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Losing It When it comes to going ballistic, tour pros can make the rest of us look like amateurs

Feb. 14, 2000
Feb. 14, 2000

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Feb. 14, 2000

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Losing It When it comes to going ballistic, tour pros can make the rest of us look like amateurs

When a golfer loses his temper, not even he can predict the size
or scope of the ensuing tremors. Mad men can do strange things,
which begins to explain what happened to John Huston not too
many years ago in the first round of the Honda Classic at Weston
Hills Golf and Country Club in Fort Lauderdale. Huston hooked
his drive into the lake on the par-5 7th hole, teed up another
ball and... kerplunk. Leery of making the same mistake three
times, Huston reloaded and, now hitting five, sent his ball deep
into the right rough.

This is an article from the Feb. 14, 2000 issue Original Layout

Upset, Huston reared back and launched his Wilson Whale driver
sidearm, but as was already abundantly clear on this day, his
timing was off. He released the club an instant too late and
watched helplessly as it helicoptered into the same well that
had swallowed his first two balls. The club, with its buoyant
graphite shaft, bobbed up and down in the water, as if to
further mock the humiliated Huston, who by now was incensed.
Without a moment's hesitation he waded in after it, failing to
realize that there was a pronounced shelf at the edge of this
lake and the water dropped off into a deep abyss. When Mike
Hulbert, who with Paul Azinger was playing in Huston's group,
heard a splash and turned around, all he could see of Huston was
his hat.

Huston, "burning hot" in Tourspeak, had simply extinguished
himself. He retrieved the club, played his final two holes
soaking wet and for sometime afterward was known as Swamp Thing.
Yet Huston is hardly the only player to go off the deep end.
There's something uniquely maddening about golf.

Without delving into golf's psychological gobbledygook, suffice
it to say that because the ball doesn't move until you hit it,
any ham-handed efforts cannot be passed off as the result of
some diabolical spin, bad bounce or off-speed stuff. There are
no opponents, no sounds and precious few distractions of any
kind to blame for a poor shot. The obvious conclusion: It's you,
dummy!

This bleak realization is tough on average players, but it
really doesn't sit well with touring pros who have significantly
more invested in each round than a greens fee, four hours and a
$2 Nassau. Says sports psychologist Bob Rotella, "The more you
work at it, the more it hurts." The end result: great moments in
apoplexy.

"The reason I get mad is that I can't handle mediocrity," says
Fulton Allem, one of the hottest burners on Tour. "If you want
to fly first-class, you're going to be upset if you get stuck in
coach. I don't like second best."

One of the oft-told stories on Tour has Fulty looking to vent on
the 7th tee at the MCI Classic in Hilton Head when he turned to
his caddie, Bob (Bullet) Burns, and said, "Bullet, give me
something to break." Burns's response: "Why don't you break
par?" Allem and his playing partners, Nick Price and Vijay
Singh, laughed for about 20 minutes. "Nick and Vijay couldn't
hit the ball on the next tee," says Burns, who no longer loops
for Allem. "Fulty's a great guy to work for, he's a friend of
mine, but he does crazy stuff. He has no patience."

You want crazy? Steve Pate got so exercised that he broke a
club--over his neck. Craig Stadler went so apespit after a
particularly nasty 360-degree lip-out that Brad Faxon, one of
his playing partners, says he was scared for two holes. Huston
was on the second-to-last hole of a U.S. Open qualifier when he
threw a club that broke, and the shaft bounced back and stuck in
his arm, creating such a bloody mess that he had to apply a
crude tourniquet to play the final hole.

In 1982, during the second round at Doral, Curtis Strange set
the standard by which all other Tour temper tantrums are
measured. After driving his ball into the rough on the 12th
hole, Strange snapped as he was walking behind his caddie, Gene
Kelley. Strange kicked the bottom of his bag, which was still on
Kelley's shoulder, and both bag and caddie went tumbling. "My
yardage book and cigarettes went flying," Kelley says. "I was in
shock. I was dumbfounded as to why he would ever do something
like that."

Kelley finished the round, but he knew something had happened to
his back. Three weeks later he had surgery to fuse two
vertebrae. He hired an attorney and sued Strange, but settled
out of court for medical expenses and a small amount of cash.
Strange's version of events doesn't differ much from Kelley's.
"I kicked the bag, and it fell off his shoulder," Strange says.
"He went to try to catch it, and obviously he didn't. He said he
hurt his back. We settled out of court. It's actually kind of
comical now when I think about it. The bottom of the bag was
staring right at me, and it was so tempting to kick the pudding
out of it."

Mark Calcavecchia was more contrite after nearly braining a
spectator at the '92 Los Angeles Open. Following a poor tee
shot, Calcavecchia slammed his driver on a cart path. The club
exploded, spraying shrapnel that narrowly missed spectator Gail
Henderson's head. After the incident Calc penned a letter of
apology to Henderson and her husband, Brian: "I regret the L.A.
Open incident. It was unprofessional of me and I have been dealt
with quite harshly by the PGA Tour. Needless to say my fine was
quite heavy. I am thankful no one got hit by my temper tantrum.
No one felt worse than me, believe me. It was very embarrassing
for me to have done that. I am very sorry!"

That wasn't the first time Calcavecchia had succumbed to rage.
At the '91 Colonial, on the par-5 11th hole, he missed the green
by 20 yards with his second shot and smashed his club to the
ground, snapping it in two. After the round he remarked,
"Sometimes I amaze myself with the idiotic mistakes I make and
the temper tantrums I throw." The less reported part of the
story: Calcavecchia birdied the hole and shot 68.

