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BILL PLASCHKE

The Yippees for Watson Quickly Turn Into Yips

March 01, 1997|BILL PLASCHKE

"Demons," said caddie Bruce Edwards.

He has seen them so much, he knows them by name. They returned Friday, found his golfer, applied their grip, nothing a caddie could do but shrug.

"I try to help," Edwards said. "But sometimes there's nothing you can say."

Demons. The wind whistled through the eucalyptus trees, and shadows fell on the back of Riviera Country Club and there they were.

Tom Watson, leading the Nissan Open by one stroke, playing No. 3, his 12th hole of the afternoon, lined up a two-footer for par.

Missed it.

Watson, playing No. 4, lined up two-footer for par.

Missed it.

Watson, playing No. 6, lined up a 10-footer for par.

Missed it.

By the time Watson walked off the course in the late afternoon, there was sand on his slacks, ringing in his ears, seven guys with better scores.

The thousands who crowded the fairways to watch the emergence of a new champion instead were stunned witnesses to the disintegration of an old one.

Watson mostly outplayed partner Tiger Woods, lost to himself.

"I hate to finish that way," said Watson, who dropped three strokes to par in his final eight holes, ending up with a 71 and a two-round score of 138.

He hated it? The fans hated it too.

They came to love Tiger, ended up embracing Watson. Applauding his fight, appreciating his class, perhaps even honoring his age.

"Well, I do feel old," said Watson, 47. "I'm like, twice Tiger's age."

With twice his style, something the fans did not miss.

He missed his first par putt and somebody shouted in frustration, "He does this in every tournament."

Missed his second par putt and somebody else shouted, "Oh, no, he pulled it, he pulled it."

Missed his third par putt and a fan kicked a cardboard trash can, the boom echoing across the green.

The yips, some call them.

"That's not what we call them," Edwards said. "But that's what they are."

The yips: a mental block against short putts.

Edwards will settle for demons. There is no better way to describe what has happened to Watson since he ran the golf world in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Eight major championships. A six-year run that included at least three championships a season.

Then, inexplicably, he lost it.

"A brain-hand coordination thing," he said. "Something went wrong."

He went eight years without winning a tournament. Won last year's Memorial, finished 25th on the money list.

But hasn't finished higher than 14th in four tournaments this year, and looked as if he was slipping again into that pit of uncertainty.

Then came Friday, when he cut two strokes off par in the first eight holes.

Then he nearly eagled No. 18, his ninth hole.

As he approached the green, the crowd roared, mostly ignoring the scowling Woods for the smiling Watson.

He waved, mouthed the words, "Thank you, thank you," and putted in for a birdie to go seven under par.

"The crowd always likes you when you birdie the 18th hole," Watson said with a smile. "Even if it isn't your last hole of the day."

The crowd grew and Watson continued to smile and wave, even several holes later when things got tough.

Shout at somebody for making too much noise?

"I've played in a lot of noisy tournaments," Watson said, shrugging.

Yell at a photographer?

On one hole Watson actually defended a photographer when fans were yelling at the man for blocking their view with his camera.

"I told them, 'He's got to put it somewhere," Watson said. "The crowd was just getting a little grumpy, but the man had to get his shot."

His sweater was dark red, showing no visible signs of a manufacturer. His shoes were old-fashioned saddle style. His cap was pulled down over his eyes, which showed nothing.

"Things started to snowball, the putting became a mental block for him, but he keeps his cool," Edwards said. "He'll say something like, 'Nice putt,' being sarcastic, but he'll not lose his composure."

Not even when a giant yellow mini-blimp was caught in the wind above the seventh hole and flapped wildly during Watson's collapse.

Watson looked up from a putt and chuckled.

"I've seen that happen before," he said. "But I've seen them really crash."

He has seen it all, survived it all, and so when the demons returned, he thought he was ready for them.

Until he realized, he's never ready for them.

"I kept telling myself, 'I can get through this, I can do it,' " he said. "But sometimes, it gets into your mind."

Some golfers try hypnosis. Some golfers return to their hotel rooms and practice imaginary putts all night.

"Not me," Watson said. "I'm stubborn. I figure I can get out of it myself."

He will try that today on the first tee at 9:54 a.m. You could do worse than to be stubborn with him.

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