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When a Miss Becomes a Choke

PGA Tour (75x100)PALM HARBOR, Fla. -- One player missed a 4-foot putt to win and it was a shocker. Another player missed a 3-foot putt to win and it was considered a choke. The perception of the two misses is as different as the names Tiger Woods and Boo Weekley.
There's no telling how long the word 'choke' has been part of the golf vernacular, or when it first came into vogue. Perhaps the most famous use came at the 1989 Masters, and then only because Scott Hoch's last name rhymes with 'spoke,' or something like that.
A year later, Johnny Miller was in the broadcast tower for NBC Sports, watching Peter Jacobsen stand over a 225-yard approach from a downhill lie over water to the 18th green at the Bob Hope Classic.
'This is absolutely the easiest shot to choke I've ever seen in my life,' Miller said that day.
Jacobsen pulled off the shot and won the tournament, and Miller was vilified for daring to mention what everyone thinks.
'You'd think I'd exposed warts on Miss America,' he wrote in his book.
It happens.
And maybe Miller himself has become sensitive about the 'C' word, because he didn't utter it Sunday at the Honda Classic when Weekley three-putted from 30 feet on the 18th hole, missing a 3-footer that would have brought him his first PGA TOUR title.
Nor did he use it a week earlier at the Accenture Match Play Championship when Woods missed a 4-foot birdie putt on the first extra hole that would have won his third-round match against Nick O'Hern.
And that leads to a question that is hard to answer.
When does a miss become a choke?
Paul Goydos was asked Tuesday to define 'choke' and his response showed how touchy this subject is around golfers.
'Food lodged in the throat,' he said.
Miller defines it as stress manifesting itself mentally and physically. If that's the case, it happens every week.
'If you're out there and you don't feel pressure, you're not into what you're doing,' Curtis Strange said.
The two-time U.S. Open champion has felt both sides of emotion. He saved par from a bunker on the final hole of the 1988 U.S. Open to force a playoff with Nick Faldo, beating him the next day. Seven years later, Strange missed a 6-foot par putt on the last hole to lose a crucial match to Faldo in the Ryder Cup.
'Anybody who has played this game has done both,' Strange said. 'It can beat you up if you let it.'
Scroll down a list of tournaments on the PGA TOUR and it's not hard to find example of blown opportunities.
Greg Owen had a 3 1/2 -foot par putt on the 17th hole at Bay Hill last year that would have given him a two-shot lead with one hole to play. He three-putted for double bogey and lost the tournament with a bogey on the 18th.
Mike Weir had a chance to become the first Canadian in 50 years to win his national open, on the 100th anniversary of the Canadian Open. He had a 5-foot par putt to win on the second playoff hole against Vijay Singh in 2004 and missed it, then lost on the next hole.
Charles Howell III hit a superb bunker shot on the 10th at Riviera in a 2003 playoff, only to miss the 6-foot putt.
Was that a miss or a choke?
And is that any different from Bernhard Langer? He faced a 6-footer on the final hole at Kiawah Island with no less than the Ryder Cup hanging in the balance. The anguish on his face when he missed remains one of the most indelible images of the Ryder Cup.
Langer is remembered more for his two Masters titles than a missed putt at the Ryder Cup. And it would be difficult to say Weir choked because of the 6-foot pars he made on the 17th and 18th holes in winning the 2003 Masters in a playoff.
'Circumstances are what define whether it's perceived if you choked or not,' Paul Azinger said. 'What is choking, anyway? Is it the hands shaking? Is it your thought process?'
Weekley needed only two putts from 30 feet for his first PGA TOUR title. The birdie putt stopped 3 feet short of the hole. He studied the par putt from both sides, then saw the ball run by the cup on the left.
'I was shaking. I ain't gonna lie about it,' Weekley said. 'I was just focusing on getting that ball in the hole and turning around and waving to everybody. I made a good stroke. I just hammered it.'
Woods had to rap in only a 4-footer for birdie to beat O'Hern, advance to the quarterfinals and stay on track for his eighth consecutive PGA TOUR victory. He blamed the miss on a ball mark he neglected to repair.
Whether he pushed the putt with a quick stroke or the ball was knocked off line by a slight indentation on the green has been a popular subject the last few weeks. But one fact is undeniable -- he missed. And if he didn't notice the ball mark, then that would have to be classified as a breakdown in the thought process.
'It's my fault for not paying attention to detail,' Woods said.
Woods gets a pass because he has faced a dozen or so other crucial shots and made most of them, whether it was that 6-footer for birdie at Valhalla to force a playoff with Bob May at the 2000 PGA Championship or that 15-foot par putt that kept the Americans from losing in the 2003 Presidents Cup.
'Tiger has proven over and over again that there's not a lot of choke in him,' Azinger said. 'Until Boo Weekley makes a putt like that, people are going to speculate whether he choked.'
Ditto for Camilo Villegas. He hit a terrific flop shot to 3 feet and missed by a mile to fall out of the playoff.
'Every other sport, with the exception of bowling, you're pretty much reacting,' former PGA champion Rich Beem said. 'Here, you're making the ball react. You have a lot of time to think.'
'And hopefully,' he added, 'you don't think too much.'
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