I don’t have Sky any more, for a variety of reasons. Cost, for one, plus the fact that they lied to me, then set the debt collectors on me, not actions designed to endear a company to its customers, so I swore a great oath never to enter into another contract with them. Most important of all, however, was my fear of incarceration: I’m not sure I’d ever get out of the house. I’ll just wait until the end of this over; better have a look at the tennis from Australia; rugby from hemispheres south and north; golf, of course; and still lots of footie. Good grief, is that the time? Where has the day gone?
Anyway, I was up at the golf club watching a bit of the golf from Dubai, trying to keep up to date and I had to laugh at the first images I saw. A very cross-looking player was striding purposefully (is there any other way to stride?) in the wrong direction (i.e. away from the fairway), leaving the course in her wake. I don’t think she’d finished with the course for the day but was off in pursuit of a very, very errant shot, not for the first time, judging by her demeanour. Her fury and irritation radiated from the screen.
The Omega Dubai Ladies Classic at Emirates Golf Club, the last event of the LET season, is a far cry from the round robin at WHGC – there’s sun for a start and sparkling sub-par rounds by the halfway leader Anne Van Dam, of Holland, Scotland’s Kelsey MacDonald and Europe’s No 1 Georgia Hall, still playing well but jet-lagged and not-so-fresh from winning her LPGA card in America. But it’s all still golf and that’s why I laughed when I saw that disgruntled player. We’ve all, whatever our level, been there.
I was there just this Tuesday past. I was playing Pamela, a good friend, in the round robin and she had, she told me, played rubbish the previous day. Oh, oh, bad news I thought – and I was right. She played rather nicely, close to her handicap if not below and since I had to give her seven shots, I was always up against it and lost 4 and 2. It wasn’t the losing that hurt, it was the chipping and putting that was beyond execrable. I didn’t have any shots that sailed off the map, sending me trekking into the boondocks and I hadn’t spent hours on the practice ground honing my skills but it was hard to keep the annoyance and frustration in check as my ball rarely came within a beagle’s gowl* of the hole. Time to look at Mo’s tips again, perhaps even practise them!Dubai was followed by the men’s European Tour golf from South Africa, the Jo’burg Open and there was a professional golfer smiling, doing a little dance of joy because he’d holed a putt for a birdie. He looked as though he was enjoying his work. He was a South African called Omar Sandys and he was five under par at the time. As the commentators said, it’s not so easy looking happy when you’re five over but concentration is hard work – and golf does require concentration at key moments. I got to thinking how few golfers, professionals especially, ever look as though they’re having a good time on the golf course. Perhaps they feel that to be taken seriously, you have to look serious.
Or perhaps it’s just that most of us look serious when we’re concentrating. At choir, we’re always being told to inject a bit of joy into our singing but because we’re not very confident and are learning things that are new to us, we tend to be a bit cautious and downbeat and the singing suffers.
On reflection, that could be the key to better golf: make sure the joie de vivre comes first, release the tension and let the performance follow. Mmmm. Maybe I’ll just change my putter.
*Footnote: It has been brought to my attention that a translation might be needed, so here is the definition of beagle’s gowl from John Pepper’s stikkinout Ulster-English Dictionary: denotes proximity, within hearing of the barking beagles during a hunt: ‘I told him he wasn’t within a beagle’s gowl of the price I was looking for the car.’
“Hello World,” he said on turning pro over twenty years ago. Those words heralded the arrival of Tiger Woods into the world of professional golf and nothing in this sport has ever been the same since. In those very early days one tour professional apparently asked Sandy Lyle if he knew Tiger Woods. “No, I’ve never played there,” replied Sandy innocently.
I first watched Tiger in the flesh in his first Masters as a professional in 1997. The fanfare was deafening and I rushed eagerly to see this new kid on the block. He went out in 40 blows, four over par, and I left him at the 10th tee thinking he’d been well and truly over-hyped. He came home in 30, never looked back and won his first major easily with a record score. That was the beginning of a remarkable career which may or may not be over. Yesterday, Tiger made a gentle return to the competitive arena in the 18-man field in the Hero World Challenge, a tournament he hosts annually in the Bahamas. With a total of eight operations behind him – four on his left knee, four on his back – it really shouldn’t be much of a discussion as to how successful/long his return to competitive golf may be, should it? Well, that’s just the thing with Tiger, you can never really tell. He has had a habit of surprising us down the years.
It was 1999 when I first commentated on Tiger in a major and as it happened that was his second victory at golf’s most elevated level. Over the next ten years I had a front-row seat watching the career of the world’s most famous athlete unfold as he hoovered up 14 majors in his quest to match Jack Nicklaus’ total of 18. There was no one to match him. His length off the tee, his scintillating irons and his ability to hole crucial putts and chips distanced him from all opposition. And his mind…..well, it was like a steel trap. For the first time ever, for the ONLY time ever, the most famous athlete in the world was a golfer. My admiration for him as a player knew no bounds and what an immense privilege it was to be inside the ropes alongside him as he repeatedly carved his name in the history books.
But there’s no doubt he changed over those years. Was it the pressure-cooker fishbowl he lived in, being constantly “on show”? Or was it the constant fawning of those around him – Tour officials, fans, managers and the like? Whatever it was, he became increasingly arrogant, increasingly controlling and quite simply, not a very nice human being. If asked a question in his media conference that he didn’t care for, he would ascertain who the questioner worked for and would then ensure that that publication, TV channel, whatever, would not get any interviews or quotes from him in the future. He would frequently say to professional journalists, “You’re a piece of work,” with more than a hint of a sneer. I witnessed it so often – intimidation and control. Not pleasant.
