Perils of prodigies who are prematurely praised

A PRETTY obvious hazard for up and comers in sport is the amount of indiscreet attention they receive in newspapers and across the airways. No sooner is a promising career launched than the word is out on another potential world-beater.

The difficulties this can cause in development is perhaps best illustrated by the sad case of Justin Rose who made headlines 12 months ago when finishing fourth in the Open Championship at Birkdale as a 17-year-old amateur.

As the professional he became immediately afterwards, Rose has gone from one miserable experience to another, failing to gain a place on the European Tour and missing 21 consecutive cuts in the events that were available to him.

If not enough attention was paid by Rose's advisors to the pitfalls of premature advancement, he wasn't helped by an excessive response to his efforts on the Lancashire coastline.

In Rose's case, the difference a year can make is in a somewhat muted response to his presence at Carnoustie this week, having qualified automatically on the strength of last year's finish. The spotlight has inevitably switched from Rose to others of his generation, especially the gifted Spanish 19- year-old Sergio Garcia who has already made a name for himself on both sides of the Atlantic.

There is no question at all that Garcia has a superior talent and, from his demeanour, the maturity to withstand the pressure of comparison at a similar age to his great compatriot Severiano Ballesteros.

Of course, nobody who covers sport can afford to ignore the appeal of youthful assertion but there are far too many instances when assessment amounts to overkill. This applied even to Tiger Woods who was thought capable of totally dominating golf for many years to come after winning the Masters in his first professional season.

With 12 tournament victories to his name in three years, Woods is fully established as one of the great modern golfers but to suppose that he would quickly win all four major championships was utter nonsense. The improvement Woods has made can be seen in a more sensible choice of options on the course, but it remains unlikely that he will butcher the records set by Jack Nicklaus.

Going back 10 years, the wunderkind of American golf was supposed to be Robert Gamez, a 19-year-old Las Vegan who won twice in his first year on the US Tour, including a one-shot defeat of Greg Norman in Florida achieved by holing a seven-iron to the final green. Since then, Gamez has been moving bleakly in the opposite direction, falling last year to 195th on the money list and losing his card.

Tim Dalberg, of the Associated Press, a good golfer himself and also a resident of Las Vegas who is here to report this week's proceedings in Scotland, relates Gamez's decline to lack of dedication. "I played with Gamez just before he turned professional," Dalberg said, "and you could see why an immense future was being predicted for him. But it went wrong. Maybe too much too soon. Who knows?" Unfulfilled promise is the oldest story in sport. Here today, gone tomorrow, the burden of ludicrous hyperbole.

When it was suggested towards the end of the last football season that Joe Cole should be included in England's squad, the young West Ham midfielder had yet to start a match in the first team.

Interestingly, golf's major championships are usually won by players in their late thirties. The average is 37. In 1997, three went to players in their twenties: the Masters (Woods), the US Open (Ernie Els) and the Open (Justin Leonard). So far this year, two, the Masters (Jose Maria Olazabal) and the US Open (Payne Stewart) have gone to older contenders.

Perhaps two other emerging talents, Luke Donald and Zane Scotland, will reveal this week the extent of their thrilling potential. "More and more young players are coming through," Tom Watson said on Tuesday night when speaking at the Association of Golf Writers' annual dinner.

The last winner here, Watson, has seen it all. Including careers that collapsed for want of time in which to develop.

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