Andy Farrell: Nervous golfers must conquer inner voice, not blame equipment

There are players who might turn to a stick of asparagus to putt with if they thought it might help
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The Independent Online

It was David Gower who said, when asked if the two words about him he most disliked were "laid" and "back": "No, 'caught Dujon'." Ernie Els would have answered "runner-up". The "Big Easy" has suffered his fair share at the hands of Tiger Woods, but the mind goes back to his defeat by Tom Lehman in the 1996 Open at Royal Lytham.

Els carried out his media duties afterwards in a civilised enough manner given the circumstances, but quite obviously he was waiting for the privacy of the locker-room for the controlled explosion. It was doubtless the same at Augusta last month when the South African was pipped by Phil Mickelson after an epic duel.

A few days later an eminent columnist on this newspaper made the bizarre claim that because each player merely hit his own ball and had no effect on his opponents, tactics and strategy played no part in the game. Rubbish. That the struggle is an internal one makes it no less intriguing and rarely does a golfer's "inner voice" speak with as much conviction as Sonia Gandhi's.

The language of golf might be emphatically English all over the world, but those inner voices usually speak with many a forked tongue. Mickelson's used to tell him to go for every shot, every fiendishly placed flag stick, that only pansies lay up. Only when he conquered his inner voice did the outrageously talented American win his first major championship.

Only last weekend Padraig Harrington was describing how he was forever giving himself a good talking to in mid-round. But the tactics and strategy start even before a golfer goes on to the course - there is also what they take onto the course.

Professional golfers constantly tinker with their equipment, with the driver and the putter being the most in danger of being thrown out of the bag and replaced with something else potentially more successful. Obviously, it is never the drivee or the puttee - one South African tour player recently became so upset after a round that he took himself off to a secluded lake, snapped every club in his bag in two, threw them in the water and then the bag, too.

The St Leon Rot course near Heidelberg is surrounded by fields of spargel and there are players who might turn to a stick of asparagus to putt with if they thought it might help.

What has got Els exercised, apparently, is the belly putter. Golfers' bellies have got remarkably flatter over the years - Darren Clarke is now positively concave. Many of them are now using their bellies to anchor what is known as the "flat stick". While the long, or "broomhandled", putter has been around for at least a couple of decades, some now use a putter with a shaft only slightly longer than the norm and secure the top of it against their body.

The putter then acts as a pendulum but Els is convinced this removes an essential skill from the game and even though he has hardly holed anything like his share on the greens this season, he has not even considered using an elongated putter. What he has done is raise his concerns with Peter Dawson, secretary of the Royal and Ancient, the body which, along with the United States Golf Association, administer the Rules of Golf.

Setting a limit on a shaft's length was ruled out when the long putters first appeared, but the number of belly putters on tour may prompt the R and A and the USGA to look at whether they should be allowed. The long putter was once considered an old man's club, but when a 24-year-old such as Els's compatriot Trevor Immelman switches to the belly putter it could be a worrying trend. Not that Immelman should care, after winning the Deutschebank Open in Germany. "The other 13 clubs worked pretty well also," Immelman said.

Els believes nerves, which can effect the traditional putting style to a far greater degree than when using the long or belly putter, are part of the game. However, no one using a long putter has yet won a major championship. Even broomhandle users Bernhard Langer and Vijay Singh won their three Masters titles between them conventionally, and Augusta is one of the hardest putting tests.

Worryingly, Els added that if nerves were a factor, then "take a tablet if you cannot handle it".

There have been rumours of players using beta blockers, but those prescribed such drugs for medical reasons reported they played worse. Golf does not have a drugs policy, but is working on one. It would need one if golf became an Olympic sport, which may happen as soon as 2008. The move has the firm backing of last week's first ever Congress of Women's Golf.

If London's 2012 bid team are looking for venues, an appropriate host would be Wentworth, not just the scene of this week's Volvo PGA, but where a precursor of the Ryder Cup was played in 1926 and the inaugural Curtis Cup in 1932.

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