then again during the first two rounds in China, he looks unbeatable.

Turns out that five-stroke lead wasn’t nearly enough. Immense physical ability can take you a long way in this game, perhaps even into the top 50 in the world ranking, but mental toughness is what wins tournaments, what turns talented players into extremely productive ones. Mental toughness is what defines greatness and allows guys like HSBC winner Ian Poulter to maximize their skills on a fairly consistent basis.

Oosthuizen has won three times since the 2010 British, all against inferior fields: tournaments with no more than a handful of competitors in his class. He’s gifted enough to dominate lesser players, but once the weekend cast was set in China – perhaps a dozen potential contenders, many of them established stars – Oosthie became a different player. As did Poulter, who bested the 36-hole leader by 12 strokes and seems to thrive on opportunities to knock off the game’s elite.

We’ve seen it in vivid detail at more than one Ryder Cup. Near the end of his Saturday night news conference at Medinah, U.S. captain Davis Love III marveled over Poulter’s ability to channel a me-vs.-the-world mentality into an otherworldly performance, saying, “On one hole, some [gallery members] were giving him a hard time about something, and he seemed to enjoy it.”

Churning negative perception into positive reality – it’s a quality that can’t be taught. It’s not easily defined and practically impossible to measure, but you know it when you see it. Poulter has it. Oosthuizen doesn’t.

AS FOR THE HSBC Champions itself, I’ve read a bunch of related stories and watched the tournament into the wee hours on numerous occasions. I’ve sifted through the literary rubble of the latest PGA Tour press release announcing the HSBC as an “official” event in 2013 – real money, real FedEx Cup credit – which I already knew. Still, I’m left to shake my head.

If you’re going to call it a World Golf Championship, why wasn’t it designated as official when they slapped the WGC label on it back in 2009? It’s kind of like dressing up as a cop for Halloween, then pulling people over for speeding.

How official or unofficial will this thing be if Woods and McIlroy decide not to show up again? The fact that both had played in Asia the week before, then left after last Monday’s made-for-money challenge match, doesn’t speak highly as to the HSBC’s importance. The fact that Tiger and Rory formally apologized for their absence didn’t make things all better.

But then, who cares about the facts? “I believe that golfers have a responsibility to their sponsors,” said HSBC official Giles Morgan. “Without the sponsors, there isn’t professional golf. I speak on behalf of the industry.”

Nice try, Giles. No athlete on earth has proven more receptive to the almighty sponsorship dollar than Sir Eldrick. Years ago, Woods stopped playing Colonial because it was underwritten by MasterCard, which he considered a direct competitor to American Express. He blamed the lousy greens at Kapalua for his not participating in the season-opening Mercedes Championships, although one could see how his profitable relationship with Buick might have had something to do with it.

Bottom line? Well, uh, it’s the bottom line. HSBC might have been better off, especially in the long run, by ducking the WGC shingle and using its marketing/promotions cash to pay the players directly – appearance fees without Camp Ponte Vedra’s fingerprints all over it. To anyone who thinks the PGA Tour’s interest in expanding to Asia has nothing to do with lining its own pockets, please, pass me some of that stuff you’re smoking.

You want Tiger? Pony up, Giles. You need him a lot more than he needs you.

MY MOST RECENT conversation with Hank Haney, first referenced here last week, ultimately veered toward the same subject as do all my talks with the swing coach: the state of Tiger’s game. Haney hasn’t worked with Woods since May 2010, but that doesn’t mean he’s not watching everything the guy does. And a few things he doesn’t do.

I bring this up after casually mentioning to Haney that Woods drove the ball better in 2012 than he has in years. More fairways, far fewer second shots from the hot-dog stand. That’s how I saw it, anyway, which did not sit well with my man. “Everyone is saying that!” Haney retorted. You’ve got to look at the numbers!”

So I did, and from a statistical standpoint, Haney is right. Woods hit 63.93 percent of his fairways in 2012, compared with 64.29 in 2009, the last full season they worked together. Tiger was 1 yard longer in ’09 (298.4 per measured drive) than he was this year, which doesn’t mean anything because they still measure just two drives per round. And while the difference in accuracy was just as negligible, I would have sworn Eldrick was more precise off the tee in 2012.

It prompted me to examine other numerical comparisons between 2009 and 2012. In terms of hitting greens in regulation, Woods led the Tour this year from 175-200 yards and was second in proximity to the hole from the same distance. His GIR numbers on middle/long-iron approaches were fairly similar. One common trend stood out in both years: The farther Woods played a shot from the hole, the more likely he was to rank among the best on the Tour.

In ’09, however, Tiger’s short-iron/wedge play was considerably stronger: more greens hit, shorter putts and, presumably, more chances to make them. Across the board, however, you wouldn’t look at Woods’ 2012 putting stats and see them as the reason he won three tournaments instead of six. His rankings from each distance were a little better overall in ’09, but not by much.

Some dude on another sports network has a show called “The Numbers Don’t Lie,” which is sort of true if you employ the line in the proper context. In many cases, the numbers don’t say a thing — or don’t begin to tell the entire story. That certainly is the verdict rendered here.

SO I WAS pretty doggone stoked about a 14-year-old qualifying for next year’s Masters – until I saw him using a belly putter to hole the tournament-winner, which I find both highly amusing and maddeningly frightening. I suppose a kid has to wrap his arms around every advantage he can get, but it would be kind of funny if the R&A and U.S. Golf Association outlawed anchored putters before next April, leaving the poor child to yip his way around the cathedral.

As for Chinese prodigy Tianlang Guan making it into next year’s first major with his triumph at the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship, you mean to tell me he’s more deserving of a spot than, say, Jonas Blixt, who won the PGA Tour’s Frys.com Open? Not that it’s worth getting in a huff about – a 14-year-old is much better copy than some winner of a Fall Series event – but seriously.

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