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Role of psychologists under scrutiny

The widely publicised spat between world golf No 3 Ernie Els and Belgian sports psychologist Jos Vanstiphout at last week's Qatar Masters threw a spotlight on the role played by 'mind doctors' in the modern game.

Els, who went on to win in Doha by a stroke after shooting a seven-under-par 65 in the final round, has worked with Vanstiphout for more than three years.

Although he famously fired the Belgian twice in their first week together, the relationship has been successful, with the South African's British Open victory at Muirfield in 2002 the undoubted highlight -- so far.

Vanstiphout also helps out New Zealand's Michael Campbell.

Very few contemporary players underplay the role of the 'sports shrink'.

World No 1 Tiger Woods first consulted a sports psychologist at the age of 13 while former major winners Tom Kite, Nick Price, John Daly and Davis Love have all worked closely with American performance consultant Bob Rotella.

"On the PGA Tour, where all the players can hit quality shots, the mental side is at least 90 per cent of the margin between winners and losers," said American Kite, winner of the 1992 US Open at Pebble Beach.

"Percentages aside, no matter what a player's handicap, the scores will always be lower if the golfer thinks well."

Kite first met Rotella at the 1984 Doral Open in Miami.

"I was in one of those phases where I just couldn't seem to do anything right on the course, and my scores showed it," he recalled.

"I hadn't had a top finish for months, and winning a tournament seemed as far away as the moon.

"But after a couple of meetings, when Doc did no more than refresh my memory of those great thoughts I usually have when I am playing my best, I went out and won the tournament, beating none other than Jack Nicklaus down the stretch.

"My swing hadn't changed at all but I was like a new person. All of a sudden, I could hit shots that I could not even imagine the week before."

The main task facing sports psychologists is to get players to clear their minds and keep things simple, to throw away all doubts and fears.

Eight-time major winner Woods is probably the best example of this in the modern game with his unwavering ability to stay focused.

"I tend to have these blackout moments when I don't remember," said Woods, who began working on the mental side of golf with Jay Brunza, a captain in the US navy and a San Diego psychologist, in 1989.

"I know I was there but I don't remember actually performing the golf shot.

"I remember seeing the ball flight. I remember preparing for the shot, pulling the club out of the bag but once I am behind the ball and I'm walking into the shot, I don't remember until I see the ball leave.

"The more intense the situation gets, the calmer I feel and the more things slow down. It's a weird situation. A lot of times I don't hear noise, I don't hear anything.

"I just become so involved with that particular moment, with performing a task and being mentally prepared for that shot. It's almost as if my body is doing the work and I am just sitting back and watching it do it. "

For most golfing greats, the best approach to the game is to keep things as simple as possible.

"I don't remember any glimmering thought of form or any consciousness of a method in playing a shot," said Bobby Jones, winner of four US Opens and three British Opens between 1923 and 1930.

"I seemed merely to hit the ball, which is possibly the best way of playing."

Fellow American Sam Snead, whose honey-smooth swing was widely regarded as the best in history, agreed: "I found the best way was just to draw that stick back nice and lazy, not thinking too much about how I was doing what."

Els, Snead's heir apparent in the modern game with his easy tempo, has little problem keeping things simple. It was the 'Tiger factor' that initially drew him to Vanstiphout.

"Ernie was suffering from 'Tigeritis' and, like the rest of golf, appeared obsessed with him," Vanstiphout said.

"Step one was to get Tiger out of his mind. Step two was to get Ernie back on his feet and tell him how good he is and how good he can become.

"My gift is that I'm honest with these boys who are surrounded by people who are just trying to please them," the Belgian added.

"Sometimes the players don't like what I say to them, that's why Ernie fired me twice in one week."

It is also why the pair argued before the opening round in Doha last week. They soon patched things up, however, and the closing round went exactly to plan.


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