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  Monday, 22 July, 2002, 12:05 GMT 13:05 UK
The man behind the heroes
Jos Vanstiphout, sport psychologist
Vanstiphout, Els' secret weapon

When Ernie Els stood on the first tee, waiting for the play-off that would decide the destiny of the 131st Open, he looked to three things to help him out.

His wife Liezel was the first, for a good luck hug.

The second was a cheese sandwich - a man gets hungry hunting Majors.

The third - and possibly most important - was a small forty-something Belgian named Jos Vanstiphout.

I was almost gone mentally
Ernie Els
Vanstiphout is the sports psychologist who has rapidly become the most desirable golfing accessory for those charged with catching Tiger Woods.

Forget Big Berthas and natty polo shirts, grey-haired shrinks are what you need.

What David Leadbetter is to swings, Vanstiphout is to the mind.

He is the man credited with transforming Retief Goosen from also-ran to US Open champion.

Having thrown away the chance to take the Open in normal play, Els needed something special to shake off his fear of failure.

Tiger Woods battles during the third round at Muirfield
Woods' mental strength sets him apart from his contemporaries
"I was almost gone mentally," he admitted. "I thought I had lost it.

"This week I had a couple of chances to break away and the little guy just kept sitting on my shoulder.

"Every time I wanted to do that, I made a mistake. Even in the last play-off hole, I got him back again.

"Walking off 16 the first time a lot of things went through my mind: 'Is this the way to lose another Major, is this the way you want to be remembered, by screwing up in an Open championship?'"

Enter Vanstiphout.

"He tried to get me upbeat," said Els. "Jos told me the next four holes would be the four most important holes in my career."

Vanstiphout explained further.

"Ernie was never going to fail because he has been trained not to," he said. "If he had, I would have failed.

"We all have fears and doubts and I have been trying to get back his self-esteem and self-belief.

Nick Faldo with his psychologist Kjell Enhager
Nick Faldo with his psychologist Kjell Enhager
"I spoke to him more honestly that other people have. At first, he didn't like it and questioned who I was to talk to him like that.

"But I think it has begun to work. You only change the way you perform by changing the way you think."

Former England captain Michael Atherton came out top of a poll on Monday to find the toughest English cricketer of the last 20 years.

Atherton, whose battles with South African quick Allan Donald in 1998 epitomised mental resilience under extreme pressure, believes cricketers would benefit from following Els' approach.

"People spend a lot of time in the gym, a lot of time in the nets," says the Mancunian.

"But how much time do they actually spend training the mind, which is probably of equal importance?"

At least one of his modern-day successors has taken those lessons to heart.

Michael Atherton hooks for four
Atherton's resilience under pressure saved England on many occasions
Andrew Flintoff made his Test debut in the same series that Atherton somehow withstood Donald, but it took the all-rounder three years to establish himself on the international scene.

The man he credits with his renaissance? None other than that man Vanstiphout again.

"Jos has taught me to take a big look at myself and ask a few questions," says Flintoff.

"He wanted me to be honest with myself, rather than blame everything on bad luck."

The rewards for Vanstiphout's clients are lucrative. Els picked up 700,000 for his win at Muirfield; Flintoff has been a cricketer reborn.

Judging by his beaming smile when asked about his cut of Els' winnings, Vanstiphout should have no problem paying the bills this year either.

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