August 13, 2010

DURING FOUR agonizing rounds of what passed for golf at Firestone in Akron, Ohio, Tiger Woods spent more time in the forest than Robin Hood, more time in the sand than Lawrence of Arabia and more time in the water than Michael Phelps.

Twenty-one bogeys, three doubles during four Bridgestone World Invitational rounds of 74, 72, 75 and 77.
The only thing that kept Woods out of the 80s in three of the rounds was 10 birdies. It was a shocking thing to see – even more jaw-dropping than the first pictures of the Escalade against his neighbor’s tree, when The Trouble bubbled to the surface last Thanksgiving.

No athlete in the history of fun and games had been more dominant in his sport than Woods. Not the NFL’s Joe Montana. Not the NBA’s Michael Jordan. Not the NHL’s Gordie Howe. Not even baseball’s Babe Ruth.

To win a major on the PGA tour, a golfer skilled enough to qualify for an event must beat 156 of the world’s best professionals. For Woods to have won 14 of them while still at the lower end of a golfer’s
prime years defies comparison.

But when Tiger hacked his way over just about every square inch of Firestone – where he had won seven tournaments – on his way to that final round 77, I remembered a round my father shot at the Atlantic City Country Club. He was about a 12 handicap and shot a 76. He was 65 at the time. Thousands of recreational golfers shoot Tiger’s final round score each year. The drinks at the 19th hole are on them. However, Woods with that number after his name generates fear and loathing.

Watching the uncertainty of his short game and putting, the wildly sprayed tee shots and disconsolate marches into the deep rough, deep sand or deep woods, I asked myself if this former automaton of perfect
shot-making could be suffering from a golfing version of Steve Blass Disease.

Blass remains the classic example of Forgetting How, the sudden inability to throw a baseball to a spot by a professional who had always had fine control.

Pitching a baseball and hitting a golf ball are similar in several respects. Both involve steering a ball
toward a very small target. Both involve a finely tuned database of muscle memory, the mechanics of the
perfect golf swing against the mechanics of the perfect delivery. Woods making a shambles of Augusta
National and its ice-slick greens or the wind-raked meadows of St. Andrews and Pebble Beach were the
rewards for that precision. Just as an on-form Roy Halladay pounding both sides of the strike zone with
four pitches, all moving wickedly, represents the highest level of the pitching art.

And then one day you are Steve Blass. It is 1973 and the season before you were runner-up to the great
Steve Carlton for the Cy Young Award. You were the Pirates ace with a 19-8 record and a 2.49 ERA. Your arm
feels fine. Your mechanics are still tight and efficient. But the results are horrific. You strike out just
27 hitters and walk 84 in 88 2/3 innings. Your ERA is 9.85 and you are out of the rotation. There is no
real physical or mental explanation for the reversal of form that will end your pitching career by 1975.

Blass was not the only one, of course. The Phillies had Joe Cowley, who once threw a no-hitter for the
White Sox. Joe was a big righthander with electric stuff. He was 11-11 with a 3.88 in 1986 with 83 walks
and 132 strikeouts.

The Phillies expected him to be a solid 3 or 4 in ’87. Cowley and the strike zone became total strangers.
His final big-league season – he was only 28 – lasted four starts and one relief appearance spanning 11 2/3
IP. He walked 17 and struck out five. His ERA was an engorged 15.43. He was optioned to Triple A, where he
was 3-9 with a 7.86 and 76 walks in 63 innings.

Then there were the position “Forgot Hows.” Mackey Sasser, the catcher who needed a sequence of contortions
before he could throw the ball back to the pitcher. Dale Murphy was drafted as a catcher, but when he had
trouble hitting the pitcher with a 60-foot throw, he was moved to rightfield. Tommy Lasorda closed his eyes
and prayed every time a ball was hit to scatter-armed Steve Sax.

Wilt Chamberlain could bank in impossible-looking fallaways with forwards chinning themselves on his arms,
but put him on the foul line and he was a basketless case. Righthanded, lefthanded, scoop shots. Standing 5
feet behind the line. Nothing worked. Wilt even tried taking a running start and jamming the basketball.
The NBA said, “Uh, no.” Shaq is not as clueless, but he is close.

There is a big difference between forgetting how to throw strikes, however, and forgetting how to throw,
period. I witnessed the bizarre case of Larry Keener, a 6-5 righthander from Kentucky who was the Phillies’
second-round pick in the 1967 draft. He came down with a bum shoulder at a time before the labrum and
rotator cuff were invented. Larry sat out a year after major surgery.

In spring training, the Phillies were shocked to learn that Keener was unable to throw a baseball with
anything resembling proper form. Picture a natural righthander trying to throw lefthanded.

I was there when the Phillies’ braintrust-owner Bob Carpenter, farm director Paul Owens, manager Gene Mauch
and assorted coaches stood behind a practice mound and quite literally tried to teach the kid how to throw
again. It went something like this:

“That’s right . . . Lift your left leg and kind of balance your weight on your right leg while you bring
the arm back and down . . . Turn the right hip . . . Take the baseball out of the glove while striding
toward the plate . . . Move your arm in an overhand motion and, and . . . ”

The voice of Mauch finished the tutorial. “Now throw the sumbitch . . . ”

Keener never could. He pitched 10 1/3 innings in the low minors. The ERA that went with an 0-5 record was
24.39. He walked a colossal 40 hitters. The Phillies tried to make him a first baseman, but that didn’t
work, either.

Tiger Woods tossed two birdies and a par in the face of gorgeous, treacherous Whistling Straits yesterday.
Then he subsided into that metronomic, just-missed-it rhythm typical of the tour’s rank and file. He showed
no Blass-like tendencies and his one-under 71 has him in the wind shadow of the leaders.

It does not appear that history’s greatest golfer has Forgotten How.


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