What comes of temper tantrums? In rare cases players have been
impaled by their own clubs and have died, their outbursts
resulting in snapped shafts that pierce the heart or sever the
jugular vein. But of the countless cases on Tour, Strange's
eruption might have had the most dramatic impact. "I was out [of
work] for over two years from this incident," Kelley says. "I
admire Curtis as a golfer, but he never once said, 'Kiss my
ass,' or anything ever again to me. He could have at least had
the decency to apologize, which to this day he has never done."

The by-products of golf meltdown are often bad, but this is
rarely because anybody gets injured. Notah Begay says he catches
himself before he does something like throw a club lest he be "a
role model for brats." Nonetheless, junior players will
sometimes slam a club in front of adults as if to say, I don't
normally play this poorly.

Perhaps they are emulating Tiger Woods, who occasionally
tomahawks his driver into the turf after a less-than-perfect
shot, which has inspired debate in the press as to whether he
should be doing this kind of thing. Woods has taken criticism
from Arnold Palmer, among others, who says, "He's not convincing
anybody of anything when he slams a club down. They know he's
good. He's proven that."

Given all this, it would be easy to condemn fits of fury and be
done with it, but it's not that simple. For one thing, as
Strange says, "If Tiger didn't show any emotion at all, he
wouldn't be Tiger Woods. He wouldn't drive ratings. He wouldn't
be so recognizable, and the press would get on him for that,
too, just like Pete Sampras takes flak for not showing emotion."

The more salient paradox, as indicated by Calcavecchia's raging
bird at the Colonial, is that sometimes a peeved player will
perform better. "If you're angry for four hours, you're going to
wear yourself out," Rotella says, "but every once in a blue moon
you get mad-decisive. You narrow your focus, and you dissipate
fear."

On Feb. 10, 1985, Stadler was playing a par-3 in the fourth
round of the Hawaiian Open when he hit a tee shot into the sand.
Enraged, he took it out on one of the pineapple tee markers,
which he assumed was plastic. Big mistake. It was real, and the
notoriously sour Walrus was covered in sweet, sticky pineapple
pulp. This incident got big laughs, but what went unnoticed was
that Stadler shot 64 and finished second, a stroke behind Mark
O'Meara.

At Bay Hill last year Davis Love III was so angry that his ball
had plugged in a bunker on the 17th hole that he pounded his
club into a sprinkler head, which detonated and flooded portions
of the hole. Guess what: Love blasted out, made a 30-foot putt
for par and shot 66, which left him tied for the lead. The X
chromosome explodes, too. Jan Stephenson threw her putter 40
yards, over the gallery and into a tree, at the Valley of the
Stars Championship in L.A. but the next week in Hawaii finished
fourth, her best result last season.

Crowds may not like it, but showing a little emotion can put a
charge into a player. As Allem says, "When [fans] start
depositing money in my bank account, then I'll worry about what
the public thinks."

Ivan Gantz, a little-known pro who played on the Tour from 1950
to '61 and was known to smack himself in the head with his
putter after a poor stroke, wrote a chapter in Al Barkow's
history of the Tour, Gettin' to the Dance Floor, in which he
waffled wildly on the issue of how his anger affected his play.
"When you get angry you can birdie some holes," Gantz wrote. "In
that way anger, or temper, can be good, and that's why I never
really tried to stop getting angry. It can be a wonderful thing.
If I could have understood that earlier I could have driven
myself to win anything. Yet it is also terrible, because it
dominates you many times."

Woody Austin, the Tour's '95 Rookie of the Year, is the
modern-day Gantz, and is proof that most of the time getting mad
isn't such a good thing. At the '97 MCI Classic, Austin had just
left a 30-foot putt about eight feet short when, with the
television cameras on him, he pounded his putter against his
skull five times, hitting himself so hard that the shaft bent.
Says Rotella, who saw the meltdown on TV, "I thought he was
going to knock himself out. I'm surprised he didn't."

Austin missed his par putt and, after finishing 180th on the
money list that year, lost his Tour card. He feels his quick
fuse is nothing to laugh about and may be partly to blame for
his career's downward spiral. "In that incident I was mad
because I had already three-putted three or four times, and then
I left that putt 15 feet short because I was afraid to hit it
four feet by," Austin says. "I get angry because I am so afraid
to play golf. I'm always worried that the worst is going to
happen."

Strange says explosions like Austin's happen every week on Tour,
but except for freak accidents like that of Jose Maria Olazabal,
who knocked himself out of last year's U.S. Open by punching a
wall and breaking a bone in his right hand, you don't hear about
them. Why? Because the players on most of the televised holes
are the leaders, and the leaders are playing too well to be mad,
realize too much is at stake to blow a fuse and, on some level,
have understood and incorporated a little of what Gantz
concluded in his essay.

"The anger, in the end, was hurtful to me," wrote Gantz, who
finished in the top 25 three times but never won in his 11-year
career. "It gave me wonderful things a lot of times, but in the
long run it was detrimental."

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY ARNOLD ROTH What a drip! Huston was swamped after a series of wayward tee shots during the Honda Classic sent him off the deep end.COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY ARNOLD ROTH Stadler took out his anger on one of the pineapple tee markers, which he assumed was plastic. Big mistake.