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How golfers find their way out of an existential crisis

Watching Rickie Fowler and Rory Mcllroy at the CJ Cup made one thing clear: brush the clubs off, banish self-doubt, and be the player you know you are

US' Rickie Fowler plays his shot from the 14th tee during the final round of The CJ Cup at The Summit Club in Las Vegas, Nevada.
US' Rickie Fowler plays his shot from the 14th tee during the final round of The CJ Cup at The Summit Club in Las Vegas, Nevada. (AFP)

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The CJ Cup isn’t a major event on the PGA Tour, but it is significant. Sponsored by a Korean company, the event headlines the PGA Tour’s push to eastern markets—Korea, Japan, and Malaysia. That move has been slowed by pandemic-related travel restrictions: even the CJ Cup originally held in Jeju, South Korea, was relocated to Las Vegas in 2020. With the novelty of a PGA Tour event in Asia gone, I wasn’t sure about staying up late to catch the live action; two days in, it became apparent that there was no choice in the matter.

You see, Rickie Fowler, shot a pair of six-under 66s to head into the weekend — in contention for the first time in two years. In the third round, playing flawless golf, Fowler took the lead with a stunning nine-under 63. To put his performance into perspective, Fowler needed a sponsor exemption to enter the event, after failing to qualify for the Masters, U.S. Open and the FedExCup playoffs in the last season. The popular 32-year-old former world number four has re-emerged from what has been the worst phase of his career—before the CJ Cup, Fowler was ranked 128th in the world. Starting the final day in the lead, Fowler wore his traditional orange trousers but paired it with a white tee (instead of his trademark all-orange attire). It’s a small thing, but some indication, as it were, that he’s almost back. In the end, Fowler didn’t win, but the tied-third finish means he close to regaining his form. "It's been a long time coming. It's been a long road, tough times," Fowler said. "We're not done…” Interestingly, for the swing technicians out there, Fowler appears to have gone back to integrating some elements of his earlier, flatter action. It looks funky but Fowler can really play with that golf swing.

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Rory Mcllroy’s triumph at the CJ Cup, coming as it did after the heartbreaking loss for the Ulsterman at the Ryder Cup was no less definitive. “I’m back to being myself. And when I am myself, I can do things like this. I was trying to be someone else,” Mcllroy said after the win. No, I really have no idea what he means by that profound statement. But it would appear, given his emotional breakdown on camera post the European loss, that Mcllroy’s been through some kind of an existential crisis in the past couple of months. In a way, both Mcllroy and Fowler are back. Back to being who they really are, and how they used to play.

My own golf game has been on the back-burner after what was, possibly, the most gutting round I’ve ever played — a true contender for the hacked round of the year, possibly of all time. And it happened as it always does, just when I thought ‘I’d figured it out.’ I won’t go into details: suffice to say that when fellow golfers clear even your peripheral field of vision on the tee, caddies in the distance duck behind golf bags, and people in the adjacent fairways nervously stop what they’re doing while you take your shot—then you can accurately conclude that the wheels, have come off.

Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland with the trophy after winning the CJ Cup on 17 October 2021 in Las Vegas, US. 
Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland with the trophy after winning the CJ Cup on 17 October 2021 in Las Vegas, US.  (AFP)

Watching the CJ Cup helped with the post-round trauma. Listening to Fowler and Mcllroy two things became clear. One, golf isn’t prejudiced. No matter what level you play at, and no matter how good, or mediocre a player you are, this game will mess with your head. And two, you’ve got to go with your natural tempo, natural abilities, and mental makeup in golf. You can’t go against your grain, not in golf. Motivated, I pulled out the clubs I played with as a youngster out of cold storage. Surely, I thought, those must retain some mojo from the time I played my best. To cut a long story short, it worked. My pre-historic beryllium copper irons worked, and how.

What this triggered, and even though it’s too early to say yet, was my decision to change clubs. I thought about Jeev Milkha Singh who still keeps a vintage Ping Zing wedge in his bag. And what about Adam Scott? The Australian superstar was quizzed about the new irons in his bag at the CJ Cup, and confirmed that they were one-off remakes of the clubs he’s used most of his career. Scott plays Titleist blades, and the manufacturer has finally run out of stock of the irons it introduced in 2003. These are specially made for Scott using 3-D models of his clubs. Wow.

Titleist hasn’t issued a statement about these clubs, can’t blame them…it’s hardly an ideal situation for the manufacturer. The whole idea behind equipment sponsor deals is simple: get the top players to use your new clubs and the world of amateurs will follow suit. All’s good until one of your superstar players insists on playing with 18-year-old irons. There’s no moral of the story here (although you’re free to come up with one). The ‘if it’s good enough for Adam, then it’s good enough for me,’ doesn’t apply unless you play blades.

If you ask me, we’re lucky to be playing at all. The pandemic, by all accounts, appears to be at an ebb. In the NCR, firecrackers have been banned, and a relatively lower incidence of crop fires this year, might (we can only hope) dilute the noxious smog that envelops the Capital every winter. Will the blighted corporate golf season, which, till a couple of months back, seemed to be well and truly stymied, show signs of revival? That’s a lot of conjecture, you say? But then, we’re golfers, and those of us afflicted by the game live on slivers of hope—of a better swing, of a better score, and better days.

Meraj Shah is a Delhi-based writer and television producer

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