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Mike Campbell comes of age
In excellent playing conditions on the hallowed turf of the Old Course at St Andrews, Mike Campbell took a two-stroke lead into the final round of the Open Golf Championship. He did not win the championship, he took only a creditable third place behind John Daly and Constantino Rocca, after the two had played out the type of drama that only the Open can produce.

But Campbell had done enough to show his prowess and surely posted his intent.

For Campbell, the late developing 26-year-old quiet Maori boy from a one horse Hicksville Township in New Zealand, two days of continuous applause in the amphitheatre of the Old Course was too much.

After rounds of 71, 71 and 65 he imploded over the closing nine holes to return a final round 76. The collective heart of St Andrews went out to him and although John Daly got the Claret Jug it was Mike Campbell who was adopted as a favourite son.

The effect on Campbell after his disastrous final round in the '95 Open was devastating. His game fell apart and he went on to lose his European Tour card. Indeed, he did not regain it again until 1998. Campbell confesses to still thinking about his Open failure despite the fact that he remains blissfully yet unaffectedly aware of his talent and has done more than enough to prove his winning capabilities.

Although he has had many tournament successes world-wide, it is his Johnny Walker Classic win in '99, when he held off a spirited challenge by Tiger Woods to win by five shots, that shows the real mettle of the man. That win more than any other must have boosted his confidence and reassured him of his ability.

His ability is clear to see. Short and strong in the leg with a powerful upper body physique, he has the perfect physiognomy for a golfer. He looks structurally like Sam Snead but it is when he swings the club that the similarity becomes most strikingly apparent. His rhythm and tempo are exquisite. He has the simplest and best swing in tournament golf today.

Before the start of last week's event in Dublin, Mike Campbell was rated as only 19th in the European Order of Merit and only 39th in the world rankings. For someone of his strikingly obvious ability one wonders why?

The answer is clear enough. One only has to look at his performance in major championships to see that Mike has a problem - a problem that again became glaringly obvious over the closing holes of the demanding K-Club last week. It would be too easy to say that he chokes. Certainly, if he chokes it would appear to be a disorder common to every player in the world other than the neurophysiological phenomenon that is Tiger Woods.

Without stress, players of great natural ability play by muscle memory. With the assistance of a good caddie they can assess distances and slopes with ease. Under pressure, however, everything changes. A good caddie will remain focused and unfazed, although he too may lose the place. For the player, remaining focused is the real problem. A drifting mind may start to dwell upon profundities for his champion's acceptance speech or, more mundanely, what he will do with the money.

But more devastating is the effect of over-concentration on the task at hand. Concentrating too much upon the finer points of the swing, on rhythm or on tempo, tends to erase muscle memory - and that is when the place is lost. One only has to consider professional footballers taking penalty kicks to see this at most striking effect. Under no duress, a pro footballer will slot kick after kick. In a shootout for a major title, the pro is reduced to the mediocre and cannot even kick it between the posts.

Anyone who has found himself with four holes to go and with strokes to squander will know that as sure as hell these strokes will be squandered. The harder you try to save par the more you tighten up and completely forget how to play the game.

The experience of having been there and lived through it is generally held to be the only guarantee that you will recognise it when it happens. Mike Campbell has been there and has now survived it. He learned much from St Andrews in '95 and probably even more from thumping Woods in '99.

He has the game and possibly now the mind to be a Major winner.

The bookies are still offering odds of 66/1 against him taking the Open and 14/1 against him leading the European Order of Merit. I have some loose change and am more than optimistic about his chances.

©    10 - JULY 2002

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