- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 15, 2002

CHASKA, Minn. Over the last 14 months, one man has as many major championship victories as Tiger Woods. His name is Jos Vanstiphout, the golf world's mental guru du jour.

Vanstiphout, a chatty middle-aged Dutchman, has no formal training in psychology, and you won't find any pretentious periods or commas before or after his name. But South Africans Retief Goosen and Ernie Els swear by his skills. After all, Vanstiphout steered Goosen through the 72nd-hole wreckage at last year's U.S. Open to his first major title. And less than two months into his association with Vanstiphout, Els lifted the claret jug.

"He's done wonders for my confidence," said Els, one of the favorites at this week's 84th PGA Championship at Hazeltine. "I had just reached the point in my career where I was stalled out a little bit, and I needed some outside feedback. I guess it's hard to argue with the results."

True enough. But what exactly does Vanstiphout tell his disciples to produce such success?

"Every player is different, but the common thread between Ernie and Retief was confidence," Vanstiphout said yesterday. "Retief had these wonderful skills, but he didn't feel like a champion. Ernie's head was quite a mess. He was fixated on the negative, particularly in regard to Tiger. We had to get him to stop thinking about Tiger and start thinking about the game that allowed him to win two U.S. Opens. When I met him, I'd say Ernie was operating on about one-fourth of a tank of confidence. Now he's up to three-quarters or so full.

"A lot of what I do is based on tough love. I don't tell these guys what they want to hear. I tell them what they need to hear."

Do you think Vanstiphout would have a few choice words for Phil Mickelson? The game's No.2 player, who is now 0-for-41 in majors, told the world once again Tuesday that he is relatively satisfied with his career.

Many players are still somewhat leery about the stigma attached to hiring a mental coach. The act is, after all, an admission of weakness, and media and fans are quick to poke fun at such a move. How can you not listen to Els talk openly about the little pessimist on his shoulder without a chuckle or two?

But perhaps every player, regardless of his innate mettle, needs some emotional training along the way.

At 26, Woods is universally lauded for his unflappable will. And he has always been quick to list his mind as his ultimate asset. But even Tiger had to be taught how to handle competitive stress. And he has always credited his father, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Army, for drilling his unmatched toughness into him at an early age.

"Pop was the toughest competitor I ever had to face," Woods said at the 1996 U.S. Open. "He tried everything gamesmanship, distraction, talking trash. I knew once I could beat him, I wouldn't be intimidated by anybody."

You have to wonder if players like Goosen and Els, who have two of the technically sweetest swings in golf, simply never received such training. And you also have to wonder if mastering the art of competitive Zen, like virtually everything else, becomes more difficult as you become older. Perhaps that is why Woods has dominated the game so completely over the last three years, winning seven of 12 majors while his would-be rivals struggle to make mental adjustments.

There is, however, one young player at Hazeltine this week who has a similarly spectacular combination of talent and toughness.

Like Woods, 22-year-old Sergio Garcia was taught the game by his father, Victor, a Spanish club pro in Castellon. And although his methods weren't as militaristic, Victor Garcia molded his son's competitive mind much like Earl Woods did.

"We had our battles on the course, and he became stronger," Victor said yesterday. "Mentally, he has been ready to win a major for some time. I can tell you he believes."

As well he should. Garcia has been in contention at each of this season's first three majors, improving his final-round score each time en route to three top-eight finishes. Each time his ball-striking has been brilliant, but his putter has betrayed him.

"I have to make more putts it's as simple as that," Garcia said Tuesday. "I feel like I have hit the ball well enough to win the last two majors, but I haven't had my reads and pace come together on the greens. That's certainly been my focus coming here."

With its length (7,360 yards, par 72) and typically windy conditions, Hazeltine suits Garcia's game perfectly. Like Woods, and unlike Els and Goosen, he no longer needs anyone else to tell him that. Garcia sampled Vanstiphout's teachings for one week earlier this summer at the Spanish Open and walked away feeling certain that he needed no help with his head.

"I never worked with a psychologist, and I don't feel like, right now, I can get anything from any of them," said Garcia, the only player to openly fancy his chances this week. "I know what I have to do, and I'm working hard on it."

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