It’s reasonable to wonder if the field of sports psychology would exist but for golf. No game does a more comprehensive job of stripping its competitors down to the studs, exposing any rot and weaknesses that lie beneath a once imposing facade.
That’s true of major winners and municipal chops alike. The list of golfers who’ve been thoroughly humbled by one frailty or another reads like roll call at the Hall of Fame.
Putting hobbled Hogan and Watson and Els. With Nicklaus and Woods it was chipping. The greats find ways around it, of course, and move on. But it’s hard to go forward if you’re hitting it sideways. Losing the driver is what they all fear. That’s what finished Ballesteros, Baker-Finch and Duval, and damn near ended Stenson too.
Steven Bowditch doesn’t belong in this elite company, at least not in terms of the ecstasy known to major champions. But when it comes to the agony golf can inflict, the 35-year-old Australian fits right in.
Bowditch has been good enough to win twice on the PGA Tour — the 2014 Valero Texas Open and the 2015 AT&T Byron Nelson — and earn more than $7.5 million. He made the International team at the 2015 Presidents Cup.
Sometime after that, his driver went AWOL. He made just two weekends in 27 starts last season. This season he has played in only five events: MC, MC, MC, MC, MC. An abyss doesn’t come much deeper than the one Bowditch is currently plumbing.
“It’s impossible to play if you can’t serve the ball into play without fear,” said Mike Clayton, a veteran Tour pro who watched Bowditch emerge as a talented teenager. “It’s a scary thing to know the game can just go away as it has for Steve. Hopefully he can get it back. But as Peter Thomson once told me, ‘You don’t often come back from things like that.’”
Bowditch’s lifeline may be his essential Aussie-ness: a bleak sense of humor and gritty determination born of a country built by men who arrived in shackles.
Both have been tested. Two years ago at a no-cut WGC event at Doral he shot 81-80-80-84.
“I think there were four-dozen balls in my locker at the start of the week and now I’m down to the last one,” he deadpanned afterward.
A few months later, when Woods withdrew from what was to be his comeback at the Safeway Classic, Bowditch flashed more of that self-deprecation.
“Come play a couple of practice rounds with me,” he tweeted at Woods. “Your confidence will go through the roof!”
A cheerful Brezhnev
With his bushy eyebrows and cheeky grin, Bowditch looks like a cheerful Leonid Brezhnev. It’s a demeanor that comes from knowing ugly scorecards aren’t the worst life can throw at you. He has long been candid about his struggles with clinical depression, which led to episodes of erratic behavior and a 2006 suicide attempt. The nadir of his recent issues was in February 2017, a DUI arrest in Scottsdale.
Like many slumping sportsmen, Bowditch was an easy target for the smartphone bombardiers. A Dallas high schooler with a 9-handicap and no manners mocked him on Twitter and challenged him to a match. Bowditch accepted. Other Tour pros offered to fly in and partner him. Predictably, the kid’s bluster was BS. He didn’t show. Bowditch did though, and played a round with some random guys he met there.
That ability to find something to smile about in the dark explains why so many people were eager to help Bowditch shoulder the burden last week. On his way to the John Deere Classic he tweeted an offer to have a local kid caddie for him:
“The best response gets the job. 2 P.M. Tues start, finish Friday. 1% chance Sunday. Payment: all leftover gloves and balls are yours.”
Elias Francque was among many who volunteered. He turned 17 on Friday.
“Helping you make the cut would be a great birthday present,” he wrote.
“Shoulder feel good?” Bowditch asked.
“The shoulders are better than ever,” Elias replied. He got the gig. “Let’s get a W!” the kid tweeted with earnest enthusiasm seldom seen in Tour caddies.
Bowditch didn’t win. He didn’t make the cut — that would be too Hollywood an ending — but he made more of an impact than many who did.
“I thought this was probably a good opportunity to make a kid smile for the week,” he said.
We haven’t seen much of Bowditch’s talent recently, but his professionalism, humor and decency is evident, no matter how fickle and capricious the game. He’s a reminder that sometimes we ought to cheer just as hard for guys at the other end of the leaderboard. Gwk