The old, and now it would appear, not so old, have always been quick to point out that things were much better in their day. Players were of a higher calibre, courses were tougher, manners were better and golf was played on an altogether different plane.
It is the acceptable provenance of the old to complain. Protestation that the current crop of players is not comparable with those that went before is perfectly understandable for it is easy to look back and see only a golden glow. Objectivity is not easy and it is not a common characteristic in golf. Indeed, it would appear to disappear altogether in golfers beyond a certain age.
Seve Ballesteros, at the relatively early age of 44 appears to have tumbled into the elderly gents moaning abyss and it does not become him. Discerning that one's heroes have feet of clay is one thing but realising that genius and magnanimity appear to be mutually exclusive is devastating.
In a recent interview with the Sunday Telegraph, Seve revealed all of the things that made him great with a club in his hand. He also revealed the outspoken candour that has made him the champion of common sense in the world of pro golf where irrational generally prevails.
I have long relished Seves onslaughts for they bring a special pleasure to the senses not unlike drinking a good claret from a plastic cup. One recalls the cool and calmness of his sparkling play with its underlying threatening bite. One therefore expects him to be coolly objective in his observations unlike the lesser lights with their flatulent expostulations. Thus, when he dismisses Tiger Woods as being a laboratory player and light years away from me as an artist,' it hurts.
There is no denying that Seve was a great artist with a club and ball. Few in the history of the game can compare with the delicacy of his touch at its best. His creativity and inventiveness were breathtaking, as was his courage in taking on shots that might have crumpled a lesser man. Seve, in his day, was simply the best.
But so too was Jack Nicklaus in his day and Palmer in his, Snead in his and before him Hogan, and so on. Doubtless each considered himself to be better than those that had gone before and that the competition that they had to contend with was tougher than anything previously seen. All entirely understandable and all consistent with human nature. It is in the making of the case that the lack of magnanimity creeps in.
Although statistics do not go sufficiently far back to make comparisons possible, it is doubtless the case that Woods consistently drives the ball further than any great champion we have seen. Certainly he has the cutting edge of club and ball technology available to him, but so too has had every other top player of his day. Manufacturers will do whatever they can to show their logo and will provide whatever is necessary to give their man the edge over everyone else.
Woods in his time differs in that he consistently drives the ball straighter and what is more he can do it with every club in the bag. He has one other advantage that Nicklaus in his day equally exploited and that is intelligence.
Seve compares Woods Open win at St Andrews with Faldos 10 years earlier, pointing out that Woods won under benign conditions while Faldo had to contend with three days of wind off the sea. The fact that Woods was only one shot better than Faldo is significant to Seve, but to my mind it is doubtful if any major has ever been won with as much thought and application as was Woods win in 2000.
He never once entered a bunker and never risked the play for the pin unless he found himself in the optimum position to do so. He put together four brilliant rounds with the intent to win and never once placed himself at risk of losing. The margins of his victories at both Opens should never be forgotten.
It is exceptionally ungenerous to say that Woods is playing his golf in an empty time, a time when there is an abundance of good golfers but with a dearth of great ones. Surely Els and Duval compare with any that have gone before and the statistics of competition cuts and the tightness of leaderboards attest to the proposition that the standard of golf played today is higher than it has ever been.
I had placed Seve up there beside Jack Nicklaus. The pedestal they shared was not erected on the basis of their major championship wins but simply on the basis of what they brought to the game. It is a pity that Seve has revealed a side of himself that is inconsistent with ones preconception of him; it is an even greater tragedy that he has slipped into the old moaner category at such the tender age of 44. Jack Nicklaus was, after all, two years older when he trounced Seve at Augusta in 1986. But Jack was magnanimous in victory when he said that Seve was a truly great champion who could yet be the greatest of all time.
It may follow from this that magnanimity is a prerequisite for real greatness in the game and if this is the case Seve should cut while he is ahead and put his clubs in the attic now.
|| 12 - MARCH 2002