Crotch, butt, shoulder, shoulder, nose, ear, nose, ear … Rafael Nadal’s obsessive pre-shot self-touching amounts to a Disorder and I’d feel sorry for him if not for the fact that he’s won over $100 million from pro tennis and 17 of its majors.
All who watch sports are unwitting and sometimes unwilling witnesses to such ritual tics. Can Eli Manning chunk a pass or call a play without licking his fingers? I doubt it. Can Klay Thompson shoot a free throw without a little tap-tap of his right biceps with his left hand? Apparently not.
Topmost in athletic twitchiness must be MLB batsmen. Back in the not too distant day, hitters who’d availed themselves of the widely available locker room punch–liquid amphetamine, aka “red juice”—observed a pre-pitch St. Vitus’ Dance of undergarment and uniform adjustment. Texas Rangers catcher Ivan Rodriguez crossed himself before every pitch, and not just when he was behind in the count. Similar deal with Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval, who invokes a higher power by habitually scratching a cross in the dirt behind the umpire with the handle of his bat on his journey to the plate, part of a bizarre five-part choreography that if he doesn’t do, maybe he’ll never get another hit.
Then there’s us. We golfers can’t even put a ball in play without Lamaze breaths, shoulder rolls, glove tugs, and club twirls. Jason Day’s gotta close his eyes. Sergio Garcia and Jason Dufner gotta waggle, waggle, waggle. Although they hated each other, Ben Hogan and Arnold Palmer had more or less the same pre-shot routine: ▸ Deep inhalation of the fine tobaccos in a Chesterfield (Hogan) or an L&M (Palmer) cigarette while selecting a club.
▸ Emphatic right-handed pitch of the burning weed to the ground.
▸ Half swing while peering through the smoke at the pin or the fairway.
▸ Place the right foot, the left, the right again.
▸ A last look, and then, smash it.
The Ben ‘n’ Arnie target acquisition ceremony was a good thing because it was brief and organic, and a lot of us copied it whole. But now comes an odious addition to the countdown. This new bit of twitch arrives from the PGA Tour, which means, unfortunately, that civilians are copying it. Talking about staring at topographical maps of the humps and hollows on the greens before even considering hitting a putt. As if searching for evidence of subterranean oil, or water.
“Yeah, the majority of players use the maps,” says Jonathan Willis, who caddies for Charlie Beljan, who won a Tour event in 2012. “But not Charlie. He hates ‘em, because they slow down the game. And they’re not even useful unless you’re standing in exactly the right place.
“Someone always has them for sale before a tournament. They cost $150 at the Nelson. I was happy not to buy one. I don’t like them either. Just read the putt and go.”
The master assumption of the topo crowd is that the more data points, the better. Finicky precision is the trend, and to hell with instinct and a quicker trip to the 19th hole. That range finders have caused us to fetishize yardage is a related problem. Most golfers have to know if it’s 151 yards to the flag or 153 before launch, but yardage is less important than how you hit the 7-iron last time; your lie; the wind; your pulse rate; and the state of the bet, and of your hangover. Better hit the 6.
Golf can be played without endless preamble. It can be played blindfolded, in fact, and maybe it should be. To prove a point that a clear mind leads to good shots, Canadian pro George Knudson, a horrible putter, once tied a bandana around his eyes and shot 67. Like history’s short game masters, that day Knudson felt the breaks through his feet. He never peeked at a map.