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 18,1 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 choker.
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.