It was the equivalent of Freddie Freeman hanging around the batting cage, helping Washington’s Bryce Harper plug a hole in his swing.
Or Coke loaning Pepsi advice on its formula.
In March, in Miami, Steve Stricker held an impromptu hour-long putting clinic at Doral. The pupil was Tiger Woods, whose occasional problems with the short stick was just the handicap that the rest of professional golf needed. It was one of the last ways to level the field, once TMZ ran out of scandals to tell.
Relax your grip, Stricker told Woods. Stand straighter over the ball. Keep your hands ahead of the ball at impact.
“Weird, isn’t it? It’s kind of bizarre, really,” fellow pro Brian Gay said. “Tiger’s arguably the best player ever. Why would you help him? He doesn’t have too many problems winning golf tournaments.”
Woods won that week, beating Stricker, of all people, by two strokes. Woods won one other time afterward, at the Palmer Invitational. Entering Thursday’s first round of the Masters, it’s like he’s putting into manholes.
“Whatever Steve said to Tiger has definitely worked,” Ian Poulter said. “I think his putting stats the last few weeks have been pretty incredible — 38 percent conversion from 15 to 25 feet. You’re going to win every week if you do that.” (For the season, Woods leads the PGA Tour in 15-to-25 foot and 10-to-15-foot putting percentage).
The dictionary says a competitor is, “One that competes with another, as in sports or business; a rival.”
To put it another way, think two dogs and one bone.
Yet not in golf. We knew that golfers were different — just look at how they dress or at David Feherty in general. Then there is this idea of a player — an independent contractor, not on salary — helping out someone who very well could cost him money and a trophy.
That is counter to the normally cutthroat nature of the games we play. And such a communal approach certainly is at odds with what otherwise may be the most capitalistic game of all.
“It’s a really interesting competitive dynamic that we are like that,” Adam Scott said.
There is nothing new to this free flow of information between golfers.
Deane Beman, who later became commissioner of the PGA Tour, recommended a new kind of putter to Jack Nicklaus before 1971’s PGA Championship. Nicklaus used it to win. Beman finished 14 strokes behind him. Or course, Nicklaus at that stage might have won using a garden hoe on the greens.
Maybe if it was up to a lesser man, he would have advised Woods to hold the blade in his teeth and putt with the grip. Not Stricker. He had to give the most well-armed guy in the room another bullet. It was like giving Bill Gates a good stock tip.
“Sometimes, you kind of kick yourself,” Striker said jokingly after Doral.
“It’s the nature of the game. Everybody helps one another. The older players did it with me. You’re friends out here even though you’re competing against each other.”
The conflict involved in this kind of attitude was apparent in two statements offered by U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson.
“You want to see your friends do well.”
And, “You still want to beat them.”
It’s not exactly one big fraternity kegger out here on Tour, but still, said Brandt Snedeker, “We’re no different than any amateur at home watching a buddy play. You’re going to try to help him out every once in a while.
“Strick’s just that kind of guy. He would help anybody out at any time, especially a guy like Tiger, who we’ve seen thousands of times play together. So, I’m sure he probably regrets it now, but at the time it seemed like a great idea.”
The Red Sox and Yankees have had decades to work up an epic animosity. A Bulldog and a Yellow Jacket may be separated by generations of clean, old-fashioned hate. Friendly competition is becoming a lost ideal on those kinds of stages.
But on Tour they will tell you that there is an entirely different sentiment in play.
“You have a bunch of friends out here,” Snedeker said. “These are guys you’ve grown up playing with your whole life. Everybody’s been there with their struggling or searching and you have a friend who you can go to and ask, ‘What do you see different in my stroke?’”
So, hypothetically, are they saying they’d help out another player even if they were fairly certain that advice would cost them a tournament?
“Well, at the end of the day you want to beat somebody at his best,” Snedeker said.
In the lead-up to this Masters, it was common to see players communing at the Augusta National practice area. Although, Simpson said of the setting at the majors, “I think people are a little more intense so (sharing advice) might not happen as much.”
Sunday, while playing a practice round with Woods, Stricker reportedly peppered his buddy with questions about wedge play and short chip shots. He requires all the help he can get. He has played in a dozen Masters, missing the cut five times, with a best finish of sixth in 2009.
If the universe is calibrated properly, if the karmic scales are to be trusted, wouldn’t Stricker then chip in Sunday on No. 18 to beat Woods by a stroke and win his first Masters?