The unravelling of 21-year-old Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy in the US Masters golf tournament on Sunday was but the latest in a series of personal catastrophes in which the leading protagonist in a sporting drama, victory within his or her grasp, contrives to drop it down an open manhole.
It is the psychological phenomenon known as choking, and it is hard to think of a more poignant example than McIlroy's ugly disintegration among the Augusta National's lovely dogwoods and azaleas, given his youth and his manifest bewilderment as an alien being seemed to possess him, one who had scarcely ever held a putter before.
Considered one of the game's sure-fire future superstars, McIlroy had played exquisite golf for three days, giving himself a four-shot lead before the start of Sunday's final round. Last year, in the Open Championship at St Andrews, he served notice of his outrageous talent with a dazzling 63, the lowest first-round score in the Open's 150-year history. The next day, he slumped to a disastrous 80. This time, nobody expected history to repeat itself. And yet, in the most public arena in golf, the succession of holes known as Amen Corner, it did. Still leading after the first nine holes of the final round, McIlroy ended them 10 shots adrift of the winner, Charl Schwartzel, with another horrible 80 besmirching his card.
There is a long, inglorious tradition of choking in golf. It has happened before in the Masters, notably when Greg Norman, leading by six at the start of the final day in 1996, ended up five behind his playing partner, Nick Faldo. Even more dramatically, Frenchman Jean Van de Velde blew a three-shot lead on the concluding hole of the 1999 Open at Carnoustie, and the image of him with his trousers rolled up, haplessly playing out of the burn, was at least until Sunday the most familiar pictorial representation of a sporting choker. Now it might be dislodged by the image of an anguished McIlroy leaning on his driver, head bowed, on Augusta's 13th tee. If tobacco advertising were still permitted on television, one if not both of them might by now have been signed up by Hamlet, the mild cigar from Benson & Hedges.
It is easy to explain why choking happens more in big-time golf than, say, tennis. In sport, the still ball offers more choking potential than one that is moving. Striking a moving ball is a matter of reflex, but hitting a stationary ball requires unwavering mental focus, which can be disrupted by the enormity of the occasion.
That's what happened to McIlroy; nervousness took over first his mind, and then his body. Similarly, taking a penalty kick against West Germany to keep alive England's hopes of reaching the 1990 World Cup final, Chris Waddle, one of the most talented footballers of his generation, ballooned it over the crossbar.
It wasn't a narrow miss, or a tame shot like Gareth Southgate's six years later, also (inevitably) against the Germans, but a wild thrash akin to a rugby conversion. On which subject, in the dying moments of rugby league's 1968 Challenge Cup final, the normally rock-solid Don Fox of Wakefield Trinity missed a crucial but straightforward conversion, one he could normally have scored with his eyes closed, effectively handing the trophy to Leeds. "Poor lad," muttered Eddie Waring in the BBC commentary box, and that eloquently simple response is an enduring encapsulation of the heartache we all feel for a choker, who in that moment of collapse ceases to be a gilded multimillionaire – at least in McIlroy's case, if not in Fox's – and becomes a half-comic, half-tragic bungler, worthy of sympathy.
And not just sympathy, but empathy too. We are drawn to chokers because they remind us, however subliminally, of ourselves. Most of us know what it is like to fluff our lines, so it's reassuring to know that the greatest actors do it on the biggest stages. Shows of frailty can be a bonding exercise between superstars and the rest of the human race.
None of that, of course, will come as much consolation to young Rory McIlroy, as he reflects on Sunday's events. No sportsman wants to be labelled a choker, and he will be acutely conscious that twice in major championships he has made back-page headlines first for his brilliance, and then for spectacular implosions. Ominously for him, the demons tend to multiply. Next time he plays himself into a position to win one of the game's great prizes, the thoughts might become negative rather than positive. But as he said in his remarkably gracious and mature television interview on Sunday, he will have many chances to redeem himself. In the meantime, he must seek out the last refuge of a choker, the conviction that it is all character-building stuff.Reuse content