There has been a whole lot of choking going on on the Tour
lately. It started with Billy Ray Brown, who was tied with Tiger
Woods on the final hole of the Buick Invitational when he hit so
far behind his ball that he barely got the thing airborne. At
Tucson, Gabriel Hjertstedt broke into a Saint Vitus' dance on a
three-foot putt he had for a victory in regulation. (Thankfully,
he did win in overtime.) Then Greg Kraft, needing a par to force
a playoff at Doral, chunked a five-iron so horribly that his
ball floated about halfway to the target before plopping into a
pond. Finally, Eric Booker, seemingly in control of last week's
Honda Classic, smother-hooked a two-iron on 16 on Sunday and
finished double-bogey, bogey, bogey.
When these things happen, nobody actually says, or writes, the
awful c word. Mostly there is silence and a collective looking
away. No one wants to stare at a pro golfer who has just shown
the world that he lacks the one quality--the ability to perform
under pressure--that presumably separates him from the rest of us.
Let's face it, Brown, Hjertstedt, Kraft and Booker choked. If
they didn't, the word has lost its meaning. But does that mean
they're lily-livered cowards and frauds? No. What's more, it
doesn't even mean they're chokers. Brown's performance in San
Diego capped a gritty, six-year-long comeback from a wrist
injury that had him on the verge of retiring. Four years ago, a
severe case of temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMJ) drove
Hjertstedt off the European tour and nearly to suicide. Kraft is
a battler who has gotten off the mat twice to make it through Q
school. Booker is a 35-year-old rookie who never gave up on his
dream of someday belonging on the Tour. These guys have guts,
but they don't contend very often and were momentarily
overwhelmed by a high-pressure situation. It happens.
As proof that choking isn't an irreversible condition, I offer
the case study of someone who has choked more often than anyone
else I know--me. As a teenager I was already weighed down by
memories of too many disastrous final-hole bogeys and butchered
18-inchers. When I started covering golf, I took choking to a
new level. On those occasions when I would have to exhibit my
game in front of the pros I wrote about, I turned into tapioca.
In such a state, I once nearly whiffed in view of Davis Love
III, flailed helplessly before Lanny Wadkins and whizzed a shank
under the nose of Corey Pavin, rendering each of them speechless.
My worst meltdown occurred at a celebrity event in Lake Tahoe
that was shown on network TV. My assignment was to write a
first-person story about playing in the event. I was assured
that I'd be out of range of the cameras, but when I got to 18, I
was alarmed to see on-course reporter Roger Maltbie, who
casually mentioned that the live telecast would be starting in a
few minutes. Then, as I prepared to play a three-iron shot over
water, a cameraman set up about three paces behind me. When I
looked up, I saw that the red light was on.
My hands started sweating so badly that I didn't think I'd be
able to hold on to the club. My last thought before everything
went blank was a pitiful prayer that somehow, some way, metal
would make contact with balata.
When the earth began to rotate again, I saw my half-topped
dribbler roll to a stop to my right. I was speechless, but
Maltbie wasn't. He was laughing. He had tricked me. The camera
hadn't really been on. I thought, This clinches it: I'm a serial
A few months later I was on the practice range whacking balls
before a silly season pro-am when Lee Trevino walked up behind
me. I am an unabashed Trevinophile. My irons are the ones with a
sombrero next to the logo and LT GRIND stamped on the hosel.
"Well, well, well," piped the familiar voice. "Let's criticize
the criticizer." Golf-writing vermin having been identified,
several other heads turned toward me, smelling blood. This would
be my worst nightmare.
I can't explain what happened next. Maybe I had bottomed out at
Tahoe, maybe I felt I had nothing to lose, but I actually sent a
few credible six-irons into the desert air. "Not too bad,"
Trevino said. As a dispassionate journalist, I'm embarrassed to
say how good those words sounded to me.
There's a saying among the game's wiser heads: Just give me a
chance to choke. That's my new motto. I hope it's Brown's,
Hjertstedt's, Kraft's and Booker's, too.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: JEFF WONG
My last thought before everything went blank was that somehow,
some way, metal would make contact with balata.