James Lawton: Masters class in commitment exposes hollow heart of the 'golden generation'

According to his proud countryman Gary Player, Trevor Immelman has a swing like Ben Hogan. This was unquestionably a key factor in the 28-year-old South African's four-day march to a Masters' Green Jacket, but the most vital one of all was to be found closer to the ribcage from where he had a tumour removed a few months ago. The man from Cape Town may have had his nerve challenged briefly by a few roars hinting that the Tiger was stirring finally at Amen Corner, but his heart never wavered.

Where it went wrong for Britain's wannabe champions

It is a heart, frankly, that must this morning be held up as a challenge – and a reproach – to a talented but chronically underperforming generation of young British golfers.

One of their spokesmen, the heavily coiffed and apparently terminally self-satisfied Ian Poulter, who recently claimed that he was equipped as well as anyone to lead the queue behind the world's greatest player, Tiger Woods, surely made this an imperative when, after sliding out of contention with rounds of 75 and 78, he declared, "I had a couple of loose shots but I haven't done an awful lot wrong."

By any objective analysis unfortunately he did. Most seriously, he contrived to look like a shallow boy beside a new champion who was four years his junior but at least one light year ahead in ambition and competitive character. Sadly, and give or take the odd nuance of arrogance, for Poulter we can read almost the entire challenge here of a golden generation which seems to turn chintzy green whenever a little of golf's ultimate pressure is applied.

George O'Grady, the chief executive of the European Tour, was so desperate to find a positive note he reached out for the gesture of Paul Casey, who called himself for a moving ball on the putting green.

O'Grady said he was proud of his behaviour, which carried us back to the founding father of Augusta, the legendary Bobby Jones. Yet, as Jones himself might have asked, what was the alternative? It is called cheating. No, Casey is not a cheat, he is a player of arresting talent and undoubted charm in front of the cameras. Yet, like Justin Rose and Luke Donald, he once again buckled when the action became most serious.

The truth is that recent Ryder Cup triumphs for Europe, and enough hubris to suggest that malevolent Greek gods have been on overtime rates, should not deflect from a desperate conclusion. It is that since the current captain Nick Faldo won the last of his Green Jackets here 12 years ago, and Paul Lawrie scrambled to success in the Carnoustie ruins of Jean van de Velde three years later, the British golfer has become a marginal figure in the only relevant measurement of greatness, performance in major tournaments.

The recipient of ladles of premature praise, up to his neck in wealth, he has inherited a world underpinned by almost every gratification except the one which, for a prime example, drove Faldo to six majors – and a resentment among some of his less committed, and successful peers, that resulted in a pre-Ryder Cup letter of encouragement from him being thrown into a rubbish bin.

On the eve of his second Masters triumph, Faldo said: "A lot of sports people in Britain seem to understand how hard it is getting to the top but what they don't seem to grasp so well is how tough it is staying there. In my case you have to hit a million golf balls and want it so much that it hurts. You have to be prepared to make every possible sacrifice. This might not make you the most popular person in the world but I believe it is what it takes to be a winner."

It is interesting that Faldo has been marked out for personal attack by his American counterpart Paul Azinger, who was never an outstanding candidate for personableness awards himself, especially when he and his team-mate Corey Pavin chose to liken the Ryder Cup challenge in Kiawah Island to the first Desert Storm in Iraq. Azinger's contention that Faldo was one of the least popular locker-room figures among his British contemporaries is undeniable, but then more encouraging is the evidence that the present generation hold him in much higher respect, if not swimming regard.

Might it just be that in guiding Europe to still another Ryder Cup win in Kentucky later this year, Faldo might also take the chance to implant, up close and in a theatre of action, some of the values which made him Britain's greatest golfer? It might not be the prettiest thought – even in his relatively benign maturity, Faldo retains a potentially wounding edge – but after watching Trevor Immelman's Masters class in relentlessly applied commitment, it is surely an encouraging one.

There are other stirrings, and not least from the relatively senior figure, 34-year-old Lee Westwood.

Coming in here last week he spoke eloquently of his sense of lost years – and opportunities. He said: "I do believe it is time to make some kind of move, some statement if you like. I believe I'm good enough to win a major, but you can't talk your way into one. You have a certain number of chances and you have to take one of them or probably suffer a lot of regrets in later life.

"Sometimes I think of something Arnold Palmer said to me when I came close to winning his tournament in Bay Hill. Ernie Els won and we are good mates and were enjoying a drink afterwards when Arnie came in. He said it was great that opponents could sit down and enjoy each other's company after the battle was over, he used to like doing that, but he also said that he had seen me smiling when I came off the course. 'Hell,' Arnie said, 'if that had happened to me I would have been chewing the grass'."

Though Westwood finished as the joint-top Briton here, Palmer would no doubt have approved of his post-tournament demeanour. Unlike Poulter, he was self-laceratingly aware of what he had done wrong. He had been betrayed by the coldest of putters after a first-round 69 and plainly it hurt him to the core.

Going into the last day he declared, "I could be down in double figures if my putting had been anything like the rest of my game."

Such penance was not so apparent elsewhere and maybe that was what provoked a rare show of impatience for the faults of others from the former Ryder Cup captain and Masters winner Ian Woosnam. He said, "Really, this is just not good enough. We have to have more impact on majors. We have to work on it."

Another rebuke, albeit unspoken, to the "golden generation" came from Sandy Lyle, 20 years after he became the first Briton to collect the Green Jacket. He and Woosnam beat the cut to provide a British presence over the last two days that once spoke of hard achievement rather than endless promise.

The example that glowed most impressively, of course, was that of Immelman, who has come through the kind of crisis that makes a man think about who he is and what he is doing. In a winner's speech that, when set against so much that was self-regarding and evasive in such gut-deep matters as personal performance, was breathtaking in its humility, the South African thanked his family for all of their sacrifices, which he said in the long run had been as vital as his ability to control the Hoganesque swing.

At least a dozen times on the greatest day of his sporting life, Immelman sucked in his breath and opened his eyes wide. Here, you could see so plainly, was a man who knew that this was his time, his chance to do something that would wipe out the need for a single regret. Whenever that dream was threatened, he went inside himself and produced something good enough to hold off, of all people, Tiger Woods.

The talented Poulter spoke of all the opportunity to be found in the wake of the Tiger. Trevor Immelman said something different. He said that for one day at least he could be the best in the world.

It was a lesson for everyone, no doubt, but then who needs to learn it more desperately than British golf?

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