Golf: Absence makes the game grow fonder

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If ever proof were needed that golf is the most ordered and well- mannered of sports it was to be found in the approach to its annual crescendo this week. As the world's best golfers prepared to gather at Royal Troon for the oldest tournament of them all, the much revered Open Championship, we had the usual withdrawals from a few whose status entitles them to be there but who won't be turning up.

It is hard to think of any level of absenteeism being so graciously accepted at other big sporting events and even more difficult to imagine an explanation more delicious than that given to the organisers, the Royal & Ancient golf club of St Andrews, by the rumbustious American John Daly, who won the Open two years ago.

Daly's struggles against his various addictions need no elaboration here nor do his many attempts at reform, the latest of which, apparently, has not been steadfast enough to encourage his appearance this week. His letter to the R & A excusing himself offered the brief but irresistible reason: "My personal health and well-being require me to be elsewhere."

I don't know if he composed those words himself or whether he has taken the wise step of hiring a professional apologist but no sporting organisation has surely received such a disarmingly eloquent request to be pardoned from participating. And if they did, most of them would react with apoplectic speed to propel the book in his direction.

How many of those involved in other sports would welcome the opportunity to ask, just occasionally, for their tired and unwilling bodies to be relieved from the action? For instance, is there not at least one grand prix driver who would love to fax Silverstone today with Daly's message copied word for word.

How many boxers through the ages would have echoed the same sentiment on the eve of a feared contest? The world of Mike Tyson would be in considerably better shape today if he'd had the foresight to throw himself upon the undoubtedly merciful nature of Don King by citing compelling reasons for being elsewhere on that particular evening.

Sympathy from the general public for these unfortunate people, however, will be limited because most of us suffer lives hemmed in by far more restrictions. How would your boss react if you phoned him tomorrow morning with the news that your physical health and well-being required you to be elsewhere (i.e. on a picnic with Miss Peabody of Accounts)?

Then again, we expect our stars to lead larger lives. They would be much larger if all sports were conducted like golf; at once the most disciplined and the most understanding of games. Infringe a rule, even inadvertently, and no mercy is shown but suffer from physical or emotional distress and a comforting arm is available. Top players can, by and large, pick and choose where and when they play. This may depend on a whim or on how much appearance money is being offered to them merely for turning up.

Few other professionals are able to indulge themselves in such a luxury. The only comparable sports where individuals have this kind of freedom are tennis and, to a lesser extent, athletics. It is not a coincidence that in golf and tennis particularly the players are represented by associations strong enough to be an integral part of the game's government and mindful of the best interests of their members.

Those who earn their living in games run by autocratic, not to mention anachronistic, bodies face almost feudal obligations to their paymasters. At times, even a lack of fitness is not sufficient excuse for absence from the front line. The number forced to play on with pain-killing injections masking injuries does no credit to the sports concerned whose philosophy seems to be that anyone "requiring to be elsewhere" would need the support of a current death certificate.

I am not making light of whatever is ailing John Daly but I warrant that many knackered Lions would have felt like informing the Rugby Football Union that among the experiences they required least after the physical and mental demands of their triumphant South African tour was an immediate visit to Australia to face a bunch of slavering Wallabies.

Rugby has rapidly become a most difficult sport for a top player to find a balanced approach to his professional life and the events of the last 48 hours have served to emphasise the game's problems. It was ironic that while England's players were preparing to go over the top once more, the two factions fighting for control of the RFU were at each other's throats at the annual meeting.

If they'd held the AGM on the pitch at Twickenham, they could have sold enough tickets to match any income gained from sending their team to the other side of the world and it would have been much more entertaining and informative. Playing Australia had to be a commercial decision because there were few lessons to be learned particularly as the man who would learn most from those lessons, Jack Rowell, is under acute threat of the sack.

What the players make of it all is difficult to say. Will Carling might well have been speaking for the majority of them when he made an impassioned plea at the AGM for Cliff Brittle not to be elected as chairman. They took no notice, of course, and we await signs that Brittle considers the interests of players at the elite level to be a priority.

Whoever runs the RFU, or any of the home unions for that matter, the struggle between them and the clubs to control the availability of players is the most vital problem facing the game. The strong impression remains that players are expected to be no more than acquiescent work-horses whose only role in life is to raise money for the game and the comfort of the administration.

The club v country question is bad enough in football but it is not as potentially destructive as it is in rugby and we are just weeks away from a new season which will do everything to highlight the conflict and nothing to solve it.

I suspect that, eventually, only a united effort by the players themselves will establish a seasonal structure in which they, their clubs and their countries can all flourish. Along the way, John Daly's words could come in handy.

AN interesting revelation arises from the cream cake assault on Channel 4's betting commentator John McCririck at Newmarket on Thursday. McCririck had the cake squashed into his face while he was telling viewers the latest prices.

Although usually happy to delight in his misfortunes, McCririck's television colleagues were indignant about the attack. Quite right, too. The incident exposes the vulnerability of addressing a camera while mingling with a crowd.

At York races yesterday, McCririck was being guarded by a minder; not just because of the attack but because Channel 4 always provide him with protection at York. A spokesman explained that racegoers "are generally extra cheerful there".

In other words, they don't trust them as much. But, I suppose this extra caution is wise. A cream cake might be the favoured weapon in the effete south - up in blunt Yorkshire it's more likely to be a load of tripe.