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Commentary: Golf is won between the ears

The first time I played golf this year, after not touching a club in four months, I went out with no expectations and an uncluttered mind free of the paralyzing memories of bad shots or tips from talking heads on TV.

I shot a shocking 35, making two birdies and an eagle to finish my nine holes 1-under par.

Next time out? A 46. Time after that? A 44. Same course. Same conditions.

Golf, it is said, is played on a five-inch course. The space between your ears. That's why players can come in all shapes and sizes, tall or short, fit or fat. In this sport, success comes not from how fast you can run, how high you can jump or how adept you are at throwing, shooting or catching a ball.

It's about confidence and concentration. It's about thinking your way around a course without overthinking the swing. It's about acting rather than reacting. The fairways are littered with great players whose careers were shanked by self-doubt or overanalysis.

It's not all in your mind, but it's close.

That's why the ultra-talented Phil Mickelson owns four majors and why Tiger Woods racked up 14 by age 32 but none since.

It's why the past 14 majors have been won by 14 different players, many precocious and self-assured young players closing the deal the first time they got in the hunt.

It's why Greg Norman never won a major on American soil but Lee Janzen and Andy North won multiple U.S. Opens with far less ability.

It's why LPGA player I.K. Kim probably made 1,000 or more consecutive 10-inch putts leading up to the one on the final hole of the Nabisco a few weeks ago that would've given Kim her first major title. She missed. She lost.

It's why I have a good friend who was breaking 80 before he was driving a car who became so obsessed with the minutiae of the swing - hand position at the top, wrist angle, divot depth - that he forgot how to make solid contact with the ball.

It's why Bubba Watson is the Masters champion.

Proud of the fact that he's never had a real lesson, he doesn't think too much about his self-made swing. And he has an unswerving confidence in his ability. That helped him hit the 350-yard drives and clutch putts over the final nine at Augusta that got him into a playoff on Sunday and it's the reason he was able to make a wedge shot hook 40 yards around some tall pines and onto the green at the second sudden-death hole en route to the green jacket.

Meanwhile, Mickelson essentially lost the tournament on the fourth hole of the day, first by overthinking - the idea is to try to hit the ball onto the green, not into the grandstand - then by being overcome with the same hubris that has cost him several U.S. Opens.

Woods has analyzed his own swing beyond recognition. The player who was hitting trick shots on TV at age 3, playing in PGA tournaments while he was in high school and winning three straight U.S. Amateur titles before he was old enough to walk into the 19th hole, can no more recapture that youthful swing as return to his old life.

Now on his third coach as a professional, he's so caught up in thinking about every moving part of the swing that he appears to have lost his feel for it. When something goes wrong during this mechanical motion, he's powerless to fix it. And his self-confidence - once legendary and pretty high after winning at Bay Hill last month - was gone before his opening-hole, snap-hooked drive had even hit the ground last Thursday.

The guess here is that Woods will begin winning majors again - and probably before I shoot another 35. But it won't happen until his new swing becomes second-nature, allowing him to stop thinking about it, and until he regains the rock-solid certitude that no one can beat him.

He's a remarkable athlete, a tireless worker, and fiercely competitive. But, in golf, that's not enough.

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