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What's With The Waggles? The experts are split on the cause--and the effect--of the maddening preshot routine Sergio Garcia has adopted

July 15, 2002
July 15, 2002

Table of Contents
July 15, 2002

Where Are They Now?

What's With The Waggles? The experts are split on the cause--and the effect--of the maddening preshot routine Sergio Garcia has adopted

If it takes me a hundred regrips, it's all right--I'm not going
to hit a shot until I'm ready," Sergio Garcia said. "If it
annoys you, don't look until you hear the click."

This is an article from the July 15, 2002 issue

That was Garcia's advice to reporters last January in Maui,
after he had won the Mercedes Championship with a four-round
score of 274 and an aggregate of more than 4,000 fidgety,
finicky, seemingly compulsive regrippings of his golf clubs. For
reasons that were clear to no one, least of all Garcia himself,
the 22-year-old Spaniard had in June of last year adopted a
preshot routine based on the principles of Chinese water
torture. A couple of conventional waggles, a swivel or two of
the head to fix the target and then the regrips--four times,
five times...eight, nine, 10 times...16, 17, 18...25, 26,
27...31, 32 times....

There are two schools of thought regarding Garcia's preshot
routine. The first dismisses it as a harmless relaxation ritual,
not unlike that of the basketball player who dribbles the ball
and spins it in his hands before attempting a free throw. The
second respectfully suggests that Garcia is a nutcase who is
only a few thousand regrips shy of being fitted for a
long-sleeved tunic with white straps and buckles.

The latter view was popular with the amateur psychologists who
lined the fairways at last month's U.S. Open at Bethpage Black,
where Garcia finished fourth behind fidget-free Tiger Woods,
placid Phil Mickelson and stolid Jeff Maggert. Shouts of "Hit
it, Waggle Boy!" were heard as Garcia dithered over the ball,
and some spectators tried to get into his head by counting out
loud as he regripped: "... Fourteen! Fifteen! Sixteen! ..." At
one point Garcia raised his right hand to the
hecklers--indicating with a finger, according to some, that they
should start again at one.

Half convinced ourselves that Garcia might be suffering from
some sort of anxiety disorder--remember a few years ago, at
Wentworth, when he took off one of his shoes and hurled it down
the fairway?--we spoke with Denise Egan, who is the clinical
coordinator for Massachusetts General Hospital's
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders Institute. Egan, while claiming
no expertise in sports fidgeting, explained that a clinical
compulsion is an irresistible impulse to do something over and
over again, regardless of the rationality of the motive. An
obsession is a recurrent and persistent thought or image that is
intrusive and inappropriate. "One common obsession is germs,"
Egan said. "Some people worry that they'll die if they touch
something."

The obsessed person, upset by the disturbing thought, performs
some act or ritual to relieve the anxiety--washing his hands
until they are raw, for instance, to kill germs. The compulsion,
in other words, is driven by an obsession. "Lots of people have
little obsessions and compulsions," Egan said, "but you don't
have obsessive-compulsive disorder unless the behavior
interferes with your ability to function." Garcia's regripping
would be a cause for concern, for example, if he couldn't hit
the ball within the 60 seconds allowed under PGA Tour rules.

That is not the case with Garcia. Since introducing his
regripping routine to less-than-rave reviews, he has won one
Tour event and one tournament each in Europe and South Africa,
finished in the top 10 in three major championships, tied for
second at the Tour Championship, vaulted to fifth in the World
Ranking and started dating tennis star Martina Hingis. "Then I'd
say the regripping is functional for him," Egan said. "It might
be bugging other people, but it seems as if it's serving him O.K."

Garcia's routine gets an even stronger endorsement from sports
psychologist and author Bob Rotella, who serves as mind-game
coach to Davis Love III, Nick Price and other touring pros. "Do
people not understand greatness?" Rotella asks. "Sergio's regrip
is very intuitive, instinctive. It keeps tension from getting
into his body and maintains the softness in his hands and arms.
He's a very visual player, and he's not going to hit the ball
until he sees the shot clearly in his head. That's his genius.
It's like a pianist hearing the music in his head, and a moment
later the notes come out of his fingers."

To support his contention that the waggle is the solution, not
the problem, Rotella points out that Garcia leads the Tour in
total driving, a statistic combining distance and accuracy, and
regrips more on the tee than on any other shot.

Garcia is not the first touring pro to raise eyebrows with a
preshot routine. Hubert Green, who won a U.S. Open, a PGA
Championship and 17 other Tour events between 1971 and '85,
bobbed his head and squirmed so much over the ball that Los
Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray said he looked like a drunk
trying to find a keyhole in the dark. Fred Daly, the Irish pro
who won the British Open in 1947, was famous for placing and
replacing his putter dozens of times before striking the ball.
Then there was Jack Nicklaus, who stood motionless over his
putts until ivy started growing up his legs. (After years of
being fined and criticized for slow play, Nicklaus picked up his
pace.)

