Sunday 19 November 2017

Icon faces painful truth as time takes toll

Tiger Woods' injury travails could see him miss the Ryder Cup

Tiger Woods will undergo treatment this week on his troublesome back
Tiger Woods will undergo treatment this week on his troublesome back

Dermot Gilleece

In the spring of 2000, with the US Masters only a few weeks away, British bookmaker Victor Chandler was offering just 66/1 against Tiger Woods winning the Grand Slam of all four Majors in the one season. Almost two years later, an American chiropractor named David Seaman was predicting that if Woods "doesn't develop serious back pain by the time he's 30, it will be a miracle".

Though both experts were some way off target, Chandler proved to be the more enlightened. After Woods had finished fifth behind Vijay Singh in the 2000 Masters, he went on to win the next four Majors, culminating in the so-called Tiger Slam at Augusta in 2001. But it is only now, as a 38-year-old, that he is making good on Professor Seaman's prediction.

Having struggled with back problems at Doral last Sunday, Woods has pledged to appear in the Arnold Palmer Invitational. So, events at Bay Hill later this week seem likely to decide whether he will be fit enough to line up at the Masters on April 10.

All of which comes against the backdrop of a radically changing scene on both sides of the Atlantic. Indeed when Europe defend the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles in September, it's possible the only iconic golfing figures present will be among the backroom personnel. We note Jimmy Walker, Patrick Reed and Harris English towards the top of the US qualifying list, while Victor Dubuisson and Jamie Donaldson are in line for European debuts.

Speculation has already been sparked as to whether skipper Tom Watson would be prepared to go into battle without Woods, currently 35th and an absentee from the last US victory in 2008, because of knee surgery. My belief is that it wouldn't cost Watson a thought. And I would further suggest that genial Tom is likely to be the most ruthless leader the Americans have had in recent decades.

We shouldn't forget that this was the man who stared down the great Nicklaus in their head-to-head for the Open Championship at Turnberry in 1977. There will be no favours, not even for the world's No 1.

After a Belgian breakthrough for Nicolas Colsaerts two years ago, neighbours Holland could be joining the Ryder Cup family through Joost Luiten. With Shane Lowry languishing at 38th, however, and Pádraig Harrington effectively out of contention at 54th, it looks as if Ireland will be relying on the same northern duo of Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell from the triumph at Medinah.

Meanwhile, potential debutants have managed to come to prominence without being linked in every other sentence to the latest guru on tour. About whom, Seve Ballesteros once famously remarked: "Very, very few people really know what they are saying, but they are great actors. They are fantastic at selling themselves. Some of the things I see on the practice range make me laugh."

Wider television exposure brings even greater prominence in the US. Which calls to mind the words of a leading American golf coach from an earlier generation. "So many teachers of the game today are gurus," he said. "Like Billy Graham and other gospel preachers, they mesmerise people. But they are not necessarily correct. Most of them can't break 80.

"If you take on a great player and give him a tip, you can't take credit if he then goes out and wins a tournament. You didn't do it. He hit thousands of balls to get there. But take a fellow who cannot break 100 and turn him into a good player. Now you're a teacher. I do not give lessons for a half-hour, an hour or two hours. If I can't straighten you out in a minute, I can't do it in a month."

And the source of these pungent remarks? It was none other than the 1948 US Masters champion Claude Harmon who created a veritable dynasty of gurus, including the one named Butch on Sky Sports.

A leading European contemporary of Harmon's, John Jacobs, regarded golf tuition with similar pragmatism. "If you can get the ball in the hole regularly by standing on your head," said Jacobs, "then keep right on. And don't ever listen to advice from anyone."

Which leads me to one of the more respected modern practitioners and the attention focused on

his book, The Big Miss, by recent happenings to Woods. According to Hank Haney, the player's coach for six years, Woods appears to have a fascination with injuries. Indeed Haney claimed that prior to surgery in June 2008, he could have worsened the condition of his damaged left knee with heavy workouts and US Navy SEAL activities.

It is further claimed that the player liked to create the image of injuries related to his sport "so that he could wear them as an athletic badge of honor." "To him," wrote Haney, "injuries were a way of being accepted into the fraternity of superstars who played more physical sports than golf. For example, a couple of times when I knew he'd just gotten off the phone with Derek Jeter [Yankees baseball skipper], I'd asked what they had talked about. Both times Tiger said the conversation was about injuries they were each dealing with."

Finally, the nature of this sporting weekend got me thinking about David Feherty, who insists these days on addressing me as "you ol' bog-trotter."

Which caused me to relate to him a rugby experience I had at Murrayfield more than 40 years ago, when Mike Gibson, at his superlative best, was giving the poor Scots terrible grief. Eventually, a distracted local could stand it no longer. "Away home wi' ya Gibson, ya papish bog-trotter," he screamed, clearly unaware that one would be unlikely to find the player's first names of Cameron Michael Henderson on a birth certificate on the Falls Road.

Feherty loved it.

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