James Lawton: It needed deeds of 'The Duck' El Pato to save the Masters from harming the spirit of golf
There are rules and there are sponsors and advertisers... and they seem to have achieved the same status
Adam Scott did what the Great White Shark, his brilliantly talented Australian compatriot Greg Norman, couldn’t and he did it with nerve so superb it banished for ever the charge that he is a choker.
But if his redemption, less than a year after throwing away the Open title that should now be nestling with the Green Jacket, was in some ways as spectacular as Bubba Watson’s near miraculous triumph here last spring, there is also a powerful case to salute another kind of hero of the 77th Masters.
An old-style golfer that is, a man who plays the game with the passion that drove him on as a shoeless 12-year-old caddie and part-time chicken thief in his native Cordoba, Argentina. Angel Cabrera, 43, came within an inch of winning here for the second time, and gaining his third major title, but in his defeat there was surely a most soothing consolation.
It is that unlike his 32-year-old conqueror, El Pato – The Duck – remains utterly detached from the controversies that in the last few days have placed serious question marks against the spirit of a game that has always supposed to be the last redoubt of superior sporting tradition – and impeccable competitive honesty.
No one has a bad word for the admirable and amiable character of Scott – and rarely has a winner and loser dealt with their fate with such warm comradeship as the Australian and the Argentine in the damp Georgia gloaming – but it is still impossible not to wince at the fact that the former is now the fourth major champion in six tournaments who has resorted to the “anchor” putting technique.
Ernie Els, who profited from Scott’s meltdown at Lytham last summer, is one of them but is on the record that it is a form of cheating and something he will persist with entirely for his own benefit until its scheduled banning in 2016. From Els it is a notable display of candour in a sport which is increasingly compromised by an apparent willingness to put expediency before the imperatives lain down by the men who shaped the spirit of the game.
Only heaven knows what the father of the US Masters, the great major-winning amateur Bobby Jones, would have made of the fact that the US PGA is showing fierce opposition to the alliance of the rule-making Royal and Ancient and the US Golf Association to make long and belly-putters discarded artefacts of a time when money – and all that of it which flows to the vastly hyped and sponsoring equipment market – became the supreme arbiter in a game which was once an exclusive matter of an individual golfer and his own conscience.
He would also have wondered with much incredulity how the hugely talented 14-year-old Tianlang Guan could have been taught a game which requires shot-making deliberations which sometimes seem to impinge upon eternity. The old pro Walter Hagen once declared that all golfers should from time to time stop to smell the flowers. He would have been unlikely to have whispered such a message to Guan, especially if the clock was running.
The row over the one-stroke penalty handed to Guan was soon enough dwarfed by the escape of Tiger Woods from the classic rules of golf – rather than the cynical options eagerly embraced by the Masters’ rules committee – but not before ESPN’s Jim Nelford, a superbly gifted young Canadian professional of great potential before a boating accident wrecked his career in the 80s, asked: “Where is this game going? When a kid of 14 who is obviously full of talent plays the game so slowly you have to question what is happening. My theory is that so many golfers are having their creativity simply coached away. The greatest thing you see in golf is a little touch of genius, a spontaneity that just wells up on the course. Now, everything seems to be about the safest option.”
The American professional – and TV analyst – Brad Faxon was one strong voice of concern when Scott became the latest player to walk to the mountain top aided by a long putter. He said: “The question you have to ask is this: ‘what would the men who made golf have thought about this?’ They would have said it wasn’t part of the game.”
They would also have been left askance by the Tiger affair when one of the most basic rules of the game was flouted – whether it was consciously or not is utterly beside the point – with no greater consequence than a two-stroke penalty.
They might have asked why it was that the reaction within golf was so tepid – and especially on the television screen. In England they would have heard one voice of the game, Peter Allis’s gliding over the issue – and here in America, another one, Sir Nick Faldo’s, changing its tone almost in mid-sentence. Faldo’s first reaction was that Woods would have to live with the shame of not walking away. Then, long before the sun sank below the pines, he said that he had re-considered the “time-line” and unconditionally revoked his earlier position.
Long-time observers of the relationship between the US Masters, the jewel of golf broadcasting, and the television industry were less than stunned by Faldo’s volte face. They remembered vividly enough the exiling of former player and commentator Gary McCord when he was bold enough to criticise the lightning speed of the 17th green back in 1994.
He said that the green looked as if it had been “bikini-waxed” and that body bags had been laid out for all those golfers who had misjudged their approach shots. His penalty was an unchallenged ban. It was the price of making jokes on sacred and fiercely protected turf.
It has been difficult not to believe that similar chemistry has been at work, at least subliminally, over the last few days.
Augusta, undoubtedly, has become golf’s most compelling piece of television property. It may be an infant compared to the Open, it may lack the history and the wild whims of the links, but with its permanent, exquisite location, its fiercely manufactured lore, and a course which has provoked some of the most extraordinary deeds in the history of the game it has become a place of unique attraction.
It is this, it is reasonable to suspect, that underpinned the perilous position of the Tiger this week despite his admission that he had been thinking more about the strategic demands of a shot than the rules of the game in which he remains, by some distance, the most valuable player.
When Tiger plays, even after the years of dishevelment, the base audience is enlarged by 60 per cent. At the peak of his powers this was comfortably more than 100 per cent. So if there are rules which are supposed to be sacrosanct there are also sponsors and advertisers and who can believe that they haven’t come to achieve pretty much the same status?
Against such a background, the imperatives and the values of someone like Bobby Jones are perhaps inevitably endangered.
All of this, of course, brought a special excitement in the Augusta dusk when it seemed that El Pato might just be moving, inelegantly perhaps but with wonderful conviction and power, to a victory that could be celebrated in any age and mood of the game.
Scott won, legally according to the laws of the day, and certainly with tremendous application and skill. But it was Cabrera who most touched the senses and, not least, the heart. He reminded us, most powerfully, of how the game should really be played.
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