James Lawton: Golden generation has lost its lustre – and any claim it's about to inherit the world
However you look at it, statistically, morally, psychologically, the self-aggrandisement of English golf has become an embarrassment
Tuesday 12 April 2011
English golf, we keep being told, has a golden generation, something English football boasted of for many fruitless years. Unfortunately, the golfers are going the same way, which is to say pretty much nowhere of lasting significance.
It wouldn't be so bad if a week scarcely went by without news that they were about to inherit the world.
The fault line is not so hard to detect. After Croatia humiliated England at Wembley a few years ago, and denied them a place in the European Championship finals, Michael Owen told us that if both team sheets were closely examined not one Croat would be picked ahead of his English counterpart.
A ludicrous assumption, you had to say in the circumstances, but surely no more so than the effusions of Ian Poulter, who at 35 has for some time presented himself as a serious contender for major prizes, while at the same time producing a series of obituaries for Tiger Woods.
Fact: Woods, 14 majors and a dramatic role in Sunday's US Masters climax; Poulter, no majors and another place in the chorus line while the Tiger was producing his best golf since driving into a fire hydrant.
Whichever way you look at it, statistically, psychologically, morally, English golf's self-aggrandisement has become something of an embarrassment.
Naturally, the gut-tearing implosion of young Ulsterman Rory McIlroy after three days of sublime golf has commanded most reaction, alongside the brilliant finish of 26-year-old South African winner Charl Schwartzel and the re-emergence of Woods as still possibly a contender for Jack Nicklaus's all-time mark of 18 major wins.
Yet the continued failure at the highest level of golf of the golden boys who left the fairways of England and Europe for the rich pickings of the American tour, surely demands a performance review all its own. It does not make pretty reading. Since Sir Nick Faldo won his third Green Jacket at the expense of a traumatised Greg Norman 15 years ago, Augusta National has submitted to six foreign invaders: two South Africans, a Spaniard, a Fijian, a Canadian and an ageing Argentine.
From England there has come just a bombardment of big talk and some distinctly small deeds.
Luke Donald, aged 33, was widely tipped to be the man to make the breakthrough last weekend and if on Sunday you had just settled down to the afterthought of a little late night golfing action you had some reason to believe it may have happened. Donald had something to shout about, certainly, when a miraculous chip won him a birdie and a faint chance of getting involved in a play-off but the level of celebration did seem somewhat out of sync with reality.
Some believe Donald is the most lustrous of the golden generation. Best major result: tied third in the Masters.
Paul Casey, also 33, has often been referred to as the future of English golf. Best major result: tied third in the Open. That was last year at St Andrews, when he applied some pressure to the unheralded South African leader, Louis Oosterhuizen, who is seven years his junior. Oosterhuizen's response was to drive the ninth green and sink an eagle. Casey's was to shoot a final round of 75.
But how do you suppress the lionisation of the golden generation? Not, apparently, by routine harping on the fact that it is only in the majors, and under the kind of pressure which broke young McIlroy on Sunday and sent him away to heal wounds hopefully in less than a lifetime, where you get the true measure of a golfer's calibre.
What it takes more than anything is the kind of resolution and nerve displayed by Schwartzel, aged 26, on Sunday and his compatriot Trevor Immelman, who was 28, in 2008. Schwartzel finished with four straight birdies. He put together a piece of golf that was as strong as steel.
Schwartzel and Immelman and Oosterhuizen are never likely to lend themselves to the idea that they are a golden generation. They are tough, self-reliant individuals who have shown the essential quality of champions, a determination to work for the moment and then seize it.
It is a quality deeply embedded in the character of the English golfer who was often ridiculed for his dour self-absorption but who in his performance separated himself from all his compatriots. Of course, we are talking about Faldo. Record: six majors.
Of all Faldo's successors Justin Rose, aged 30, has at times shown most inclination to reject the trappings of golf celebrity.
He knew at least some of the pain just felt by McIlroy in a marathon attempt to beat his first professional cut after creating a huge impact as a teenaged amateur at the Open. He finally got there despite pressure partly created by, of all people, the knowing Sir Michael Bonallack, secretary of the Royal and Ancient. "This boy," said Bonallack, is "our answer to Tiger Woods."
If we had forgotten the outrageousness of that assessment, which to be fair was delivered after a demonstration of thrilling precocity from Rose, we were reminded powerfully on Sunday when the Tiger challenged the widespread belief that the best of his talent has gone for ever. What he still needs, plainly, is a little more of the self-belief, and the putting, that once made him so untouchable and may yet do so again.
In the meantime the "golden" generation would be wise to offer at least an ingot or two of silence when the issue concerns precisely when they are going to take over the world.
Wenger will need to fulfil American dream of success
If you are going to have a foreign owner, Arsenal plainly could do infinitely worse than the American tycoon and sports fancier Stan Kroenke.
But if Kroenke is mild-mannered and unobtrusive in his public image, he also plainly knows about sport. Perhaps a little worryingly for Arsène Wenger, though, he knows it from an American perspective, which has always been about an unswerving requirement to win.
As an owner he has already racked up wins in the Super Bowl, ice hockey's Stanley Cup and the Major Soccer League Cup, and the best guess here is that his admiration for Wenger's quality of football will not detach him too long from the fact that it is now six years since Arsenal won a trophy.
It just happens that Wenger is the absolute antithesis of the man who shaped so much of American sports psychology, the legendary gridiron coach Vince Lombardi. "Winning is not the important thing, it is the only thing," declared the coach, thereby condemning generations of young American sportsmen and women to a terror of defeat.
The old curmudgeon may also, after all these years, liven up debate in the Arsenal boardroom.
Ancelotti deserves respect win or lose
There are so many individual challenges at Old Trafford tonight it might be an idea to draw up an index. However, there is not much doubt where the pressure rests most acutely.
It is on Carlo Ancelotti. Absurdly, he fights for his job in a situation where plainly he doesn't begin to enjoy the autonomy of his rival Sir Alex Ferguson.
This must create a groundswell of sympathy for the engaging and distinguished Italian football man, but when this debate is over we will still be left with the fact that a triumph for Chelsea, against the odds but not so unlikely, would also be a victory for the kind of football club management which might have been dreamt up in a madhouse.
United's reward, apart from a place in the Champions League semi-finals, would be proof that if you hire a top football man the least he is due is a degree of respect.
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