Published : Apr 29, 2006 00:00 IST

Fred Couples, who was vying for the green jacket with the far more talented Phil Mickelson, did something very odd. He smiled at Phil, he draped an arm around Phil, writes ROHIT BRIJNATH.

Everywhere, they call it the "game face''. It's almost as if before competition commences, an athletic ritual must be performed. Players swing open lockers. Wrench off smiles, peel away geniality, and deposit it. Reach in and pull on a mask. Standard version is dead eyes, taut jaw, pursed lips. Snarls are made to order. Haughtiness is an extra.

Borg and Sampras during competition owned faces bought from the same manufacturer, intimidating for they revealed not anxiety, unsureness, fear. What were they thinking? Tiger Woods' rigid face on the course looks like one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, the Pale Rider carrying death.

Mild-mannered Anil Kumble's mug coming into bowl resembles a man who is intent on heart surgery without an anaesthetic. Steve Waugh's kisser was an open book of defiance.

Boxers you can almost picture, crouched in dimly-lit dressing rooms, adjusting the hood over their eyes in a pretence of malevolence. Australian cricketers evidently buy scowls in bulk while rugby players no doubt visit reject shops to find masks with gapped teeth and rearranged noses. And looking over your shoulder, a charging Lance Armstrong's face resembles hell frozen over.

Walks can be purchased as well at the Swagger Shop where athletes can be custom-fitted for a strut. Apparently Kobe Bryant has an account there. So did Viv Richards.

Why athletes do this, wear masks, shrug on an attitude, walk funny, we are unsure? To convince themselves they are ready, or to convince their opponents? Perhaps a bit of both. As an anonymous American baseballer once said: "Ninety per cent of sport is half mental." Some dubious arithmetic aside, we get his message.

The game face is a stare, it's a show, it's a mood, it's a reassurance, it's a weapon. As Brandi Chastain, the US women's footballer once said: "When I put my uniform on over my head, my game face goes on. It's letting nothing on the periphery penetrate my focus It's kind of a whole other subconscious that you go into.''

Before action begins, athletes want to set a tone, make a statement, send a message. That Clint Eastwood squint-eyed look, that thousand-yard glare, they're supposed to tell you, weakness doesn't live here, only intensity. This is the Broadway of body language. The All Blacks haka interpreted into simple English usually means: "I'm coming for you, sonny".

So, considering all this, imagine my confusion. For in the final twosome in the last round of the Masters golf, Fred Couples, who was vying for the green jacket with the far more talented Phil Mickelson, did something very odd.

He smiled at Phil, he draped an arm around Phil, he bumped knuckles with Phil, he chatted convivially with Phil. You weren't sure if Couples wanted to beat Mickelson or adopt him.

It was the sweetest, strangest showdown in sport. Och, Scots might tell you, this is golf, laddie, no spitting, swearing, stalking, a game whose absence of physical stress and collisions allows for good manners.

Hey, Couples might say, I'm a happy guy, my talent most completely expressed in good company, Phil relaxes me and I play best when all loose and comfortable.

Hmmm, there could be something to this. Ernie Els, too, relishes a chat, and when paired with Retief Goosen once at the US Open, felt rebuffed and played poorly when Retief failed to converse. Or so went the story.

Couples is hardly proof that the only things nice guys win are popularity contests, for proof exists to the contrary, from Federer to Clijsters to Flintoff to Dravid to triple jumper Jonathan Edwards. Decent, honourable, sporting athletes yet ferocious.

But what Couples seemed to lack, from the outsider's view, was not just intent, but more the advertisement of it. He seemed to be playing with Mickelson, not against him, which is not often the case in golf, but here on the final day, scores similar, it was effectively a matchplay situation.

Couples had to find an atmosphere that suited him, except that it suited Mickelson, too. Nothing about this ageing player, who played wonderfully of course, exuded a threat, you never really believed he would win. Nothing about his demeanour worried, irritated, threatened, warned, intimidated Mickelson.

Can you imagine Tiger and Vijay doing that? With anyone? Their sons even?

No one is recommending gamesmanship. No one advocates disrespect. But if anything maybe Couples respected Phil too much. Because imagine this. Imagine Couples, old pal of Mickelson's, doesn't speak to him, says not a word, not a handshake during the round, plays his own game, walks alone to the tee.

Not being rude, or obstreperous, but just sending a memo to Phil by body language mail that says: Mentally I won't be beaten today. I am in my zone. I have the measure of you.

Does it make Mickelson think, worry, wonder? Does Mickelson feel challenged? Does it make doubt appear when none existed? Is this what Steve Waugh famously called mental disintegration?

In a question better put to Couples, Mickelson was later asked: "Was that an ideal pairing for you, as opposed to, let's say, Tiger or Vijay, who maybe are not saying, `Come on, let's go make some birdies, Phil'?"

To which Mickelson replied, to much laughter: "Yeah, that probably wouldn't have happened. So, yeah, it was a good pairing. We had a great day and it was really a fun day."

We cannot say Fred Couples didn't want to win badly enough, for no man can look into another's heart. But a player, immaculate from tee to green, lacked not just skill with a putter but an edge, that subtle, intangible advantage that the great athlete somehow finds to snatch victory.

Maybe it was there in his locker, this edge, but maybe Couples is not a man to wear a mask.

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