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As player entourages grow, golf becomes a team game

PALM BEACH GARDENS, FLA. - They're everywhere: mental coaches, swing coaches, fitness trainers, nutritionists. They're at the Honda Classic, which begins today at the PGA National Resort & Spa's Champions course. Why aren't the best golfers shooting 60 every round, given the advice they get?

"Nutritionists? We ate Wendy's hamburgers," Rod Curl, a former PGA Tour player who beat Jack Nicklaus by a shot to win the 1974 Colonial National Invitation in Fort Worth, Tex., said yesterday while watching some players on the practice range.

Times have changed. Even Tiger Woods, back practising at the Isleworth Country Club in Orlando, where he lives, has his entourage. There's his swing coach Hank Haney and his fitness trainer Ken Kleven, among others. Charles Howell III, who is playing the Honda, spent an hour with Woods on the range this week and said he's hitting the ball as well as ever.

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It will be interesting to see how Woods will play once he competes again. It's possible that the most authentic thing about him - his golf - has been done for inauthentic reasons: to help fill an emptiness and insecurity. If the therapy he's had has helped, might it not drum out of him the need to fill that emptiness?

We'll eventually see what kind of game and character he brings back to competition. Meanwhile, 144 players are about to start a tournament, and many have their coaches on hand. Alan Fine, one of them, works with Stephen Ames of Calgary. His credential says "sports psychologist," but he's the first to admit he doesn't hold an advanced degree in psychology.

"I'm a dropout," Fine, who was born in Wales and lives in Salt Lake City, said on the range while watching Ames whack balls into a wind of 40 kilometres an hour.

"I was going to be an optometrist."

Instead, the affable 56-year-old became interested in how he could help people learn faster, and what makes them perform under pressure. He used to coach tennis in Wales, and watching his players made him curious about those matters. Fine works with Ames and the Welsh golfer Phillip Price, a three-time European Tour winner and former Ryder Cup player, but 80 per cent of his work is with the corporate world.

This week he's with Ames, at the first tournament of the PGA Tour's four-week Florida swing. Ames was happy to be practising into a strong wind.

"I like this," he said. "Any problems show up more. I see I'm spinning my irons so much."

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A ready solution was at hand. A fellow from Matrix Shafts standing at Ames's side said he would put new shafts on his irons pronto.

If only the golf swing and mind could be remade as easily.

Players tend to think it's possible, so many switch coaches frequently.

Fine's been with Ames for years. What's he trying to accomplish?

"It's a matter of trying to keep his mind quiet," Fine said. "You have to work on mechanics [which Ames does with his swing coach and fellow Canadian, Sean Foley]but you can lose your way in it."

That fits the modern golfer. The successful ones are mini-corporations, or even bigger. Mike Weir is certainly that. He's made $26.5-million (U.S.) during his PGA Tour career, 11th on the career money list, and millions more through business relationships with various companies, including Thomson Reuters, Royal Bank of Canada and Audi. Still, he's a golfer above all, which is why he was working yesterday with Bob Rotella, his current mental coach.

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In addition to Rotella, Weir works with swing coach Mike Wilson. He works closely with TaylorMade to ensure his equipment is to his liking. Meanwhile, he came to the Honda on an Olympic high. Weir was at the men's hockey game last Sunday in Vancouver when Canada beat the United States to take the gold medal.

"It was one of the greatest sporting things I've ever been to," Weir said yesterday. "I was sweating. Everybody was."

Weir won't sweat too much here, not from warmth anyway. It was so brisk yesterday that some caddies and players were wearing tuques. What is this, the Winter Olympics?

No, it's the first tournament of the PGA Tour's loop around Florida. Players are trying to find their best games, what with the Masters just five weeks away.

Woods has lost his way. Will he find it again? Will Ames, 46, grab his first major? Will Weir add another major to his 2003 Masters title?

And the big questions: When will Woods next play? How will he play? And who is he?

No coach and maybe not even Woods himself can answer these questions. Until he competes again, it's all idle - or maybe that should be idol - speculation.

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