James Lawton at The Open 2013: Tiger Woods' fiercely competitive flame is more like a feeble flicker these days
There is a good deal of accumulating evidence that something quite irrecoverable has gone
In still another sadness crowded into the otherwise admirable career of Lee Westwood he will always be remembered as the leading casualty of the 142nd Open.
Almost every major has one. At last year’s Open it was Adam Scott leaving the door open for the “Big Easy” Ernie Els and that made the Australian’s subsequent celebrations at Augusta especially sweet.
But then are we really sure that Westwood was indeed the big loser when Muirfield turned on him with such sudden, cold inhospitality in the Sunday dusk?
Was there not an equally compelling case to be made on behalf of the latest ruined ambitions of Tiger Woods?
This, after all, was the tournament which most everybody agreed could not have been better tailored for his first major triumph in five years.
After two days of close scrutiny, his playing partner – and former US Open champion – Graeme McDowell issued a eulogy that took us – almost – right back to the days when the world of golf had been virtually annexed by its breathtaking young champion.
Sixteen years on McDowell had, it is true, different reasons to extoll the Tiger’s virtues. The Ulsterman talked of remarkable new levels of patience, the most refined course management and an almost other-worldly knack of recovering lost ground.
The Tiger might not pounce as he did in the old days when the talk was not so much of wonderment at an extraordinary new talent but the need to proof the great courses against his power to humiliate all those who sought to put obstacles in his way.
No, the new threat came by stealth and a unique understanding of his own powers, said McDowell. For him, there would not be the slightest surprise at the sight of Woods being reunited with the old Claret Jug.
McDowell’s theory remained buoyant enough on Saturday, moving day, with Woods just two shots behind Westwood, and this was despite the fact that he had never won any of his 14 majors while coming from behind on the last day. He was certainly happy to support McDowell’s prediction. “I’m fine just plodding along, putting myself in position to win.”
The trouble was precisely that. The Tiger plodded – again – while his bête noir, the luminously smiling hero of Middle America, Phil Mickelson, once again managed to shoot the lights out.
For a second time since Woods won his last major – epically and courageously to claim the US Open along the cliffs of Torrey Pines in 2008 – Mickelson not only claimed one of the game’s great prizes, he did it with extraordinary relish and panache.
In Augusta three years ago, while splintering the hopes of Westwood, he captured both his third Green Jacket and the imagination of the golfing world. Once just another marginalised victim of the Tiger onslaught, he re-affirmed his own hero status. He played delicious, improbable shots and moved the galleries as the young Woods once did.
Then, as a player of the quality of Ernie Els admitted, it was enough for Woods to come into Amen Corner with some wind in his sails for the entire field to be instantly diminished.
That was the Mickelson effect in Augusta in 2010 – and at Muirfield on Sunday.
Not only did it usurp the old lustre of the Tiger it also made you wonder if something quite irrecoverable has gone from a game that was once such a wonder of the sporting life.
There is surely a good deal of accumulating evidence. While the all-round security of the Tiger’s game has been widely acclaimed, along with his repossession of his old No 1 world ranking, the wait for the old assassin’s touch, that ineffable ability to separate himself from the rest of a major field, is stretching out quite ominously.
This year he has gone into Augusta, the fiendishly tricky Merion for the US Open, and a Muirfield of burnt greens and arid fairways, a prohibitive favourite – but each time the big shifts of power, the most significant surges of momentum, have passed him by.
After Augusta, Scott was the new star despite his time-expiring broom-handle putter. After Merion, Justin Rose was enshrined as a major winner of exceptional competitive character. After Muirfield, Mickelson is again the bearer of golfing joy.
Where, we have to ask, does it all leave the Tiger? He is six years younger than Mickelson but while the Californian remains a purveyor of fire and optimism, the man who once made a dwarf of him, along with the rest of the golf population, seems to grow a little more conservative with each new challenge.
When Els played the tortoise to Scott’s hare at Lytham last summer, the Tiger brought despair to his warmest admirers by his failure to properly engage in the race. A few days ago he made a hugely appreciated joke about reaching for the driver only on the practice range.
Everyone chortled hugely at the time but the laughter sounded rather hollow when the Tiger closed with a round eight shots inferior to Mickelson’s.
Not only is he no longer burning bright, the Tiger invites us to celebrate the absence of anything resembling an old flame. He seems to see it as career progress. Others might reasonably sniff a hint of tragedy.
Australia’s problem is the lack of passion
It is bad enough that the Australians appear to have left the last of their steel at the Trent Bridge scene of that stunning first Ashes Test.
Even more disturbing is the view of one veteran observer of sport Down Under who interrupted his coverage of the Open to report that the news from Lord’s was unlikely to provoke too much outrage back home.
“The problem,” he said, “is that this is not only one of the worst Ashes teams, if not the worst, ever fielded by the country, it is also one of the least likeable. They are rich but seem somewhat less than passionate about what they are doing.”
And there we were fretting about the low ebb in Aussie form and talent. The new fear must be that we are bang in the middle of nothing less than a collapse of one of the greatest cultures world sport would ever know.
Fair play to Froome
In all the doubts that inevitably besiege the Tour de France, there is certainly no hardship in hoping that the achievement of Chris Froome proves equal to all the tests of time.
In a sports world that has maybe never been so dominated by the force of self-interest, the new, Kenya-reared hero of British sport has repeatedly suggested a man of both superb perspective and impressive humanity.
Anyone who has attended, in good times or bad, the climax of the Tour in the Champs-Élysees knows that few celebrations in sport are more designed to bring on a bout of self-aggrandisement in the winner.
This made Froome’s reference to the missing smile of his late mother all the more touching.
Time ticking for Rooney
Against the background of another summer of extraordinary achievement for British sport, the last thing Premier League football needed was the prolonged and essentially desperate saga concerning the whereabouts of Wayne Rooney’s future.
If he was still one of the most serious and consistent talents in the national game it might be somewhat different but unfortunately the last time such a claim could be made on his behalf was roughly three years ago.
It means that a new club – and a new testing ground – should be only his second greatest priority. The first, it has never been clearer, is for him to take a look at the clock. It is, surely, a lot later than he and his people seem to think.
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