Sport's science friction

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IN A sport whose practitioners are known to exude honour, breeding, manners and taste from every pore, some commotion has been caused by the implication that Nick Faldo benefits from a procedure that is probably alien to the code of the clan.

To put you in the picture Mike McDonnell of the Daily Mail suggested this week that Faldo's practice of relying totally on his caddie Fanny Sunesson to line up putts, leaving him to concentrate on touch, may not be in keeping with the spirit of the law, and raise a serious question of ethics.

McDonnell, a golfing scribe of considerable repute and independent virtue, wrote: 'The point at issue, according to the traditionalist view, is that the procedure is nothing more than on-course coaching in which the caddie reduces the measure of skill a player needs to make a good shot.'

This belief does not appear to have ruffled any administrative feathers, but doubtless it is strong enough to provoke vigorous debates in clubhouse bars, especially as golf, the most frustrating of individual athletic pursuits, appears to be going the way of other sporting endeavours.

Unhesitatingly, I refer to the popular notion that nothing much can be achieved in sport these days without paying absolute attention to counsel that rarely allows for compromise between efficiency and flair.

From this emerges a solid, objective, and bitter truth. It was brought home to me on one of those bright, sharp mornings that evoke an inventory of blessings, when in casual conversation with a surveyor who felt plagued by financial imperatives that kept him from sharing such a day with companions on a golf course.

As a matter of topical interest, I asked him, a six handicapper, what he had thought of Faldo's crushing 8 and 7 victory over Jeff Sluman in the final of the World Match Play Championship at Wentworth, fully expecting to hear a paean of praise. Instead he shook his head. 'Faldo is amazing,' he said, 'the best there is. But he leaves me cold. It's all too clinical. Tee to green. Seldom in any serious trouble. Little that's truly exciting. Give me Seve Ballesteros every time.'

In one respect this makes light of Faldo's immense achievements, the dedication he has shown in taking a moderate talent to the point where only the best golfers in their best form can think seriously about finishing above him on the leaderboard.

Perfection is what Faldo has in mind. However, it clearly strikes a lot of people that there is more to a game than grinding efficiency, the machine-tooled excellence of a swing modelled by David Leadbetter, the golfing guru.

The basis of their argument is a contention that golf is never better for the spectators than when great feats of ingenuity and improvisation are required to repair the effect of human fraility. Hence the residual affection for Ballesteros, a true genius who once thought it quite normal if called upon to find the green from an adjacent car park.

This brings us back to a spurious argument much favoured by the coaching clan, that every day and in almost every way, sport is getting better and better.

The belief in progress is certainly a stimulant to achieve it and is partly responsible for the tenacity of a Faldo. But it does disguise the truth that all sports performers have their highs and lows and all of them, eventually, pass into history. In coming to understand that they are relieved of a great problem.

It is, of course, true that the most naturally gifted do not always rise to the top in sport, their ambitions thwarted or undermined by flaws in temperament over which they have little control.

The fact that Faldo is rich in determination and applies himself unstintingly on the practice ground and the golf course, is his greatest asset.

Because he was not born with a gift for golf he had to make up for it by employing the things he does have - his physique and resolution and attention and industry and desire.

As a result Faldo is unquestionably the leading golfer of his generation, providing the inspiration he first gained from watching Jack Nicklaus on television.

What appears to be troubling some members of the fairway fraternity is that he will further encourage the idea that golf is a science rather than a game.