Woods hits new peaks in courage under fire

'What Woods represented under the relentless probing of his will was a set of rock-hard competitive values'
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The Independent Online

Bob May is being portrayed here as the Man who (almost) Shot Liberty Valance. He is the obscure, mild-mannered assassin who didn't quite drill the meanest gunfighter in town. It is surely just about total miscasting.

Bob May is being portrayed here as the Man who (almost) Shot Liberty Valance. He is the obscure, mild-mannered assassin who didn't quite drill the meanest gunfighter in town. It is surely just about total miscasting.

May's gift to golf was not, as is being so widely suggested, so much huge encouragement to his superiors, men like Ernie Els and Davis Love, David Duval and Colin Montgomerie, to make more of a challenge to the supremacy of Tiger Woods. It was to properly investigate the nature of that supremacy. It was to slash through the preposterous idea that somehow Woods had become an ogre rather than a hero, not so much a glory as a restraint on interesting trade. May, unburdened by the kind of crippling expectations of himself which bedevil Montgomerie particularly, played his game, and extraordinarily well.

A typical American television news reaction was, "Tiger Woods won his third straight major at Valhalla today but this time he didn't have it his own way. Unknown Bob May took the Tiger down to the wire in a three-hole play-off and showed that he is maybe not untouchable." Unconsciously perhaps, but the point is being made that somehow something quite splendid didn't quite happen. A further implication was made rather less subliminally in the headline in an English national newspaper shortly after Woods had romped home in the Open, "Is Tiger too good for the game?"

Were Liverpool too good for English football when they couldn't stop winning the League title - and the European Cup? Was Joe Louis too good for boxing? Should Pete Sampras take a sabbatical from Wimbledon?

What seemed immutable in the Valhalla dusk was that Bob May's superb achievement had provoked a beautifully rounded definition of the meaning of Tiger Woods in a game struggling to come to terms with the scale of his talent. What Woods represented, we could see more clearly than ever under the relentless probing of his will by this small, unpretentious man who was expected to fade into the background at the first touch of the Tiger's throttle, was a set of rock-hard competitive values. Nothing Woods does on a golf course in the future is likely to be more thrilling than his resistance to the unlikely challenge of Bob May.

He reminded us that he won all three of his US Amateur titles from behind. He showed that his elegant game was suffused with a passion not just to make beautiful golf but also thrilling war. We had to thank Bob May for giving us this confirmation that you do not win three straight major golf tournaments simply on the back of exceptional talent. Talent, in the last throes of Valhalla, was the least of it. What May provoked, volcanically, when Woods, his face contorted, his forefinger stabbing the air, accompanied almost into the hole the decisive putt, was a rage to defy circumstances which had become increasingly taut.

Because of the broad brushstrokes which had been applied to his dominance, Woods started the last round at Valhalla in the position of a bully, someone who had cowed all meaningful opposition. May, in the view of some large sections of the galleries, was taking on not a consummately gifted golfer who had produced a stunningly consistent body of work, but someone who needed to be brought down, not necessarily for his own good but for that unfathomable uneasiness which often informs our attitude to the most exceptional talent.

But, of course, bullies tend to crumble when most seriously challenged, and the Tiger's resolve was set in stone. It would not have surprised the man whose achievement of winning three majors in one year he had matched: the relentless little Texan Ben Hogan.

Hogan's widow Valerie reported, shortly before her death, of how Woods had hoped to visit her husband when he played a tournament in Fort Worth soon after winning the Masters. But she decided that the great man, wasted by illness, was not fit to receive a guest and arranged instead for a phone call. She passed on a fragment of one side of the conversation. "I feel the same way about you, Tiger," said Hogan.

Such conviction was magnificently validated as the sun went down on Valhalla, when Bob May didn't set the hounds running on Tiger but rather helped to prove precisely how far he is front of the pack.

It was once said, probably apocryphally, that if the CIA had ever come to select a hit-man to scale the Kremlin Walls and remove the President of Russia, they would have chosen a linebacker. Linebackers are widely considered to be mad. Some of them actually foam at the mouth as they take a bead on the quarterback.

Bill Romanowski, of the Denver Broncos, is currently doing little to soften the image. He is awaiting trial for illegal possession of the drugs phentermine and prescription strength ephedrine. Mixing these drugs, it is said, "would give you the pharmacologic equivalent of crack cocaine, an amazing buzz that makes you alert and reckless." How reckless? Enough so, it is alleged, to pass the pills among white team-mates with the recommendation, "We have to go against those black guys... they're faster and stronger and we have to take advantage of this. It is the only way we can compete with the black guys." Another problem. It is further alleged he didn't say black guys but another less politically correct term.

All this is causing some embarrassment at the dawn of another gridiron season, but perhaps not as much as you might imagine.

Certainly all pretence that it is possible to be an American football fan and retain a hint of sensitivity is forcefully dispelled in one TV promotion ad for the coming season. It depicts a domestic scene in a leafy suburb. A little girl, clearly troubled, is asking a question of her beefy father, from whose head is projected a thought bubble containing only a football.

The little girl asks if it is true what mummy said, that the family's recently deceased dog is now playing among the clouds with other little doggies. "Naw," he says, "it's in a hole behind the garden shed."

Meanwhile, defenders of Romanowski say that he has been betrayed by a former team-mate who has both misquoted him and given a false picture of his nature, which is really quite gentle.

No such case would have been made for arguably the greatest linebacker of them all, Dick Butkus of the Chicago Bears. Not even by himself. Once he said, "Some people think I have to go on all fours to eat my couple of pounds of red meat every day and that the coach taught me to walk upright. But people who really know me know that I can read a little. I move my lips sometimes, but I can read things on a second-grade level... like newspapers."

For the moment Romanowski is eschewing such irony. Tearfully, he told a national audience, "People who believe these allegations, just don't know me."