Golf: Resolute Price puts it down to self-control: Robert Green talks to the golfer who learned to live with high pressure

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The Independent Online
THE difference between a good player and a great player, between a contender and a winner, is being able to take the heat. At Turnberry last Sunday, Nick Price jumped from the frying pan into the pressure cooker and went on to claim his second major title and his first Open Championship in the most demanding circumstances he had experienced in his career.

It reinforced the claim many would make on his behalf - he is too modest to say it himself - that he has been the best golfer in the world for two years. Price's great friend Greg Norman may be No 1 in the world rankings, but Norman has won only five times in that period to Price's 10 victories and he has collected one major to the Zimbabwean's two.

Price's coach, David Leadbetter, the same guru who has revamped Nick Faldo's swing with such success, puts Price's success in coping with the pressure down to a number of factors. 'First, there was his experience - knowing what he had to do. He'd been there before. There is no substitute for that. Second, he has good swing mechanics, by which I mean he is confident that his game won't break down under the gun. Then there's self-control. For example, Nick does deep- breathing exercises on the course to help slow himself down, which is important for him because the tempo of his swing is quick anyway. That's all part of being able to handle yourself and your nerves.'

Price's winning record speaks for itself. Experience of bringing home a victory is something that Jesper Parnevik, the valiant runner-up last weekend, is lacking. The Swede has won one tournament on the European tour, the Scottish Open last year, and has had only one Top 10 finish in this, his first season on the US tour.

At Turnberry, a par at the last would have earned him a play-off. But having not looked at the leaderboard on the 18th tee he thought he needed a final birdie to repel his challengers. A glance up would have told him he led by two strokes (this was before Price's sensational eagle at the 17th), but Parnevik found that ignorance was far from bliss - especially when he compounded the error by missing the green with only a wedge in his hands.

Price's experierence forbade him from making the same error, and he was looking at the leaderboard regularly. 'In the position we were in, you have to base your tactics and strategy on what the other guys are doing,' he said afterwards. Nick Faldo got away with Parnevik's approach when winning the 1987 Open as did Ernie Els, after a play-off, at the US Open last month. But Parnevik was playing with fire and got burned. In the aftermath of his heroic failure - he had five birdies on the back nine - the 29-year-old was hailed by many as a future winner of a major. Maybe, but it might be that he will never get such a chance again.

Price and Leadbetter first met 23 years ago, both being brought up in Zimbabwe by British parents, although Price was in fact born in Durban, South Africa, in 1957 (the same year as Faldo, Seve Ballesteros and Bernhard Langer, all of whom won major championships at least five years before Price). They began working on Price's swing in spring 1982, just before he lost an Open he appeared to have won because he was not capable of finishing the job, much like Parnevik last week. Price finished with a double-bogey and a bogey in the last four holes at Troon to hand the title to Tom Watson.

Twelve years later, on the verge of Price's greatest triumph, he and Leadbetter were aware of potential mistakes that could have been calamitous. 'Nick has a tendency to hit his shots too high into the wind,' Leadbetter says. 'His problem is that sometimes, in seeking to cure the fault, he gets too steep in his swing, putting too much weight on his left side as he takes the club back, which causes him to hit the ball even higher - the very opposite of the effect he is trying to have.' Price was clearly swinging well at Turnberry but he might also have been assisted by a wind that barely got above a breeze for the majority of the championship.

Then there is self-control. Price's deep-breathing exercises are more important for him than for many golfers because his family has a history of high blood pressure. In the circumstances, he held his nerve admirably. His birdie from 12 feet at the 16th kept him in the hunt - in Leadbetter's opinion it was the crucial putt but it will be Price's 50-footer on the 17th that will be the abiding memory.

'My heart was pounding at about 250 when I made that putt on the 17th and it didn't slow down until I had two-putted the 18th,' Price said on Sunday.

'As I walked up to the 18th green, I kept thinking about the fifth hole that afternoon. I had three-putted from 25 feet there, and although I had an easier putt at the 18th, sometimes the hardest thing in golf is to par the last hole.'

Especially the last hole at Turnberry if your name is Nick Price - he had bogeyed it on the second and third rounds - and if you have to get down in two to win the Open. Putting has never been his strongest suit. At the US Open last month Price averaged 32.3 putts per round - nearly six more than Colin Montgomerie, who led that category.

'It's a mixture of controlling your nerves and good technique,' says Faldo, who himself sank a four-footer on the 72nd green to win the Open in 1987. Leadbetter says that ultimately it comes down to mental toughness: 'If you can hold your nerve under pressure, you can maintain your stroke.'

Price did both. 'I'm just stunned,' he said afterwards. 'It's amazing. You reach down deep inside yourself and sometimes you are surprised.' As his recent record suggests, the win itself was no surprise. He started the Championship as second favourite to Norman and ended it second in the world rankings.

'I would never say the Open owed me one,' said Price, who, in addition to his disappointment of 1982, was blown away by Seve Ballesteros's final 65 in 1988. 'But I think I have paid my dues. I think the loss in 1982 hardened me up a bit. Had I won there things might have been different - I might not have the desire I now have, but then maybe I would have got the confidence to go from strength to strength. Who knows?'

Right now, even Nick Price is too happy to care.

(Photograph omitted)