Ken Jones: Little wonder golfers take the rough with the smooth

Urban sports strategists could deposit their decaying flesh and strained eyeballs in any number of places last weekend.

Urban sports strategists could deposit their decaying flesh and strained eyeballs in any number of places last weekend.

On Saturday, on Sky television and following a glut of international football, there were the second and third rounds of the Players Championship from Sawgrass and a recording of the recent super-featherweight contest between Erik Morales and Manny Pacquiao in Las Vegas.

Pacquiao's bruised and bloodied face - he fought from the fifth round with a jagged cut over his right eye - put into perspective the strain conveyed by the grimaces of expensively attired sporting millionaires as they made their way around a tricky golf course in adverse weather conditions.

Switching between a sport that carries the threat of permanent disablement, even death, to a sport where just about the worst thing that can happen to you is a ball out of bounds, was culturally shocking. It was like going from a penal institution to a health farm.

Golf is a great game and marvellously faithful to honourable tradition, but it is played at a walk and the most terrifying thing a participant sees is knee-high rough or a downhill putt. He does not need a gumshield, shin pads, a scrum cap or yards of sticking plaster. No one has ever seen a golfer carried off the field. You do not need cutmen, plaster casts, canes or wheelchairs. You bleed where nobody sees it.

A golfer's idea of trauma is a bare lie or a ball buried in wet sand. A catastrophe is a double-bogey; you don't have to run fast, hit hard or take steps to avoid being separated from your senses; relief is a free drop, not a 60-second breather between rounds. You keep all your teeth, your nose doesn't get rearranged.

Playing at the top means going to work in locations that feature in the expensive section of travel brochures. The sun usually shines, the birds sing and a hired hand carries the equipment. You are not washed up at an age when people in corporate fields are still rising. It takes considerable persistence and no small amount of dedication, but players in their 50s have won on the regular Tour. Last week, at 48, Fred Funk became the oldest winner of the Players Championship, finishing comfortably ahead of Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh, Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson.

Footballers run the risk of shattered limbs, severed ligaments and, in later life, crippling arthritis. In rugby, there is the prospect of a separated shoulder and having your face used as a doormat. National Hunt jockeys have ended up brain-damaged. Batsmen in cricket wear helmets and body armour for a very good reason. The perils that exist in the ring are overwhelmingly obvious.

Tennis players sweat more than golfers, but their game falls into a similar category. The tumbles on court that draw gasps from commentators are seldom worse than those toddlers take in the playground. Tragedy is a bad line call. Every so often there is time for a picnic. You can be ranked 100 and something in tennis and make more annually than a cabinet minister.

Until his victory in the Masters last year, Mickelson, one of golf's biggest earners, had yet to win a major championship.

All things considered, these are the luckiest people in sport. They seldom require the services of an orthopaedic specialist, never mind a neurosurgeon. A grim day at the office is losing in straight sets or failing to make the cut.

As Jim Murray, once of this life and the Los Angeles Times, once put it, the parent who gives his child a football, boxing gloves or an ice hockey stick should be taken into psychiatric care. Give golf clubs or a tennis racket and you lengthen the odds against hospital visits.

For leading golfers, those who compete on the US and European Tours, the downside is the cumulative effect of pressure.

Four years ago, David Duval was at the top of his game, the Open champion. Now he is so burdened with doubt that it has become painful to watch him progress around a golf course. There is no guarantee that he will break 80. Ian Baker-Finch, now a golf commentator, went into free fall after winning the Open in 1991 at Birkdale. Another Open champion, Bill Rogers, who won at Sandwich in 1981, went in a similar direction and became a club professional. Seve Ballesteros's life, professional and personal, is in such turmoil that he hasn't taken up automatic entry into next week's Masters.

Nevertheless there is something about sport that commentators and critics seldom go into. It seems to me that the best advice, and allowing for social circumstances, is that a gift for sport should be directed at games that are comparatively gentle. Who needs to look like Pacquiao looked last Saturday?

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