I did many post round interviews with him and there is one that stands out in my memory. It was the World Golf Championship event at Dove Mountain in Arizona, the matchplay, and Tiger was drawn against the big-hitting JB Holmes in the first round. Tiger’s opening tee shot sailed out of bounds, almost ending in a swimming pool, and from there he played woeful stuff, by his standards, to be four down with five to go. From this platform of poor play he fashioned a birdie, birdie, eagle, par, birdie finish to win on the last. I got to interview him greenside so he was still very much in the moment, pumped at his Houdini escape. Gone was any caution. There were no guarded comments, just a proper conversation about golf and his evident delight and joy in his finish. He behaved like a proper person. I loved it.
We are now in an era where most of the players competing in the upper echelons of the world stage have never played against Tiger or seen him work his magic on a golf course. Yesterday he played with Justin Thomas, the 2017 season poster boy of golf with five wins including a major on his resume – a sustained year-long performance that had everyone hailing the arrival of a new superstar. But, hold on a second – Tiger won at least five times in a season on no fewer than TEN occasions and he won ten times worldwide in 2000 alone. There is no one playing nowadays who can yet come close to Tiger’s dominance and win rate, so is it any wonder there is more than a frisson of expectation as he prepares for yet another comeback attempt?
I wonder what motivates him now though? Not the dosh, surely, but possibly the rediscovered joy of being finally pain-free on the course? To be sure, it must pique his interest to see what he can really do against today’s young guns. More interesting, however, was his comment in a recent interview that his children, Sam, 10, and Charlie, 8, were now keen to play golf with him. He lamented they had only ever known their Dad as a “youtube golfer” – his description. He is strongly motivated to show his kids exactly how good he is on a golf course. We don’t need to look further than Scotland’s Paul Lawrie who had a wonderful second half to his career when motivated by the desire to play golf with his boys and show them just what he could do.
Tiger’s career is no doubt on the wane from those heady, sublime days when the game looked effortlessly easy for him but perhaps we may still witness a few glorious sunsets in his twilight years. And, who knows, perhaps this happier person may become a nicer one too.
I wasn’t going to mention Tiger, having left that to Maureen but it’s impossible not to because they’re talking about golf on 5 Live, Radio 2 and writing about it in the newspapers, places where the game is usually now treated as a four-letter word, not to be mentioned without the use of asterisks instead of letters. And it’s all TW’s fault, the mentions that is, not the asterisks. He’s looking well too, if the photos are anything to go by. Fit, beaming, unrecognisable from the sad, dead-eyed face in the police mug shots of not so long ago.
Tiger played golf to win, with a one-eyed, single-minded determination that raged like a forest fire. Beth Daniel once said of Betsy King, a committed Christian and a controlled, outwardly more or less emotionless competitor, always on an even keel: “Betsy burns inside.” Tiger burned inside and out, never hiding the fierce and fearsome competitor.
He loved the battle and he loved winning but above all he loved – and still loves – the game. Somehow or other, for some reason or another, it got under his skin, it implanted itself in his DNA, in his gut, wormed its way into his very core. When his carapace was at its hardest and most impenetrable, the only possible way to get a wee glimpse of the human being inside, behind the public mask, was to ask about a particular shot, be it an all-out, Daisy-pulled-it-off effort that defied belief or an apparently more straightforward effort that Tiger pulled off so perfectly that it was easy to miss the degree of difficulty and the skill, precision and nerve involved.
When it comes down to it, he’s just like the rest of us: a poor, besotted golf tragic.
In the first round in the Bahamas yesterday, Tiger returned a very respectable 69, three under par, more than enough to keep everyone interested.
Elsewhere in the world, there’s still lots of golf going on, in shirt sleeves in Australia and Mauritius, which looks lovely on the telly when you’re feeling the chill here in England and other parts of the currently disunited kingdom; at Daytona Beach in Florida where there’s the nerve-wracking final stage of the LPGA Qualifying Tournament; and in Japan, in Nagoya, at Miyoshi Country Club, there’s the Queens presented by Kowa, a women’s team event between the tours of Japan, Europe, Australia and (South) Korea, the powerhouse of women’s golf. I won’t even try and explain the exact format but it’ll be tough and competitive and whoever wins will have played good golf.Out in Oz, Alastair Cook, England batsman supreme (though suckered out hooking early in the second innings of the first Ashes test in Brisbane), prepared for the second test in Adelaide by having his first-ever hole-in-one, at Royal Adelaide I believe, though Kooyonga GC is also lovely and would be a fantastic place to have your first ace. A lot of cricketers are good golfers and find the game easy, up to a point but, often, not as easy as they think they should. They’re still hooked though (sorry Alastair).
Closer to home, we had our Christmas comp at Whittington Heath on Tuesday, which was still in November but, hey ho, ho, ho, sometimes that’s the way the diary crumbles. Seasonal jumpers were not obligatory but even those of us who like to wait until December to start the countdown made the effort. I had to go in search of something cheap and cheerful, previous garments having fallen apart, run out of battery life or shrunk in the wash. My sensible Scottish streak resented that I had to sneak into double figures price-wise but given the dancing classes on Mondays (thanks to my partner Mike and our fellow dancers and teacher Sam for their patience and forbearance) and the addiction to Strictly, how could I resist it?