Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Paddy's Sports View 12th April 2005

From "The Emirates Evening Post"

When you have exceptional wealth and international fame and you spend your days playing golf (the game that you were born up to excel at) at the very highest level - and you have achieved all this by the age of 27 - there has to be something special to drive you on. As an Amateur you won the US Amateur Championship more than once and when you turned professional at the age of 22 the expectations of the golfing world were enormous. You were already being hailed as potentially the greatest golfer ever. You did not let them down. Within six years you had won each of the four Majors at least once, including back to back wins in the Masters at Augusta National. Then, inexplicably, you stop winning the big ones. Two whole seasons go by without a Major and it is the other two players in the “Big three” golfing triumvirate who move to the top of the rankings. Your game hasn’t collapsed and you still tower above most other professionals in your awesome power, but you just don’t find it quite so easy to pick up the most glittering prizes. There are mumblings as to whether you have lost your competitive edge and your hunger for success – “How long will the drought go on for…?” is the tabloid headline of choice. Then the “drought” ends, another Major is under your belt and the critics are silenced.

If the above cautionary tale sounds familiar you might be surprised to know that whilst it all applies to Tiger Woods the story is in fact about his only challenger as the “Greatest” Jack Nicklaus! By the age of twenty seven Nicklaus had won seven Majors – at the same age Tiger had won eight and each of them had to get through two barren seasons before winning another. Jack won the (British) Open in 1970 and Woods has, last weekend, won the 2005 Masters. The parallels between the first nine years of Nicklaus’s career as a Professional (1962-1970) and those of Woods (1997-2005) are uncanny .With the Tiger’s win at Augusta the record is that both he and his illustrious predecessor won the Masters three times before the age of 30.

In drawing this parallel between two golfers a generation apart I do so both to signal how unwise it was of some in the media to start to write off Tiger Woods (the headline “Tiger’s slump” became over familiar) but also to show that at this stage in his career Tiger Woods is keeping pace very precisely with Jack Nicklaus. Between 1970 and 1980, the “Golden Bear’s” golden age, Nicklaus won ten more Majors and then, as a nostalgic coda to his Major winning career, he won again at the age of 46 in 1986. That is the challenge for Woods if he wants to be crowned the greatest ever. Beat that Tiger!

There are some who look at golf today and say that modern equipment is of such technological advancement that courses are being tamed and skill differences are being minimised. If the likes of Paul Lawrie, Ben Curtis, Mike Weir, Jim Furyk, Shaun Micheel, Rich Beem… (all one time Major winners in recent years) can win the top tournaments then surely a Major win is possible for any journeyman pro? There is some truth in this (there always was – there are plenty of one time Major winners in history) but what is more important is that more often than not it is the truly class player who wins the biggest tournaments. And in the same way that Nicklaus had Palmer and Player to offer a challenge Woods has Els and Singh.

When Tiger Woods outdrove Chris DiMarco on the long holes in the run-in of this year’s Masters commentators marvelled at his drives of 330 yards or more. To those who think that it is only modern equipment that permits such distance they might look back to that (British) Open in 1970 which put Jack Nicklaus’s Major winning career back on track. In the play off for the title against Doug Sanders Jack showed that he meant business by peeling off his sweater on the play-off hole and hitting the ball 350 yards to the back of the green. And that was with a real “Wood” not a “Metal Wood”. So Jack is still firmly on the pedestal as the finest of them all – but Tiger is back on track to challenge the great man!