James Lawton: Can Justin Rose call on a little of Andy Murray's magic and make it successive majors at the Open?
It will be fascinating to see how Rose handles his hard-won eminence
As he walked hand-in-hand with his luminous and brave skier Lindsey Vonn the myth of the Tiger was bound to flower amid the heather once again.
It is the one – underlined by the most astonishing odds, he is 12 points lower at 8-1 than second favourite and US Open champion Justin Rose – which says that Woods is still the man to beat when the Open starts here tomorrow morning.
All kinds of realities are resisted, once more, in an assessment of his chances that sails over the fact that it is now more than five years since he won his 14th major title and it is one that doesn’t begin to answer a vital question.
Ms Vonn may have brought an appreciable degree of personal happiness but, despite his world No1 ranking, is the Tiger any nearer to finding again that killer touch in a major which will always define the great players? He has restored his game, as apparently his life, in so many different ways, but some old strengths do not come back simply under the force of good intentions.
When the Tiger won his last major beside the cliffs of Torrey Pines in southern California he resisted nagging pain in delivering a uniquely committed victory. He had everything you would want in a champion but then his life was still a coherent business, at least that part of it in the public domain.
Now we are still unable to know properly the degree of his recovery and certainly there should be no little encouragement for previously cowed challengers in the homeland of Andy Murray.
The illusion that Woods still possesses the kind of natural-born dominance of any golfing situation he first displayed in Augusta in 1997 has taken a relentless battering in recent years when the battle has been for the highest stakes – and what Murray did at the Centre Court just a week or so ago should be particularly encouraging to the generation of multi-millionaire English contenders who have so regularly failed to walk in the steps of Sir Nick Faldo.
Murray took on a figure who had acquired the aura of Woods as he approached the pinnacle of his success. Novak Djokovic seemed to be operating on another level, another planet, but Murray attacked him with a wonderful relish. He did more than grab a moment; he invaded it, shaped it utterly to his plan, and he did it with a conviction that provided a marvellous commentary on the steady progress that brought him to the US Open title and Olympic gold and then the ultimate prize, Wimbledon.
Murray’s achievement is a rebuke to the Luke Donalds and the Paul Caseys and the Ian Poulters who have earned their fame and their fortunes while regularly deflecting questions about the significance of not winning the supreme prize of a major title. It also throws into a harsh light the current uncertainties of Rory McIlroy, for whom Faldo has found it necessary to issue a severe career warning.
McIlroy won his US Open and PGA titles in a way so spectacular that comparisons with the young Woods were inevitable. Yet they eroded quickly enough with the evidence that the young Ulsterman’s level of commitment might be at odds with the degree of his talent. So Faldo talks about the need for re-focusing and his old belief that if it is necessary to hit a million golf balls in order to win a major title that is precisely how many you tee up.
Faldo’s warning to McIlroy could hardly have been more stringent coming into this Open – or perhaps more predictable after the latter’s vertiginous descent in the US Open. McIlroy molested his clubs while giving the impression that he was involved in the most miserable ordeal – and the level of his discomfort was only underlined by the ability of Rose to seize the greatest opportunity of his career.
Not the least fascination of Muirfield will be Rose’s handling of his hard-won eminence. He didn’t claim his new terrain with the virtuosity of a McIlroy. He operated with a superb discipline, stripping away all those frustrations which had seriously clouded his own youth.
It was to claim the country now occupied so triumphantly by Murray. It was to accept the searing admonition directed by Faldo at McIlroy when he declared: “You have a 20-year window of opportunity as an athlete. Concentrate on golf, nothing else. Hopefully, when you retire you have another 40 years to enjoy your life. I think there is a lot going on in his mind. Your career goes on and you get involved in other things. Most ideal is to go to the golf course at 9am, hit balls all day long and then go home at five. You can think what a lovely day you’ve had. You’ve been really productive.”
That was the Faldo credo, obsessively followed, which brought him six major titles without ever the suggestion that he had anything like the quality of the gifts McIlroy received in his cradle.
It was also the working ethic of the young Woods, the maturing Rose and, we now know so clearly, something that was deep in the bones of Murray. The Scot sought the help of the sternly demanding Ivan Lendl. He knew he needed extra assistance and that it would be best coming from somebody who knew precisely what it took to win the great titles.
The Faldo style may not commend itself so forcibly to McIlroy but the results it brought are now embedded in the history of British golf. That the old, dour champion should make his call to arms this week is certainly a telling commentary on the crisis of the young player once considered most likely to surpass the deeds of the young Tiger.
As the older version fights to win back the best of himself, McIlroy has to prove it is alarmist to believe the best of his game might already have come and gone. Rose merely has to remember how he found the richest vein of his life. In all of this the example of Andy Murray is surely worth more than a nod.
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