It's a game of two minds

Golf is the only sport where compassion can combine with a killer instinct, writes Jim White
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The Independent Online
Golf is a game invented solely to torture its participants; a game, according to Alistair Cooke, that could only have been dreamt up by Calvanists, whose outlook on life was to ensure any moment of pleasure was balanced by one of unbearable pain. On Sunday night, the cruellest sport claimed another victim: Greg Norman.

Apparently on his way to victory in the US Masters, playing for three days with a brilliance that suggested he was destined to trouser the kind of cheque normally associated with the National Lottery, Norman crumbled. In the final round, the genius departed him, left him sapped and dissipated, as, cruising up behind him, filling his rear-view mirror, came the figure of the relentless Nick Faldo. The moment he sensed Faldo was upon him was the moment Norman lost it, the moment the Great White Shark beached himself, throwing away an unassailable lead. It was a pitiful sight.

Afterwards, thankful it was over, Norman said he would cherish all his career what Faldo said to console him at the end. No, he wouldn't reveal the words Faldo used, but they would live with him forever. Golfers share a camaraderie unusual in professional sport; they are always quick to sympathise with each other because they have all experienced the game's cruelty. In a sense, they are not rivals at all but colleagues united in an effort to overcome the common enemy: par.

You could tell that by his body language, by the way in which there was no triumphal punching of the air as he sank important putts, by the restrained and dignified manner he behaved at the end, that Nick Faldo was affected by Greg Norman's discomfort. He knew the man was suffering, knew how he felt. His sympathy, however, did not preclude him from taking advantage of his opponent's demise. And, on the 18th green, as he prepared the very consoling words he would say to Norman, Faldo was completing his rival's destruction.

According to Dr Richard Cox, a sports psychologist who specialises in preparing golfers for the perils of their calling, the player who has the mental discipline to win is the one who is able to shut out all feeling for his opponent, even better if he can pretend his opponent does not exist at all.

"If you think about it, Faldo could have done what he did on Sunday without anyone else being there," says Dr Cox. "Golf is unique as a sport in that what your opponent does has no bearing on what you do. I advise players to go out and beat the course; Gary Player said he often didn't know his own score, never mind his opponent's. That is the ideal state of mind for a golfer."

Dr Cox suggests to his players a long and detailed pre-shot routine, a practical preparation course that both improves their own approach and which deliberately leaves them with no cognitive capacity left to worry about their opponent. A cunning strategy but one that only a few are capable of adapting. And by no coincidence, they tend to be winners.

"The fascinating thing about golf," says Stephen Bull, author of The Mental Game Plan: Getting Psyched For Sport, "is that in a four-hour round, a player will only come into contact with the ball for five minutes. The rest of the time will be spent thinking about his shots. It is a game played almost entirely in the mind."

The purpose of sport is to be victorious, its role is to satisfy the primitive urge to prove your self-worth by triumphing over your peers. Alex Ferguson, the Manchester United manager, claims that the rush of victory in the last few minutes of a match his side is winning is more addictive than any drug and is the thing he lives for. Indeed, that is sport's great attraction, it is probably the only area left in a life of increasing compromise that operates with such fundamental clarity: you win or you lose. But Ferguson is not glorying in his opponent's misery. Indeed, there are few sports in which the aim is to take sadistic pleasure in inflicting defeat, few sportsmen who would agree with Bobby Fischer, the former world chess champion, who once said that the most enjoyable moment of his game was when he crushed the other guy's ego. It is victory that counts, not enjoying the other guy's defeat.

Yet without defeat, there is no victory. So the mind must be steeled. Before they step into the ring, boxers, for instance, have to convince themselves the other man is their enemy. And once inside it, they must seize on every mistake, exploit every weakness, in order to achieve triumph that can only come through the ultimate humiliation of their rival. There is no room for sympathy in a ring. But it is rare for a fighter to enjoy the demolition of an opponent, rather the two men, after seeking to kill each other over a dozen rounds, will usually embrace at the end of a bout with a solidarity that only comes from a mutual understanding of the enormity of the task in hand.

It probably helps to rid the mind of sympathy when a rival has just smashed you on the bridge of the nose. Less physical sports thus require, in their preparation, a degree of mental demonisation of the opponent, to harden the resolve against compassion. In football, the language of war is often appropriated - "going over the top", "midfield general", "the kind of guy you want next to you in the trenches" - to focus on the challenge ahead. And the successful manage to take that kind of mindset on to the field with them. Thus in the penalty shoot-out at the end of the semi- final of the 1990 World Cup, the German players reserved their consolations for Chris Waddle and Stuart Pearce's hurt at their cataclysmic misses until after they had buried their own kicks. And Stephen Hendry, who has made it known that he only became a snooker player thanks to the inspiration of Jimmy White, nevertheless has taken full advantage of his hero's distress to win the world title on almost an annual basis.

"World champions are world champions because they are able to be completely absorbed in their own performances, whatever is going on around them," says Stephen Bull. "Don't underestimate one thing, though: how much they enjoy winning."

At all costs, apparently. It was once revealed in an interview that Ian Botham often played cricket in the garden with his son, Liam, when the lad was about six. So, asked the interviewer, did he let the boy win, as most of us would do, to spare the lad's feelings? "No," said Botham, as if he didn't understand the question. "Why should I?"