James Lawton: The beginning of the end for Tiger? Never write off a great champion
No one knows better than Nicklaus the terrain Woods currently occupies
Tuesday 01 December 2009
Those who see in the passing embarrassment of Tiger Woods the seeds of breakdown are likely to be extremely disappointed by the resulting harvest. At the very least they leave themselves open to the reminder that those who forget what happened yesterday are perhaps not the best judges of quite what tomorrow may bring.
Such a reflection certainly fuels the memory of a collision with another great golfer facing up to one of those moments of truth that come to every man whatever his business. He was 39 at the time and his name was Jack Nicklaus.
Tiger is 33 years old, which given his superb general fitness and arguably unprecedented appetite for being the best golfer on earth means that it is entirely reasonable to believe he has a decade at least to overhaul his only rival for the title, the great Nicklaus.
Five more majors, or one every two years by that conservative estimation of his competitive life expectancy, is surely a target unlikely to be mislaid more than briefly in the distraction of what appears to be a little domestic turmoil that just happened to spill out into the driveway of a millionaire's cul-de-sac.
Some knee-jerk American satirists have been suggesting over the last few days that Nicklaus, as jealous of his reputation as any sportsman who ever made a run at immortal achievement, is fanning hope that the champion of champions-elect is suddenly faltering. Don't believe it for an idle second. No one knows better than the Golden Bear the terrain the Tiger currently occupies – or the forces that will drive him back to the heart of his ambition.
Nicklaus suffered two bouts of crisis, the first early in 1970 when the death of his father Charlie, a pharmacist in Dublin, Ohio, who in his way had been as strong an influence on his son as the late Earl Woods was on the Tiger, left a sudden and most urgent need for reappraisal.
The second came nine years later when, under the pressure of such brilliant challengers as Tom Watson and Lee Trevino, Nicklaus wondered if he would ever win again. He was six years older than the Tiger is today when he discussed his chances of finding, perhaps for one last time, the edge that had so often made him unbeatable in the tightest circumstances. He talked long and with some anguish as night fell on the practice range of the course he built in hometown Ohio.
As fireflies flitted in the twilight, he played a series of perfect chip shots, turned away and sighed, "You know, it drives me crazy that I can play shots like that but still not win a tournament."
His last major triumph had come in the Open at St Andrews a year or so earlier and tears pricked his eyes when he recalled that to win in such a place was the last gift he could not give to the father who had built a driving range in the basement of the family home and tended the braziers which thawed out the frozen tees on the local course in the mid-West winter.
Nine years on, he was still plainly troubled by the fact that at the time of his father's death he had gone three years without winning a major, his rivals were pressing in on him and he had ballooned in weight. "When my father passed on I realised how much he had done for me, how much he had shaped my career, and I could hardly bear the thought of his going like that when I was far from my best. So I worked to get it back. I lost 20lb. I fought to regain what I lost.
"Now, when time is running out, I feel the same need to make another statement about about who I am – and what I can achieve."
His response to the first crisis brought a magnificent resurrection. In the year of his father's death, Nicklaus won his second Open and the first of his triumphs at St Andrews. Between then and his second victory on the Old Course he won seven more majors. But then in the gloaming in Ohio he wondered all over again if he had enjoyed the last of his glory. "One day you believe in your ability, the next it has disappeared. What can you do? You just have to fight because when the day comes when I go to the golf course without the belief that I can win, well, then it's over."
Of course, Nicklaus wasn't done. A few months after that soul-bearing he shot eight-under par to win his fourth US Open at Baltusrol Golf Club in New Jersey, a stunning return to the top that was quickly confirmed by his 17th major title at the PGA. Six years later, at 46 he produced his emotional masterpiece, winning his six Masters title with an imperious march around Amen Corner.
Now Nicklaus will no doubt see in the difficulties of Woods the kind of crisis he passed through triumphantly, and also without the help of his father who had shaped so much of what he was. Looking back to the grief he felt in the winter of 1970, Nicklaus recalled: "I was playing good enough golf but it really wasn't a big deal to me one way or the other. And then my father passed away and I realised he had certainly lived his life through my golf and how I probably hadn't given him the best of that. So I sort of got myself back to work. Yeah, it was emotional time."
Every man is different, of course, but certain types are no doubt closer than most others. Champions surely come into this category, and in golf few have been as driven as Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. These last few days the link has perhaps never been closer. One of them twice showed that he had the means to battle through the bleakest days that had come to him since the moment his father told him he could reach the stars. Who would bet seriously against the other doing precisely the same?
Wenger can no longer ignore la différence in Chelsea's class
It's one thing for Arsène Wenger to spice up the vocabulary which has been such a bulwark of his unrivalled impression of football erudition with the odd Anglo- Saxon expletive – indeed, vive la différence – but much more serious is his apparently complete departure from reality.
For surely even those of us who might just be prepared to go to the stake proclaiming our belief in the superiority of his vision of football have to accept that Arsenal were not only beaten by Chelsea on Sunday but clinically undressed; not as purveyors of sweet football but hard-edged challengers for the highest prizes.
Wenger declared: "The score is a very unfair reflection of the game. Absolutely everything went for them."
Most especially though, it was Chelsea's ability to define the difference between the best of intentions and the real business of winning football matches. In this department Carlo Ancelotti's side announced themselves to be in an entirely different class, not just to Arsenal but any likely opponent either at home or abroad.
In Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka, Chelsea had a cutting edge of brilliance about which Wenger currently, and with Robin van Persie sidelined, can only fantasise. Perhaps healthily, he might just permit a few more profanities.
Keane vindicated by pathetic plea
Roy Keane's reaction to the Republic of Ireland's fate at the hand of Thierry Henry was nasty and a matter for despair to all those who entertained the hope that one day he would grow beyond the barricades of a besieged and often disturbing psyche.
However, it seems that he may have been right about the Football Association of Ireland.
Its application to Fifa to be added to the list of World Cup contenders in South Africa is undignified, embarrassing, and ultimately pathetic. When injustice happens in football it is sad, and outrageous when it is so easily preventable by the use of TV assistance for embattled officials, but the idea that the Irish believe they should be compensated with a place in a tournament for which they did not qualify is quite absurd. Football has much house cleaning to do, with technology plainly its best aide, but this does not include a free pass for anyone with a grievance.
The FAI needs now to put away its martyr's crown and rejoin the real world.
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