James Lawton: Golf's island of integrity is well served by shining beacon of Woods' character
Tuesday 22 August 2006
Nerve, presumption or perhaps even the most impudent sporting gesture since David reached down for his sling-shot? However you categorised the Briton Luke Donald's decision to don a red shirt while stepping out with Tiger Woods for the last round of the US PGA, the wisdom of providing the world's greatest sportsman with even a small particle of extra motivation had to be dubious.
Indeed, long before the end of the inevitable slaughter, an old quote of Muhammad Ali had come to mind.
Ali produced it at the end of a round of sparring with Jimmy Ellis, a former world champion, at the Felt Forum in New York. As Ali walked back to his corner, he waved derisively in the direction of Ellis and told the assembled fight characters: "Last night he dreamt he beat me - then he woke up and apologised."
Donald's supporters will no doubt say, correctly, that their man's recent form is a matter for celebration rather than penance. Surely he can be forgiven a touch of sartorial provocation, even if we do know that the Tiger tends to put on his own red shirt at climactic moments in his now truly astonishing career with the solemnity of a matador dressing himself in the suit of lights. Yes, it is true, and anyway the point pales into insignificance when set against the wider one that needs to be proclaimed in the wake of Woods' new clear ownership of the second-best record in majors golf - just six titles behind Jack Nicklaus' total of 18 with plenty of years left to overhaul a mark which once seemed utterly unassailable.
The overwhelming reaction to events at Medinah on Sunday has to be gratitude. It has to be thanks that in a world of élite sport which now almost universally comes without guarantees of performance, or even a guarantee of decent behaviour, we can at least rely on one man - and one of the games we play.
The Tiger, and the game he carries on his coat-tails, is simply moving into a class of his own. Finding a point of weakness in his competitive character, or sense of responsibility to himself and the world of golf he represents so luminously, is work which for nine years has been studied in microscopic detail.
It has been a process that reached ludicrous proportion a few months ago at Augusta when Woods, appalled by work on the greens that cost him still another major title but more deeply disturbed by the waning of his father's life, declared that he had putted like a "spaz". In a spate of headlines and broadcasts this was depicted as a gross attack on the sensitivities of the handicapped. Woods was first bemused, then mortified.
He pointed out that in his irritation at himself he had used a term which long ago had in America detached itself from its original meaning but if it had caused any offence he was sorry. There was the Tiger's widely reported Achilles heel: a wound that was healed as quickly as it was opened.
If only all of the miscalculations, not to mention so much of the virulence and fatuousness of modern big-time sport, could be addressed so promptly and satisfactorily.
Woods' own nature helps enormously, but then so does the ethos of the game he plays - a fact underlined so dramatically by the sad chaos that surrounded the collapse of the final Test between England and Pakistan. "It's just not cricket!" declared the front page headline of this newspaper, but then when was cricket last cricket as it was when it was supposed to represent ultimate values of sportsmanship and fair play? When was it was free of the most appalling gamesmanship, when did every team at professional level not try to startle and bamboozle umpires with a stream of appeals, when last did a Test cricketer of even the highest reputation instinctively walk to the pavilion when he knew himself to be out, and when was the most ferocious sledging not seen as a routine aspect of winning tactics? Was cricket cricket when its rulers ordered players to compete in the pariah state of Zimbabwe for fear of losing revenue - and suffering fines and sanctions imposed by the International Cricket Council? Was cricket cricket when the late Hansie Cronje, captain of South Africa, conspired with bookmakers?
By comparison, golf is a vast island of integrity. Players police themselves, and when on the rare occasion they feel obliged to report the misdeeds of a fellow player, their dread and their pain is palpable. There are other pockets of conscience and, surprisingly, some may think, not least in the old smoky rooms of snooker, where cue work is so fine and sometimes a player with so much depending on one shot admits to a foul perceptible only to himself. Rugby League, a game of relentless physical confrontation, is also exceptional in the way it polices itself.
Doubtless there are several reasons for the moral superiority of golf, a game which on a daily basis hammers home the need for self-examination and, still more than any other, rewards consistent performance more than reputation and celebrity. At the Oval we saw an ultimate failure to put the good name of the sport above all other considerations. At Medinah, we saw a consummate individual who has never forgotten that in the end he will only be as strong as the game he plays. The division is simple enough but this last weekend the results, on both sides of the line, could scarcely have been more profound.
Discipline vital for Rooney to avoid Gascoigne's destructive path
Paul Stretford, who, if legal technicalities abate, is due to be charged by the Football Association with behaviour that contravened their rules when he became Wayne Rooney's agent, once promised a careful supervision of the life and the career of the most brilliant young player these islands have seen since the brief rise and fall of Paul Gascoigne. He even issued a press statement itemising the manpower that he would put to the job of protecting and advancing the fortunes of the prodigy.
Now the results of this massive effort are beginning to flow. The 20-year-old is threatening a commercial boycott of the FA, a penalty that may be imposed because the rulers of English football followed their own procedural regulations and confirmed a three-match ban on Rooney after he received a red card in a pre-season tournament in the Netherlands. He did this just a few weeks after being sent off in the World Cup for a complete loss of control - and publication of an autobiography which included a merciless lashing of David Moyes, one of the most widely respected young managers in the game. One consequence of Rooney's disciplinary situation is that he has become a pawn in the endless battle between club and country, the new England coach Steve McClaren complaining that the FA's decision to enforce its own regulations has made his job "more difficult".
Meanwhile, Rooney is facing a three-match suspension from the League he uplifted so superbly with two goals against Fulham on Sunday. We are told that Rooney feels betrayed by the Football Association.
It is probably too much to hope that he might just benefit from the free advice that may be able to solve his pain and his anger. The advice is for him to do what he can do better than anyone else in the land, which is to play football with an understanding that no talent in the game has been so big that it has not benefited from a little discipline.
The trouble at the moment is that he appears to be protected against everything but the worst of himself. Like Gascoigne before him, he could finish up paying the most horrendous price.
Umpires must take heed of Gatting's call for compassion
There is not a lot left to say about the Oval catastrophe which has no heroes, no redemption. But there is one image that refuses to go away. It is of Darrell Hair (right) flicking down the bails with an air of unchallengable authority. It said that the game was over, and it was his game to dispose of.
Rules are rules, of course, but the world has become a complicated place, even on the sports field. Tough nuts such as Geoff Boycott and Mike Gatting have said that Hair and the Pakistanis were a sports disaster waiting to happen.
Their view is as vital as it is surprising in two such gnarled old professionals. They are saying that cricket needs, apart from wiser administration, several more degrees of humanity - and compassion.
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