Sport Golf

Tuesday 19 November 2019

Tommy Conlon: It may be outmoded but it seems behind every great man is a great woman


Sergio Garcia with his fiancee Angela Akins Photo: AP Photo/Craig Ruttle
Sergio Garcia with his fiancee Angela Akins Photo: AP Photo/Craig Ruttle

Tommy Conlon

They strode off the 18th green together at Augusta National last Sunday evening to rapturous applause, Sergio Garcia and his fiancée Angela Akins.

There was a lot of love in the air for a player who had finally broken his Major duck after 73 previous attempts over 18 seasons. A teenage prodigy, a golfer with spectacular natural talent, he was supposed to be the player who would build a sustained rivalry with Tiger Woods through the 2000s and beyond.

"Instead of establishing himself as Tiger's defining rival," wrote Ian O'Connor on last week, "Sergio established himself as a spoiled, immature brat."

So, what had changed by last weekend? "That girl who has her arm around him at the moment could be the difference," speculated David Livingstone on Sky Sports.

"I think you're right," agreed Paul McGinley in the studio. "That girl there has got a bit of feistiness about her, a bit of heart." Padraig Harrington was sitting alongside McGinley: "I will agree, (she) has been a big difference. I saw it at the Ryder Cup. You can see even there, she didn't come running on the green, she waited and let him enjoy it there. She is a big driving force behind him."

So there you have it. Angela - "that girl" - basically made a man of him.

We'll have to take their word for it even if, in May 2014, Harrington professed himself something of an amateur when it came to affairs of the heart. This was on the occasion of Rory McIlroy's split from his then fiancée Caroline Wozniacki. As we will recall, the invitations had gone out for their wedding when McIlroy was apparently hit by a bad dose of bachelor panic.

"Who am I (to comment)?" pleaded Harrington at the time. "I'm not a marriage counsellor. I'm no expert on this sort of stuff, but it's part of human life."

But in golf, "this sort of stuff" tends to intrude into the conversation more than in other sports. Obviously Tiger himself provoked some healthy debate on the nature of relationships, specifically in his case on the hazards of having multiple girlfriends while being married at the same time. They say it ruined his golf too, while destroying his marriage. Many aficionados of the game are still undecided as to which was worse.

It's an intimate community, the pro golf circuit. They spend a lot of time with each other. They get to know each other as people as well as rivals. The golf journos on the circuit also get to share in the tittle-tattle.

They say that Dustin Johnson, for example, is a changed man since he had a baby with Paulina Gretzky, daughter of ice hockey legend Wayne. They are expecting a second; he has won a Major and become world number one since their first was born.

He has also apparently given up the rock 'n' roll lifestyle which included, allegedly, some injudicious liaisons.

"Not a huge secret," tweeted Fox Sports golf correspondent Robert Lusetich in August 2014, "that #Dustin Johnson had affairs with 2 wives of PGA Tour players. One broke up the marriage."

One would expect this kind of thing in the more vulgar milieus of, say, American football or British soccer. But seemingly not even golf's cloistered groves are exempt from these kind of relationship sand traps.

As with many professional sportsmen, some golfers tend to lose a few wives along the way. We are reminded of the time Hal Sutton was captain of the USA Ryder Cup team in 2004. He paired Woods and Phil Mickelson together, two men who simply did not get along as people. It was a disastrous mismatch. One American sportswriter at the time suggested it was a pairing that could only have been assembled by a man - Sutton - who was then on his fourth wife.

All in all, then, it was nice to see the wholesome union between Sergio and Angela acknowledged last Sunday. Even if, in so doing, the pundits reinforced the perhaps outmoded nostrum that behind every great man is a great woman.

McGinley, however, was sensitive enough to placate the more traditional male viewer by emphasising that the success belonged almost entirely to Garcia. "I think she's just added an extra dimension; you know, it's not like he was miles away, he was about one per cent away from being a Major winner, and it hadn't happened up to now."

But one per cent at this level is miles away - a million miles away. Akins brought to his game, McGinley added, "a little bit of steeliness" that was missing.

There was at least one other woman in the Spaniard's past life who brought a bit of steel too. This was the daughter of the great Australian golfer Greg Norman. Garcia was besotted with Morgan-Leigh Norman. Back in 2009 she dumped him. His game fell apart. It took him a good two years to get over it.

"It was her doing, not mine," he revealed back then, like a little lost boy. But she clearly did him a big favour, even if he didn't appreciate it at the time.

"It hurt," he subsequently said. "It was probably the first time I have been really in love."

But, as Sunday demonstrably proved, it would not be the last. As his granny probably told him back in Spain during those lovelorn years, there's an old sock for every old shoe.

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