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Perils of prevent defense

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2009 PGA ChampionshipTiger Woods, an analytical type who likely learns more from the rare defeat than he does from those multitude of victories, was put on the spot twice last week by the assembled media masses.
 
First, he was asked if he ever thought he choked with a tournament on the line? The response was icy and hardly discernible almost to the point that one half imagined that Woods didnt understand the meaning of the word. Finally, the world's No. 1 offered a stoic shake of his head ' no.
 
On Sunday following what may have been the worst putting round of his career during a major championship Sunday jump ball, Woods was asked if hed played the final round at Hazeltine National too conservative?
 
Tiger Woods Hazeltine
Tiger Woods waits on the eighth tee during the final round of the 91st PGA Championship. (Getty Images)
When youve got 640-yard par 5s I really cant get there. . . .I dont know how aggressive I can play, Woods said.
 
Second guessing Woods is a fools errand. If your name is not Jack Nicklaus, 14 major championships and 70 Tour titles make Woods bulletproof. Woods, like Nicklaus before him, has made history by putting himself in the hunt come Sunday and waiting for those around him to fold away like banana peels (Sergio Garcia at Liverpool in 2006 comes to mind for some reason).
 
In fairness to Woods, Nicklaus created the game plan and did alright. We cherish his 18 majors as golf scripture, but often forget about those 19 Grand Slam runners-up, a statistic that suggests the formula worked well but it wasnt perfect.
 
Whether Woods played too cautiously on Sunday ' or Saturday, when his 71 gave two shots back to the field and transformed the final round from a coronation into a curiosity ' at Hazeltine National is a debate that can only be answered by Woods, and the games alpha male undoubtedly has little interest in that type of revisionist psycho-babble.
 
What is not up for debate is the dangers of playing 'prevent defense' on a PGA Tour Sunday.
 
Players, coaches and sports psychologists seem to unanimously agree on this one, playing to protect a lead is the preeminent destroyer of title dreams ' ahead of the yips, Woods and John Paramors stopwatch.
 
There is nothing good that comes out of playing prevent defense, said Randy Smith, who counts Justin Leonard and recent winner John Rollins among his stable of Tour players. Its a great defense because it prevents you from winning.
 
It is telling that the players that have given Woods a Grand Slam go are the ones with nothing to lose ' Rich Beem, Bob May, Rocco Mediate and now Y.E. Yang. No one gave the former car stereo salesman, the journeyman, the funnyman or the converted bodybuilder much of a chance and maybe thats the key ' from lowered expectations come major championships.
 
Things that dont last ' dogs that chase cars, golfers who putt for pars and Tour hopefuls who play prevent defense.
 
While Greg Norman may have never admitted as much, his Sunday Grand Slam record speaks for itself. The Sharks high-profile Sunday brushes are Exhibit A in the dangers of playing prevent defense, including his closing 77 last year at Royal Birkdale and that heartbreaking 78 on Sunday at Augusta National in 1996.
 
Its not so much the act of playing defensively as much as it is the undermining psychological impact of playing not to lose.
 
On a conceptual level if you are having that thought its going to show in the golf swing, said Dr. Gio Valiante, a Tour sports psychologist. In a golfer they say dont lose, they decel in the golf swing or hit away from the flag. What seems to work is a fearless swing and a conservative target.
 
Perhaps the most profound recent example of ego avoid, the psychological term for playing to protect a lead, is Greg Owens painful collapse at the 2006 Arnold Palmer Invitational.
 
With a commanding lead over Rod Pampling with three to play at Bay Hill, the Englishman limped home, covering the last three in 4 over par to lose by one stroke. Owen has never recovered.
 
The line between playing conservative and playing with fear is as thin as a missed 3 footer, and most sports psychologist try to have their players create a game plan and stay with it, regardless of the circumstances or pressure.
 
What you want to do is play your game, said Dr. Bob Rotella. What youre saying (if you play prevent defense) is basically you dont think you can win. If thats what you want to do you better be really luck.
 
Coming down the stretch with a title on the line, however, can make a mental mouse of even the Tours hardest competitors, particularly when courses are littered with electronic scoreboards that leave no room for ambiguity.
 
But then many of the games experts have no problem with Sunday leaderboard watching.
 
I want to know, Smith said. I want to make it my mindset to win, not to make a stupid mistake doing something I didnt need to do.
 
Lucas Glover became the poster child for scoreboard gazing at Bethpages Black Course, spending almost as much time sizing up the cast assembled around him as he did studying that 8 footer he ran in at the 16th on Sunday at the U.S. Open.
 
I watch (leaderboard), absolutely, Glover said in New York. A football coach doesnt coach the final quarter of a game not knowing the score.
 
And major champions dont play to lose, a certainty right up there with death, taxes and Woods with a 54-hole lead . . . um, you get the idea.
 
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