Another weird but effective preshot routine belonged to Frank
Beard, the Tour's leading money winner in 1969. He soled the
club between his feet and the ball and then slowly worked it
into position behind the ball with a series of gentle taps. "It
would be easy to describe it as a nervous habit," Beard says,
"but I didn't feel nervous. It wasn't a tension breaker as much
as it was a rhythm starter." It wasn't a problem, either, until
people asked Beard to explain why he did it. "I had no answer. I
couldn't remember not doing it."

Beard knows one thing for certain: Garcia is not the first
world-class player to compulsively regrip the club. When Beard
played at Florida in the late 1950s, All-America golfer and law
student Dan Sikes regripped so often that some suspected he was
reviewing legal arguments in his head. "One day we counted,"
Beard says, "and it was amazing. Dan regripped the club 19
times, and it was 19 every time." When the players asked Sikes
about his gripping fetish, he said, "I know I do it, but I don't
know how many times." Sikes went on to have a successful Tour
career, but not until he reduced his regripping to one or two
quick squeezes.

Garcia would like to cut back too, but so far his efforts have
failed. In May, when he forced himself to hit the ball after a
couple of waggles and only a few regrips, he played a stretch of
eight rounds in 22 over par, missed two cuts and finished 73rd
at the Memorial. In June, with the waggle restored, he shot par
or better in 10 of 12 rounds and finished 12th, fourth and 20th.
At the Canadian Skins Game two weeks ago, however, he shortened
his routine again, never exceeding six regrips--and he won with
eight skins. "I've been playing so much I haven't had time to
work on it," Garcia said. "I'm trying to shorten it up, yes, and
I feel really comfortable with my setup now. It feels great."

His Canadian Skins opponents needled him gently--John Daly
counted Garcia's regrips in a stage whisper on the 1st tee--but
few Tour players openly condemn Garcia's preshot routine. "It's
a habit he doesn't like," says Vijay Singh, "but Sergio is a
great feel player, and he plays best when he feels comfortable."
At the U.S. Open, during which Garcia played with Woods in the
final pairing on Sunday, he looked the other way whenever Garcia
was over the ball.

His critics predict that the regripping habit will eventually
fray his nerves and damage his game. They point to an incident
last December at the Nedbank Golf Challenge in Sun City, South
Africa, where Garcia, facing a shot over water, regripped more
than 50 times before backing off and muttering that he couldn't
"hit the f---ing ball." They point to the heckling at Bethpage,
which may have distracted Garcia enough to have prevented him
from overtaking Woods. And they point to the pitiable Cobie
Legrange, the 1969 Dunlop British Masters champion whose career
ended in the early '70s after he "got stuck" and simply could
not take the club back from the ball.

"If I were Sergio's coach, I would be looking for some way to
stop it," says Beard. "If it's not arrested, it can only get
worse." Peter Allis, the English golf commentator, is of the
same mind. "I do worry about his gripping and regripping habit,"
Allis told The Observer, of Manchester, England, in April.
"Whether it will ultimately shorten his career at the very top
level, I'm not sure. Somebody might whack him first, because I'm
afraid he can also be a bumptious little wotsit."

The folks who study psyches for a living say there is little
danger that the regripping alone will cause Garcia to lose his
grip. The bigger worry is that media doubters and tournament
hecklers will get him thinking about his busy hands instead of
focusing on the shot. That could seriously undermine his game.
"If his game tanks," says Mass General's Egan, "it will be
because we've taken away something that helps him function."

Rotella goes even further, saying that the problem lies not with
Garcia's waggle but with the golf world's penchant for
conformity. "In basketball it's cool if you're unique and
different. In golf, for some reason, people hate it."

Hate is a strong word. Let's just say we're annoyed.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DONALD MIRALLE/GETTY IMAGES [INSIDE COVER] BRITISH OPEN CAN SERGIO STOP TIGER AT MUIRFIELD? (And Do Something About Those Annoying Waggles)TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHUCK SOLOMON FANNING THE FLAMES With his endless regrips and waggles, Garcia drew the ire of the vocal spectators at the U.S. Open. B/W PHOTO: AP (TOP) TIP-TAP SHAPE Beard soled the club between his feet and the ball and then slowly moved it into position with a series of taps.COLOR PHOTO: JACQUELINE DUVOISIN NODDING ACQUAINTANCE Green bobbed his head and squirmed over the ball, but he won a U.S. Open and a PGA championship.COLOR PHOTO: ERIC SCHWEIKARDT (TOP) STATUE-ESQUE Nicklaus was criticized--and fined--for standing over putts too long.B/W PHOTO: AP PSYCHED OUT Sikes only had success on the Tour after cutting down his regrips from 19 to one or two quick squeezes.
For reasons clear to no one, Garcia adopted a preshot routine
based on Chinese water torture.
Since introducing his regripping routine, Garcia has been in the
top 10 in three major championships.