The Last Word: If only all sports stars would follow the open-book approach of Bubba Watson
He is free of guile and arrogance. He can never keep secrets from fans
It is a constant refrain on the Turf: "If only they could talk." In reality, of course, that would only put racehorses on a par with human beings – which arguably represents a fairly steep downgrade. Mind you, it's not so much the talking that gets us into trouble, as the listening. This time next week, when it's all over for another year, how many of us will be renewing a vow never to pay attention to anything heard after dusk during the Cheltenham Festival? (With one obvious exception: "Are you being served?")
If endowed with the power of speech, moreover, would horses achieve those associated capacities that further exalt us above the animals? Would they bet, for instance? Would they trade insults and lies? Would they refuse to race, unless promised more oats and better working conditions? And, vouchsafed the terrible secret of mortality, would they start debating the latest eviction from Celebrity Big Brother?
True to venal form, we yearn for equine conversation primarily to learn of any latent problem that would explain – or better still, enable us to predict – any failure to run to form. If an odds-on favourite happens to pull up in the back straight next week, you might be grateful if he could at least debrief the press afterwards. "Sorry guys. Toothache. Same as Rory."
All sports nowadays assume that our interest, as fans, is stimulated by access to the stars. And while we recognise the artifice of some post-match interviews, we are often granted a legitimate window on character. Football managers, for instance, tend to remain so saturated with tension, resentment or relief that they simply cannot dissemble. (Mancini is a personal favourite – staring off into the distance, running fingers through his hair, finally turning to his questioner in mild bewilderment.) And this week Rory McIlroy made such a charming show of contrition, at his first press conference since flouncing off the course halfway through a round, that he seemed not merely to repair his image but enhance it.
Ultimately, however, the more inscrutable a performer, the more we must read into his performance. In individual sports, with no team-mates to share high fives, he typically engages with the challenge as mutely as a racehorse. And while a golfer does have a release valve, in all that muttering with a caddie, it is in his loneliness and silence that he most fascinates.
We talk of a golfer addressing a ball – and he could hardly do so more expressively by pouring out a sonnet than in the way he puffs out his cheeks or chest. In very special cases, however, character is disclosed most vividly in the execution of the shot itself – in precisely that split second when the inner man is supposed to be suppressed by a scrupulously repeating technique. To that extent, the most graceful swing can also be the most robotic. If it's not working, you can only put it down to toothache or some other unknowable sorrow. Praise be, then, for the gloriously untutored, unfettered slash that ensures Mr Gerry Lester Watson Jnr can never hold any secrets from his fans.
Bubba is the most ingenuously captivating American golfer since Elwood P Dowd joined a 6ft 3.5in rabbit named Harvey at the 19th hole. In the Masters play-off last year, with Louis Oosthuizen strolling round the fairway like Steve McQueen after sex, Bubba was so convulsed with tics that his hooked wedge out of the trees seemed to be conjured from the very margin between instinct and insanity.
He can't hide a thing. He can't hide his humility, or his will to win. There's one big paradox for you right there – but it shows we are getting the whole, unadorned Bubba. A man whose beliefs subject him to plenty of rules; and a man as free as a bird. Free of guile, free of arrogance, free of all the selfish insecurities that infect not only millionaire sportsmen but all ranks of society. In his latest spoof rap video for charity, with the Golf Boys, Bubba appears to have borrowed both chest hair and dungarees from Harvey. (You really must watch this. And, if you do, note which of the four dudes clings pathetically to the hope that he looks really cool.)
To communicate all this, Bubba doesn't really need to talk. For the sake of clarity, however, he has just told more than 800,000 Twitter followers: "Today's prayer is to enjoy the day, No Matter What Happens!! Amen!" Never mind his Masters defence, now just round the corner. I can't think of a better axiom to take into Cheltenham week.
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