Monday, December 12, 2005

Paddy's Sports View 12th December 2005

As published in the "Bahrain Tribune"

A few years ago I was lucky enough to be at a charity golf event where the two main participants were Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. They both signed a golf cap for me which I proudly wear in the forlorn hope that some of their magic will rub off on me (it hasn’t, of course!). On those occasions when you do rub shoulders with the sporting greats (overused word, but not for these two) you get a chance to try and spot what it is that makes them different and with Nicklaus, in particular, what struck me was his powers of concentration. The event itself didn’t matter that much, but when he was at play Jack never for one moment let his concentration wander – he was focused all the time. Match that with a sublime talent to strike the ball cleanly and an absolute determination to win and you have the recipe for success.

When Jack Nicklaus walked down the 18th hole at St Andrews for the last time this year at the Open Championship there was genuine warmth in the farewell he received from everyone there. It was 35 years since his first Open win at this historic course when, at the age of 30, he was perhaps at his peak and, whilst he may walk a little more stiffly these days, and he is not the “Golden Bear” of old, he can still play a bit. If that was the nostalgic moment to savour from the 2005 golf year the main golfing story was the “comeback” of Tiger Woods. For the Tiger all things are relative and I suppose that by his imperious standards 2005 has to be seen as a return to form after a couple of lean years. He dominated the PGA tour (six victories, including major wins at the Masters Tournament and The Open Championship) and seemed back to his very best. Woods has now won 10 majors which puts him third in the all time list behind Nicklaus (18) and Hagan (11). The other Major winners this year (Mickelson at the PGA and Michael Campbell at the US Open) are also world class (unlike one of two of the “One Win wonders” of recent years). Campbell followed his first big win for a while with another at the World Match Play later in the year - a welcome and deserved return to form for this most talented of players. Expect more from the young New Zealander in 2006.

For Ernie Els the year was blighted by a knee injury that he picked up in July and he was out of competitive golf for much of the season. But once Ernie was fit again it didn’t take him too long to get back into winning ways and his win in the Dunhill in South Africa last week shows that he is swinging well again. It was the year for comebacks, and Colin Montgomerie was another who got back to form in style. If Jack Nicklaus is a master of concentration then Monty is the master of intensity. He has a face which always betrays his feelings and his thoughts and can there ever have been a more intense character at the top of professional golf? His successes this year (which led to a win in the European order of merit for the eighth time) have carried him into the world’s top ten at the age of 42, a remarkable achievement. Wearing your heart on your sleeve, as Montgomerie always has, does not always make you popular but there is no doubt that if Monty could somehow win that elusive first Major victory in 2006 it would be a very popular win indeed both amongst his fans and amongst his fellow professionals.

There was a symbolism about St Andrews this year with Jack Nicklaus playing his last tournament and Tiger Woods in unbeatable from. The mantle of champion had perhaps already been passed from Jack’s tight grasp but this year we began to see the title of the “Greatest” being passed as well. Woods elegantly referred to Nicklaus as the “Greatest” after the tournament, but it is now quite clear that the Tiger himself is not far behind. In 2006 we can expect that Woods, Els, Mickelson, Singh and (I think) Campbell will lead they money list and I hope to see these Major winners joined, if not by Montgomerie, then by young turks like Luke Donald or Sergio Garcia. The golfing year ahead looks full of promise.