- The Washington Times - Friday, June 10, 2005

Every week on the PGA Tour, about a third of the field could be considered “in recovery.” Golf is like that — for the vast majority of the non-Tiger population, that is. A player’s swing goes south for a few weeks, his self-confidence quickly follows and suddenly the wedge he’s holding in his hand seems more suitable for flipping burgers than hitting flop shots.

There’s precious little margin for error on the U.S. tour. With only 125 fully exempt cards issued each year, and players all over the planet vying for them, it might be the most competitive sport around. If a pro’s game is off even slightly, he runs the risk of missing the cut … and then maybe another … until he’s in the throes of a full-fledged Personal Crisis.

For evidence of this, all you have to do is glance at the Booz Allen Classic’s first-day leader board. The guy who broke the Congressional course record yesterday with a 63, three shots better than anybody else, couldn’t find the fairway without a Fodor’s until a couple of tournaments ago. I’m exaggerating, of course, but Matt Gogel was in a pretty wicked slump, the kind that makes a pro wonder whether the Golf Channel might have any openings.

In a stretch of eight events from late February to mid-May, Gogel played on the weekend only once, tying for 52nd at New Orleans. Other than that, he had plenty of time on his hands to see the local sights and obsess about the miserable turn his career had taken. At, 34, he was in the midst of the “most disappointing year I’ve ever had in professional golf,” 170th on the money list and falling fast.

And then he comes out, on one of the most famous courses in America, and racks up a ridiculous eight birdies in his last 13 holes, sticking irons close and draining putts. Where has this round been hiding?

Actually, said Gogel, a one-time winner on the tour, his game began to turn around last month, after he switched back to Ping irons. Until then, though, life was a long, dark tunnel. Yesterday he was paired with a friend, Glen Day, and Day’s struggles brought back all-too-painful memories of his own recent travails.

“You almost want to go up to him and say, ‘Glen, you’re not far off,’” Gogel said. “I wish somebody would have said that to me a month ago because you feel like you’re miles away.”

Such is the yin and yang of the touring pro’s existence. He totters between the Top 25 and, all too often, Total Oblivion. Gogel told a story yesterday about meeting Mother Teresa in Calcutta while playing in the ‘96 Indian Open, about what an “amazing experience” it was. Too bad she isn’t still around; he probably could have used some soothing words from her when he was shooting 82 in the second round of the Heritage.

The PGA Tour’s advertising mantra is, “These guys are good.” A better one might be, “This game is gruesome.” Just below Gogel on the leader board are: Fredrik Jacobson (66), who missed six straight cuts earlier this year; Lee Westwood (66), who’s had only one top-40 in a stroke-play event; Brett Wetterich (66), who’s missed nine of 12 cuts; Craig Perks (67), who was cut in nine of his first 11 tournaments; Tom Pernice (68), who had a string of five consecutive missed cuts; Tom Byrum (68), who had broken 70 only twice in his previous 29 rounds; and Vaughn Taylor (68), who had six missed cuts in a row not long ago.

That’s right, folks, about half the leader board has, at one time or another this year, placed a 911 call.

Westwood, splitting time between the U.S. and European tours, didn’t begin to get his bearings until he went home to England and played on a couple of courses “I know fairly well and felt comfortable.” That, he said, “has given me some confidence. I’ve found a key to my swing that makes it feel a lot more solid.”

For most players, however, the Travelocity Solution isn’t an option. All they can do is keep grinding it out on the practice tee (and green) — in the hope that, someday soon, they’ll shoo away the goblins that have been inhabiting their golf bags. Gogel may have evicted the last few with his 63 yesterday, but we’ll know better Sunday night, when all the results are in.

“It’s brutal on your confidence,” he said of his latest ordeal. “You know, I’m getting older. You’re watching young guys come in [and] hit the ball 330 yards. You go, ‘Man, what is my future?’ … [But] it’s finally kind of turned around.”

For now, maybe. But who knows what dangers lurk farther down the fairway? This ain’t horseshoes they’re playin’, it’s full-contact golf.

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