Saturday 3 October 2009
Brian Viner: Three cheers for Freddie as he hits a sublime 50
The Last Word
As cricket has its Flintoff, so golf has its Couples, a pair of Freddies (although only one of them bona fide) with easy-going demeanours who also share a rare ability to perform in the sporting arena without apparent effort, even though the effort is monumental, and indeed has caused them both chronic physical wear and tear.
The Flintoff ankle and the Couples back could together sustain a three-day conference of orthopaedic surgeons.
I won't strain any longer to find parallels just because of the Freddie factor, except to note that Flintoff's golf is woefully poor – "I still take air shots," he told me, when I last quizzed him on his progress, and that's despite sharing a manager, not to mention the odd pint or five, with Darren Clarke and Ernie Els – and I don't suppose that Couples would have a clue what to do with a cricket ball. But it's hard to think of anyone who hits a golf ball with such languorous elegance. Give 100 weekend golfers the chance to stand on a practice ground somewhere, watching a famous player rifle shots into the blue yonder, and I'd bet that half of them, even now, would choose Couples.
All of which is a preamble to mentioning his 50th birthday, today. And 50 is a magic age for the greying men of golf, because it propels them with a new lease of life on to the Champions Tour, which is not as lucrative as it was, but still offers a handsome income to those who can no longer compete with the whippersnappers on the regular tour. On their 50th birthdays they become the whippersnappers, and it is no surprise that the leading five on this year's money list are all 54 or under, led by 52-year-old Bernhard Langer. This time next year, I expect that one of them will have been edged out by the Italian-American (the original family name was Copolla) park-keeper's son from Seattle.
Three years ago I encountered him at Butch Harmon's golf academy in Las Vegas. Out on the practice ground, alongside the 18- handicappers trying to wrestle their duck-hooks into submission, there was Freddie, distanced by a helmet of grey hair and a slightly bulging waistline from the bit of all right he was once considered to be in the ladies' locker rooms of the world, but nonetheless imperiously thwocking full seven-irons practically into a bucket. A couple of months later he tied third at the Masters, where he has nine top-10 finishes, didn't miss a cut between 1983 and 2007, and of course won in 1992.
Later that day I spent a little time in his company, and was pleased to find him as laid-back and affable off the course as he seems on it. And yet he has endured even more heartache than backache, which is saying something. Cancer claimed his parents within two years of each other, and earlier this year his estranged wife, Thais, died of breast cancer. His first wife, Deborah, was a turbulent soul who famously embarrassed her man by performing a table-top striptease in a North Berwick pub following the 1992 Open Championship at Muirfield. They were divorced the following year, to nobody's great surprise, and in 2001 she committed suicide by jumping off the roof of a chapel. Neither of his marriages produced children. His teenage stepdaughter by his second marriage wants nothing more to do with him.
So, all things considered, Freddie Couples could be forgiven for harbouring a few personal demons. Maybe he does. And my own admiration for him is slightly tempered by his choice of President George W Bush as one of a "dream fourball" he once suggested in a magazine questionnaire. But for the pleasure he has dished out just by swinging a golf club, and for playing the most maddening game in the world with such apparent insouciance, I doff my visor. Happy 50th birthday, Freddie. Go get those seniors.
My call for a Bodyline witness
At The Independent Woodstock Literary Festival a couple of weeks ago, I chaired a fascinating discussion about leg-theory bowling between the former England cricketer Derek Pringle, and Harold Larwood's biographer, Duncan Hamilton. At the end I invited questions from the audience, one of which was more of a statement than a question, and came from a 92-year-old woman in a wheelchair. She told us that she had been at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on 30 December 1932, when Don Bradman was bowled first ball by Bill Bowes (a lapse for which the Don compensated in the second innings, scoring 103 not out). Afterwards, Hamilton made what I suppose could be called a B-line for her. His marvellous book is meticulously researched, yet this was the first person he had met who had actually been present at a Bodyline Test. We talked to her for a while, trying to tempt more memories, yet both of us, journalistic super-sleuths that we are, forgot to ask her surname. If anyone out there knows a 92-year-old Phyllis who grew up in Melbourne, email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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