Golf: On sober reflection, simply sensational

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Even now, after a week of mature reflection and with a heavy lump of perspective fastened to each ankle, it is difficult not to go soaring over the top in any discourse on the subject of Eldrick "Tiger" Woods. Neither does a lifetime of peering into deep holes in search of fallen hopefuls deter the thought that the only mistake to be made about young Tiger at the moment is to underestimate him.

We did that, big-time, before Augusta and, apart from the bewildered superstars he left in his wake, those who most keenly felt the wind of the error were the bookmakers. Punters aplenty waded in to take the 25s and 16-1 against him being offered for a week before the US Masters. Four months earlier, Ladbrokes had him at 5,000-1 for the Grand Slam of the four major championships - the Masters in April, the US Open in June, The Open in July and the US PGA in August.

Those odds had reduced to 1,000-1 just before the tournament and, very smartly, to 100-1 immediately afterwards. Ladbrokes say their liabilities on the Grand Slam are so huge they have now chopped the price down to 33-1. This has long been regarded as one of the least attainable targets in world sport so the original 5,000-1 fell far short of generous; even for the remaining three legs 33-1 is ludicrous, tempted by it as one might be.

As for the individual majors; Woods is 4-1 for both The Open and the US Open and 9-2 for the US PGA. These are the shortest odds ever recorded against a golfer at this stage of the season. As a barometer of sporting probabilities, the betting market is notoriously fallible but these figures do serve to indicate the widespread effect of the impact he made last weekend.

It is difficult to place Tiger's achievement in a general context because, with the possible exception of athletics, there is no other sport in which one man could throw into disorder so swiftly the entire pecking order of the world's top players. It is the unique nature of strokeplay golf, which is the method by which the major tournaments are decided, that the contest is principally between each individual, the course and the elements pertaining at the time.

Players are in competition with each other in that their scores are compared at the end of the round, but the leaders might not even see their rivals while they are playing or even be on the course at the same time. If they were, they still could not affect each other's play.

There was a time when you could stymie an opponent by putting your ball between his and the hole but that very appealing practice was outlawed many years ago. It is possible to impose some psychological influence, even if only via the leaderboard, but that's about it confrontation-wise.

Athletics is the only comparable sport I can think of, especially field. The javelin, the discus, shot and hammer all involve accomplishment on a strictly solo basis but the fact that the throwers are all about their business at the same time, and in full view of each other, gives their events an immediate feel of competitiveness not available to the golfer.

On the track, the longer races involve tactics and only the sprints pare the effort down to a runner's ability to master the task more efficiently than those in the adjoining lanes. But, unlike golf, they are directly competing against each other at precisely the same time. If Tiger had won a big 100 metres title by a similar margin to his Augusta victory, every laboratory in the world would have been on red alert. Of closer comparison would be Bob Beamon's freak long jump of over 29 feet in the 1968 Mexico Olympics which stuck a couple of feet on the record and devastated his opponents.

When one thinks of the lonely labour of the golfer, the game of snooker comes into mind as one that asks individual mental strength and concentration comparable to that required of a golf champion. When a Steve Davis or a Stephen Hendry gets to work clearing the table, the quality of skill and touch is not unlike that demanded of their golfing counterparts. Snooker remains a head-to-head contest but the thought of a first-year professional walking into the Crucible to wipe the floor with the game's entire elite helps to give Tiger's feat an extra definition.

Tennis is another game in which we are accustomed to seeing the frequent arrival of new dominating personalities. But progress in tennis comes through beating your peers one at a time over a long period. The Lavers, Borgs, McEnroes and Samprases have each held the peak position with a grip of some force but none of them reached that level with the lethal suddenness of Tiger Woods.

It wasn't that we weren't expecting him to appear one day. His progress as an outstanding amateur had been carefully monitored. What was surprising was that his first major challenge as a professional should reveal the most consummate collection of golfing skills we have seen in a young man since the early Jack Nicklaus 35 years ago. Nicklaus is inclined to the view that the modern version may be more devastatingly equipped.

Since his triumph, Woods has disappeared from view and no one is quite sure when he will next be on a golf course. Until he does appear again, the game seems to be in a state of suspension. Players are going through the motions at the MCI Classic in South Carolina this weekend in an unreal atmosphere. By tonight there will be a winner but how valid will his victory be considered? Until Tiger is back out on the fairways the old values are suspect.

Feeling particularly vague must be Nick Faldo and Colin Montgomerie, whose trials and tribulations on their way to fame and fortune have been brought to our attention at great length. But, despite troubles with putting, with swing paths, with tantrums and various misfortunes, they and the rest of the elite had all earned a part in golf's rich pageant.

Now comes Tiger and suddenly we may be offered a new measure of elitism. They have made a fortune coping with each other but can they cope with a new force who looks capable of re-setting the standards? If he is as good as he looks then he, and his agents, the IMG group, will have the entire game in their hands, not to mention their pockets.

There has never been a boring golf season but what we are about to witness has a fascination beyond compare.

THAT annual contravention of the Obscene Publications Act - i.e. the announcement of the Wimbledon prize-money - has produced the usual gasps. The total is up 6.5 per cent to nearly pounds 7m, most of it for export unfortunately. The rise, however, does not please the ladies. Their tour chief, Ann Persson Worcester, had demanded equality and was "speechless" to learn that the men's winner will get pounds 415,000 while the winning woman receives only pounds 373,500.

I hope it is not sexist to point out that as long as the men play five sets and the women only three, a small differential is understandable. But I fear there may be a bigger problem ahead - the incoming government might decide to include it all in the windfall tax.