Sunday 22 September 2019

Friendly rivalry does not reflect a lack of hunger

Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus shake hands on the 18th after the 1977 Open Championship when Nicklaus said with a smile: ‘Tom, I gave it my best shot but it wasn’t good enough’. Photo: Allsport
Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus shake hands on the 18th after the 1977 Open Championship when Nicklaus said with a smile: ‘Tom, I gave it my best shot but it wasn’t good enough’. Photo: Allsport

Dermot Gilleece

It would be nice to imagine Rory McIlroy gaining many new admirers from the way he handled a bitterly disappointing outcome for him in Abu Dhabi last Sunday. Graciousness in defeat never comes easily, but the standard he set in complimenting his conqueror struck a heartening tone for the coming season.

There are two schools of thought about the process of competing at tournament level. After a dispiriting back-nine of 36 to the winner's 30, McIlroy chose to remark: "Tommy [Fleetwood] is the guy to beat in Europe right now. He's a great addition to the world of golf and will be a great addition to Europe's Ryder Cup team."

In return, we had Fleetwood being similarly complimentary about McIlroy. All of which was totally at odds with the views of six-time Major winner, Nick Faldo. "They are all too chummy," he said, on the eve of Pádraig Harrington's Open at Carnoustie in 2007. "All the current generation are having lunch together and going off to play for a million dollars. I couldn't imagine myself sitting and having lunch with Greg Norman and Nick Price."

He added: "Tiger isn't like that, either. In our era we were competitors, very separate individuals, and we kept it that way. We had to win to create a brand and a future and a pension plan. You can be a millionaire now in six months."

Of course the gifted Englishman was a loner, for whom the solitary nature of golf seemed to offer the perfect sporting outlet. And while he could be a difficult customer from a media standpoint, even in victory, it must be acknowledged that he was harshly treated by the press, especially in the gossip columns of British tabloids during the 1980s.

That said, I believe McIlroy projects an endearing image, replete with normal human frailties such as his well-publicised club-throwing. And it is a mistake to confuse such tantrums with poor sportsmanship. Rather should it be viewed as a much-needed emotional release which certain players have utilised over the years.

Perhaps the finest example of this came in the writings of the one-time British Amateur champion, Horace Hutchinson, who reported in 1914: "A sight that has been seen at Westward Ho! is that of a gallant colonel stripping himself to the state in which nature gave him to an admiring world, picking his way daintily over the great boulders of the Pebble Ridge. And when he came to the sea, wading out as far as possible and then hurling forth, one after the other, beyond the line of the furthest breakers, the whole set of his offending clubs. That the waves and the tide were sure to bring them in again to the delight of the salvaging caddies, made no matter to him. From him they were gone forever and his soul was at rest." Precisely.

In my experience, Irish players are excellent losers, which is such a crucial part of a competitor's make-up. Joe Carr displayed exemplary sportsmanship, most notably at international level. Then there was the integrity of Philomena Garvey in her handling of the issue surrounding the Union Jack badge for the Curtis Cup.

Both had been set a fine example by Co Sligo's Cecil Ewing when he lost to America's Charlie Yates in the final of the 1938 British Amateur at Troon. Having observed how Ewing behaved afterwards towards his local caddie and then while pushing his way gently through the clubhouse crowd, a Scottish newspaper scribe wrote: "Here was no maker of alibis, no petted member of a higher society, but a 27-year-old gentleman who, in this evening of defeat, might, for all the world, have been one of your honest, plodding clubmen who had taken a little something off the handicap with an afternoon round."

Any club golfer knows how difficult it can be to put a brave face on defeat, especially if the chance of victory has just been squandered, say through three-putting the 18th. It's not always a pretty sight. With the odd exception, players at championship level tend to cope better, though I retain memories of a leading woman who was already dismissively waving me away with an outstretched hand while I was still some distance from the final green.

Then there was the challenge of what to believe when players recounted details of a particular match you hadn't witnessed. The better you got to know these individuals, however, the more readily you could sift fact from fiction. Which felt almost akin to a judge in a court of law.

The stresses of the professional game are clearly far more challenging. Yet again, players generally cope. Indeed in my experience over the years, I have encountered only three practitioners who were regularly difficult - Darren Clarke, Ronan Rafferty and Colin Montgomerie. Rafferty was especially interesting in that he was equally evasive in victory or defeat. He simply didn't like the media and this made him what the old cowboy movies would describe as "ornery".

A classic case was the 1992 World Cup in Madrid where he gave me short shrift on being approached at the close of play on the Sunday. When I informed Christy O'Connor Jnr, the other member of the Irish duo, that his partner had refused to talk to me, he responded: "I would be angry if he did. Why should he talk to you when he wouldn't talk to me."

When the red mist engulfed Clarke, there came the ultra-brisk walk towards the clubhouse accompanied by "Not a good time". Which would leave me with a considerable problem when he happened to be the only Irish player competing, perhaps in the US.

Montgomerie was different in that his childish tantrums often provided more descriptive copy than if he had agreed to do a lengthy interview. And I can recall much laughter with colleagues in the media centre after one of these episodes. Whereas nobody laughed about Clarke.

Though Faldo's approach matched his make-up, I prefer to reflect on the finest sportsmanship to grace the game in recent decades, as displayed by Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson. I had the good fortune to have been in the Bear's company when he confirmed their enduring friendship over dinner in West Palm Beach in January 2006.

There could hardly have been a more exemplary way to lose, than in the Bear's handling of defeat by Watson in the 1977 Open Championship at Turnberry, where only a stroke separated them after a titanic battle. With an arm around Watson's shoulder, Nicklaus said with a smile: "Tom, I gave it my best shot but it wasn't good enough."

In that moment, it never crossed his mind that he could have been imbuing Watson with the confidence to hurt him again down the road. Which is what happened in 1982 at Pebble Beach, where a spectacular birdie chip by Watson on the short 17th deprived Nicklaus of what would have been a record-breaking fifth US Open.

More recent thoughtful words between them occurred in July 2009 when, incredibly, 59-year-old Watson found himself attempting to come to terms with the crushing disappointment of seeing a sixth Open slip from his grasp. That evening, he and his wife were in their bedroom preparing for dinner, when Nicklaus phoned. "He had to call his friend to help him out," recalled Watson. "And I'm glad he did."

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