Sunday 11 December 2016

Golf's great showmen prove their worth under the spotlight's glare

Rory McIlroy came to the rescue of TV producers and sponsors last week, says Dermot Gilleece

Dermot Gileece

Published 10/05/2015 | 02:30

‘Irrespective of players’ concerns about making a living, their primary function is to entertain’
‘Irrespective of players’ concerns about making a living, their primary function is to entertain’

With the obvious exception of Rory McIlroy, many of the world's leading tournament players failed miserably at Harding Park last weekend. And it wasn't in their shortcomings at match-play combat; it was in the fundamental requirement of entertaining the viewing public.

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McIlroy and the match-play format turned the spotlight on some seriously boring performances which selective camera work could have protected the television viewer from in a normal stroke-play event. In short, golf's grey men would have been ignored.

By the quarter-finals of the Cadillac Championship, however, there was no escaping the dubious appeal of Danny Willett, Tommy Fleetwood, John Senden, Gary Woodland and even the world No 5 Jim Furyk. In this particular circumstance, they represented the only game in town.

Crisp direction from experienced TV hands can cause us to lose sight of the basic objective of a tournament professional. Irrespective of players' concerns about making a living, their primary function is to entertain. That's what separates them from the unpaid amateur.

This can be achieved through the sort of explosive brilliance which made Tiger Woods irresistible at the peak of his powers. Or it may be through the boyish enthusiasm we witnessed from Jordan Spieth in his Masters triumph. Or Phil Mickelson's unpredictable throwing of the dice. Or the basic delight in his craft which McIlroy almost invariably exudes.

When McIlroy was made to fight desperately for survival in his final pool match against Billy Horschel, against Paul Casey in the last eight, and once more in his semi-final clash with Furyk, you could imagine sponsors, tournament officials and TV directors contemplating a bleak weekend. Especially against a background of significant financial rewards.

Prior to the emergence of the current crop, two players who stood apart as being ever-conscious of their tournament responsibilities were Seve Ballesteros and Greg Norman. The fact that both of them happened to have a keen interest in appearance money is of no consequence: they possessed the priceless gift of putting bums on seats.

Quite apart from their thrilling play inside the ropes - and for Ballesteros, often on the outside, too - they used the media to excellent effect. There was always the impression that neither man entered a media centre without first having planned a topic to spark public interest. And no matter that we were often cleverly manipulated by the Spaniard; we all shared the same objective.

Prior to this duo, the template had been crafted most effectively by Arnold Palmer who genuinely liked people. And they responded by crowning him their golfing king, despite the superior achievements by contemporaries, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player.

Empathy between players and the media had clearly moved on from a time when Ben Hogan displayed barely disguised contempt for bar oom-bound scribes. As in his cutting comment: "One of these days, a deaf-mute will win a tournament and you guys will have nothing to write about."

More recently, middle-rank European players have become similarly suspicious of the media despite clearly needing some help in furthering their careers. In this context, I recall playing for a golf writers' team in the Carrolls Pro-Am at Portmarnock, where our professional, a run-of-the-mill British tournament player, turned to the three of us on the first tee and said: "OK boys, this is a practice round for me. I won't be looking for any balls." And he was as good as his word.

I remember raising the subject with former Italian Open winner, Richard Boxall, when he became a commentator with Talk Sport and then Sky. "I can now appreciate that there's really nothing for the players to be afraid of," he said, having experienced the other side of the coin. "I watch players come in for interview, give answers they never elaborate on and get out as quickly as possible.

"The real problem for middle-rank players is that through lack of experience with the press, their over-riding fear is of having their words twisted. On the other hand, players like Tiger Woods, and Jack Nicklaus before him, were dealing with the media from an early age, which gave them the confidence to field possibly loaded questions."

Yet Irish players seem to cope better than most. In their assessment of the game's leading money-earners from 2014, Golf Digest said of 25th-ranked Graeme McDowell: "A very likeable business partner for some big-name companies. Few interact with the public and the media as genuinely as he does." Which goes some way towards explaining off-course earnings of $5.2m for the year.

Of Pádraig Harrington, ranked 48th on their list, they observed: "The lesson here for young players is that being a nice guy gives your earning power legs. Having three Majors doesn't hurt either." The Dubliner's off-course earnings for 2014 were estimated at $4.25m.

For his part, McIlroy could hardly have wished for a better endorsement after last weekend than the words of Woodland, whom he beat by 4&2 in the final. "Rory might be the nicest guy out here," said the American.

As it happened, the greatest media excitement from Harding Park seemed to centre on the pool match where Miguel Angel Jimenez beat Keegan Bradley by two holes. It culminated in a Spaniard unhappy over a drop taken by Bradley on the 18th and an interference by the American's caddie who was apparently told to shut up. "Don't tell my caddie to shut up," Bradley retorted.

Magic stuff, especially since it involved a notoriously prickly American and a player described rather expansively by Golf Digest as "the Sean Connery of golf". The magazine added: "He's ageing nicely, like one of those fine wines he loves. Over 50 but still a force on regular tour. And talk about standing out in a crowd!"

In short, Jimenez is interesting, like European contemporaries such as Colin Montgomerie. Their middle-ranked American brethren, on the other hand, are far less communicative, a disposition which is rendered all the more off-putting by their conformity as players to a seeming college system of behaviour. Which tends to make them boring.

But I have no axe to grind with Woods. For all his media centre blandness - though last week's "sleepless nights" revelation was fascinating - he has more than compensated through the brilliance of his play. In fact, I can't recall ever being more thrilled watching golf than when he was sweeping to a 15-stroke victory in the 2000 US Open at Pebble Beach.

His critics tend to overlook a dramatic event from 1997 which effectively shaped his future dealings with the media. That was when, as a cocksure 21-year-old, he unwittingly got himself burned by the American glossy magazine GQ (Gentleman's Quarterly) in a fly-on-the-wall cover story.

According to the magazine's owner, Charles P Pierce, he acquired three hours of Woods' time only after a difficult round of discussions. "We negotiated for six months with IMG (the player's management group)," said Pierce. "He (Woods) was harder to get time with than any of the movie stars we put on the cover of GQ." Every minute of the three hours were put on the record - swear-words, sex jokes, everything - resulting in a fascinating insight into young Mr Woods, the newly-crowned US Masters champion.

His handlers hated it. "I think he was hurt by it," said manager, Mark Steinberg. "Did he crawl into a shell? Of course not. He can't. But it hurt him. It heightened his awareness of trust. He realised that maybe his guard does need to be up more than the rest of us."

Pierce was unrepentant. "I don't think you will ever see the kind of access again that I got for the GQ piece," was his prophetic reaction. "I don't know what the situation with Woods will become as his fame continues to increase. But I think his fans are satisfied, although there's sort of a national voyeurism that may go unfulfilled."

It could be that repercussions from the GQ fallout are still being felt 18 years on. Either way, we can imagine officials reviewing once more the Cadillac Match Play format, just in case McIlroy is not around to avert another potential viewing disaster 12 months from now.

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