Phil Mickelson birdied four of the last six holes of the Open Championship at Muirfield to claim the prize that even he had doubted was within his compass. In taking possession of the Claret Jug, another level of professional fulfilment had been attained, a fifth major and the third element of a career Grand Slam. He was a popular winner, the only man to break par over four rounds and three strokes better than anyone else. This famous course does not permit imposters to sully its roll of honour. The company he keeps is consummate with his standing in the game. Now that he has conquered the wild frontier, the exposed links which had prodded his weaknesses with their crooked finger, he deserves a recognition which many were not prepared to concede. When we speak of the greatest, no longer should he remain an embarrassed afterthought.
I don’t know what’s wrong with Rory McIlroy but I do know that golf can be a cruel game when mental disintegration takes hold. As a two times former major winner there’s no hiding place from the legions of well-intentioned amateur psychologists who think they have all the answers. The Ulsterman cut a lonely and disconsolate figure, bungling his way from the rough to the sand during his truncated visit to Muirfield, a hellish passage which brought a twelve over par total for two rounds and a free weekend with his thoughts. I’d leave him alone. You can’t have your sports stars just how you want them to be, and in truth there’s not a lot wrong that won’t just slot back into place naturally.
Funny how things work out. When a seventeen year old Justin Rose chipped in from the rough on the final hole at Birkdale in 1998 to finish tied for fourth in the Open Championship we thought we’d found our next superstar. It was just two years after Nick Faldo last donned the green jacket at Augusta and this young amateur was hailed as his heir apparent. At the time I remember thinking that in the euphoria of the moment he took the plunge with undue haste, joining the professional ranks without a backward glance. Carpe diem perhaps, and who am I to criticise? Twenty one missed cuts later and we Brits were able to indulge in our traditional past-time of gleefully knocking down what we had manically built up. Rose ignored it all and, though it took longer than any of us might have hoped, finally delivered on that promise on a wild weekend in Pennsylvania. Destiny rarely works to a timetable.
Jeez, did they need that? Though the enormity of the moment might have been lost on any casual observers, Adam Scott was only too aware. I am always fascinated by the psychology of sport, what it takes to separate those with mere talent from those with the mental conditioning to maximise it. Standing over a putt to win the Green Jacket at Augusta is just about as big as it can possibly get for any golfer. Imagine the feeling in the stomach, the myriad thoughts and emotions flooding through the mind. Then factor in your own personal demons, how you crumbled previously when you could almost reach out and touch that long-cherished goal. Add on the curse of a nation and think of how this legendary course had brought only heartbreak to your countrymen who had found themselves in a similar position. Or don’t think. Think of nothing. Clear the head and roll it gently towards the cup. Watch, almost detached, as it drops. Take a deep breath, hear the roars of the crowd, and you’ll be a man my son.
In football it would be so much easier to score a goal if you just stood in the six yard box and waited for the ball to come. None of that having to make intelligent runs in behind or creating space by shifting defenders around. But they don’t allow such an easy option; that’s why the offside rule was introduced. Similarly, we know how roughing up a cricket ball by lifting the seam or artificially scuffing one side helps exaggerate movement and gets more wickets. Can’t do that either though. As well as being against the spirit it is explicitly outlawed after all sorts of ingenious ruses were attempted. So why do certain golfers think they can fundamentally alter the nature of their sport by using anchored belly putters? The authorities have decided to act by announcing their intention to ban usage of these clubs by 2016. Quite right, only some are refusing to accept the change and battle lines are now being drawn. It is a row which has the potential to cause immense damage.
Here’s a novel concept. As Europe prepares to announce its Ryder Cup captain for the 2014 match at Gleneagles, how about just appointing the best man for the job? It seems obvious, but golf administration works in mysterious ways. This is not a case of electing the chairman of the club, some sort of sinecure based on length of service or whether your wife bakes the best cakes for the annual general meeting. If anyone had any doubts before, the thrilling events at Medinah last autumn should have dispelled them once and for all. This is a serious sporting contest. As such it requires more careful consideration of who might be suited to the role of masterminding strategy for the defence of the trophy than a simple case of Buggins’ turn.
The spirit of Seve may have been smiling on Medinah Country Club, but a somewhat more prosaic influence underscored Europe’s astonishing Ryder Cup comeback in the watery light of an autumnal Chicago afternoon. Not that there’s anything commonplace about Ian Poulter. The vaguely eccentric Hertfordshire golfer might feel his full potential has not been realised, but when it comes to the biennial scuffle for the famous old trophy he has few peers. This weekend saw him breathe new life into an ailing patient on the verge of the last rites. His refusal to accept it was over, his fizzing intensity as the home crowds mocked and cavorted in premature celebration, suffused his team-mates with a belief that had seemed futile. And once the door was kicked ajar, they stormed through it and trampled the Americans underfoot. Seve might indeed have been in his heart, but that heart was worn indefatigably on his sleeve.
Before America could learn to love the Ryder Cup it had to grow to respect it, and before it could respect it, well, it had to suffer the pain of defeat a few times. For a nation that doesn’t do defeat this was a difficult concept to come to terms with. Scotland might be the cradle of golf, but only in the United States is it a religion, and Europe’s cheek in thinking it could stick it up to their betters amounted to little more than blasphemy. That, though, was then. Times have changed, and while bombast will forever be part of the American psyche, much of the high-handed arrogance which made them such a delight to beat has been replaced by a steely determination. This is serious business. The Ryder Cup is respected right enough now, and they want it back.
Lee Westwood is the latest to be saddled with the tag that every golfer dreads. Next year he will turn forty and time is running out if he is to shed his unwanted sobriquet. The best player never to have won a major heads to Royal Lytham for this week’s Open Championship desperate to rectify this anomaly. Some experts argue that his unreliable short game leaves him condemned to remain the nearly man, but far from creaking under the weight of internal pressure and external goodwill, Worksop’s finest appears more relaxed and comfortable with his game than ever. If the Claret Jug finds itself in his hands come Sunday evening, there could surely be no more celebrated winner.
You may never have heard of Ginni Rometty. Indeed, unless you have an interest in the workings of corporate America, there is little reason why you should. Yet as we prepare for one of the golfing world’s showpiece events, her name deserves to resonate at least as much as those of Rory McIlroy or Tiger Woods. Ginni Rometty is a casual, occasional golfer. She probably doesn’t have the time to ever be any more than that since she is far too busy attending to matters in the boardroom of the technology giant IBM, of which she was appointed CEO in January. No, Ginni Rometty is no golfer. She is, however, something far more significant and problematical for the hierarchy of the Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters tournament. She is a woman.