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Going with Grace
The principal sadness of senescence is not the loss of length, the power of recovery or even the increasing uncertainty of a putting line.

It isn't the creaking joints, the irresponsive muscles or the leaden legs over the last four holes. It isn't even the concern about the handicap creeping into double figures, the reading glasses needed to add up the score card or the inability to put a name to a face. It is the realisation that some of one's heroes have feet of clay.

It is hard to convey how depressing this discovery can be. To the young, heroes seem invincible. One relishes their larger-than-life game, their apparent magnificence in every department of it and their capacity to take the good with the bad, overcoming every adversity with ease and indifference to fortune.

My perception of the golfing hero probably stems from having been brought up on the legend of Bobby Jones. 'There was never one better and we will never see his like again' was the mantra of my youth. It didn't help that I witnessed him being awarded the freedom of St Andrews in the late '50s and stood beside him as, from his wheelchair he watched the giants of the day play-off in the inaugural matches of the Eisenhower Trophy.

Jones played the hero to perfection and it came as no surprise when Hollywood came to town this year to produce its version of his heroic saga.

Hollywood did the same for Ben Hogan in 'Follow the Sun', capturing in the process the generally held sentiment for one of the game's greatest exponents. For those of us of an age to have witnessed him in action at Carnoustie, he will endure as a lifelong hero, for Hogan overcame the adversity of a horrendous car crash to triumph and glory. This is truly the stuff of legend.

But what makes the legends of Jones and Hogan everlasting is that when the time came for them to go they went with good grace. There was no kicking and screaming. For Jones, golf was merely a game that he enjoyed playing to perfection while maintaining a real life. He simply quit competitive play and got on with things. For Hogan, playing and winning was everything and, when the time came, he confronted the reality of his game and simply retired from competition. Quitting while you are ahead, or rather having the self-awareness of knowing when the time has come, is the real test of character and it is that which merits enduring respect.

Everyone has to live with success and failure but it must be acknowledged that living with failure after enjoying the accolades of success at the very top of the game must be very difficult. Only those with hearts of stone could have failed to empathise with Scottish hopeful Gordon Sherry as his early promise spluttered. Ian Baker-Finch's success was as short-lived as any but he went without the slightest whimper of self-pity. It is heart-warming that he has found a new career as a TV pundit. It is also reassuring, for he is one of the few in that capacity who has actually been there and done it.

Byron Nelson and Jack Nicklaus, still the greatest, retain their place in the firmament of stars. Arnold Palmer and Peter Thomson, ambassadors supreme of the game, also retains their heroic status.

Gary Player is dented with his personal details of fitness narcissism and pompous religiosity and we know more about Faldo than is absolutely necessary. Norman has more or less departed with the style that characterised his play and that is acceptable.

Sandy Lyle plays on happily without finding fault with anyone other than himself and is every inch the hero in that respect. David Duval, at the tender age of 34, is in the process of making an assessment of himself and his game after a horrendous year that has seen him slip to 211th place on the US Tour and has announced that he is ready to quit if he cannot compete.

Both merit respect for their realism and preparedness to accept that golf was never meant to be kind, far less sympathetic and understanding of any weakness.

Ballesteros' ongoing participation is saddening and made all the more so by his pugnacity. One fears that Montgomerie will go down the same route, which is even more depressing for he will not be remembered as a Major winner, even though he has been the most consistent player ever on the European Tour. He merits more than the trivia of ongoing insights into his private difficulties on and off the course. His achievements are of heroic status and, at 40, he should be able to recognise that golf is today a young man's game and depart it with good grace.

Forty is not old but it is clearly not young either in the modern game. Jack Nicklaus won a Major in his 40s but he is in an altogether different galaxy. Tiger Woods circulates in the same stratosphere and it will be interesting to see how he copes with the reality of life if he fails to remain the brightest star up there.

Heroes come and heroes go but the great game remains bloody exciting.

©    17 - NOVEMBER 2003

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