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Seve: My Hero

Seve Ballesteros (pic by Peter from Liverpool, UK)

Back in the 70s and 80s, there were two names that used to cause problems for BBC commentator Harry Carpenter — a man famous for swallowing his vowels. One was Martina Navratilova, the other was Spanish golfer Severiano Ballesteros, who died earlier today at the age of 54. Of course we Anglophones needn’t have concerned ourselves with trying to pronounce that tricky Spanish “ll” double consonant. Like Rafa (Nadal), Seve became one of those sports stars who was instantly recognisable by his nickname.

As a teenager, I’m pretty sure I’d never have found much to interest me in the world of golf — until the “swashbuckling Spaniard” came along. The long hot summer of ’76 was all about ABBA, water shortages and Bjorn Borg winning the first of his five Wimbledon singles titles. I didn’t see the young Seve’s joint second-place finish at the Open that year, but I do remember his first Major triumph at Lytham three years later. The wayward nature of some of his tee shots earned him the mocking moniker “Car Park Champion”. Little did golf fans suspect that Tiger Woods would later put car parks in the news for far less salubrious reasons.

Seve’s two wins at the US Masters in 1980 and 1983 were thrilling for European golf fans, who’d had to subsist for years on the fading memories of Tony Jacklin’s triumphs. Ballesteros was the first European to win at Augusta National, and he blazed a trail for Langer, Lyle, Faldo and his compatriot José María Olazábal (a two-time Masters winner). More important, he changed the perception that golf champions had to look — and sound — like the decidedly unglamorous Craig “the Walrus” Stadler, Ray Floyd or “Fuzzy” Zoeller. Cancer may have prematurely aged him, but in his prime Seve was “muy guapo”.

Five Major titles is a meagre haul for a man of Ballesteros’s prodigious talents, but sporting greatness isn’t always about the statistics. Like tennis, golf isn’t thought of primarily as a team sport: most of the time it’s every man for himself. The Ryder Cup competition, was pretty much devoid of competitive interest until Seve’s ferocious appetite for match play helped inspire the European team that captured the trophy three times in the 80s. Even more memorably, he captained the side to victory on home soil in 1997 and was still involved — albeit by phone — when Europe won again at Celtic Manor last autumn. Olazábal will no doubt hope to honour his close friend by retaining the Cup in 2012, but Seve’s absence will be keenly felt.

All sporting idols have their flaws, of course. As Tiger has discovered to his cost, journalists can be very unforgiving if they feel they’ve duped, patronised or just ignored. Looking through my Seve “scrapbook” this morning, I found a reference to his dispute over appearance money in the early 80s. There were also some unfortunate comments the Spaniard made to El Pais on the thorny issue of sexual equality. Apparently, the young Seve believed women were inferior to men “in all sorts of ways”.

That was a long time ago, so I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that the mature Seve wasn’t an unreconstructed male chauvinist. From an interview he did with the BBC last year, I do know that Ballesteros remained remarkably stoic through many gruelling months of cancer treatment. By this time he could no longer demonstrate his finesse around the greens, but his love for the game was undimmed.

Like my other idols from that era — McEnroe, Martina and cricketer Ian Botham — Seve was always a winner with great panache. Jack Nicklaus is rightly revered and Tiger may yet take the record of Major wins, but no European golfer has ever been loved and respected the way Seve was.

I do have my doubts about the influence of Twitter on the news media, but today I’m happy to relay this heartfelt and misspelled tribute posted by Lee Westwood:

“It’s a sad day. Lost an inspiration,genius,roll model, hero and friend. Seve made European golf what it is today. RIP Seve.”

(Article first published as Seve: the Swashbuckling Spaniard on Blogcritics.)


Putt Up or Shut Up

The sun is out, winter clothes are being cast to the four winds and all is right with the world. Well not for the British media hounds who spent most of last week working themselves into a frenzy about the prospect of golfer Rory McIlroy winning the Masters. But in the final round on Sunday McIlroy didn’t just wilt under pressure, he collapsed like a pack of cards, or whichever overworked metaphor you prefer to use. Into the breach stepped South African Charl Schwartzel, who reeled off four consecutive birdies to win his first Major.

Yesterday McIlroy was bravely declaring that he would get over his nightmare final round at the Masters. Of course there’s still plenty of time for the 21-year-old from Holywood — that’s in County Down, not California — to make his mark on the game. It may take considerably longer for our broadcasters and sports reporters to get over their boom and bust attitude towards covering big events. The story’s always the same: a plucky Brit (McIlroy, Murray) is going to ride into town and see off Federer, Woods or some other colossus of the modern era. When it goes wrong, as it did for Murray in the Australian Open, another rash of doom-laden headlines appears.

I thought I’d stumbled into a parallel universe last night when even Channel 4 News was getting in on the act, with an uninformative piece about “choking in sport”. Former table tennis player-turned-author Matthew Syed was wheeled in to provide his cogent assessment of McIlroy’s “horrific and humiliating” experience at Augusta. Now those are words that I’d expect to hear being lobbed in the direction of former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo, whose hubris has brought chaos and suffering to his country.

Call me pedantic, but with Japan’s unfolding nightmare still very much in the news, I don’t really need to be told about a golfing “meltdown” that amounts to nothing more serious than shooting an 80. One British newspaper is today claiming that this was “human drama that transcended golf”. (I think I may need to lie down in a darkened room to absorb the true idiocy of that statement.) Let’s look on the bright side: at least McIlroy kept his feet dry, unlike the ill-starred Jean Van De Velde at Carnoustie in 1999.

In a futile attempt to redress the karmic balance, I really would like to congratulate Schwartzel and Aussies Jason Day and Adam Scott, for making it such an exciting final round on Sunday. Leaving aside McIlroy’s travails, what most neutrals really want from the climactic session of a Major is a clutch of potential new winners and the sight of Tiger Woods mounting an assault on the top of the leaderboard. Sadly, I think I may be in a minority in wishing to see Tiger rehabilitated from his role as The Most Hated Man in Sport. It would appear that the former World Number 1′s main function now is to generate a whole new wave of journalistic Schadenfreude every time he steps onto the course.

Now I’m well aware that Woods hasn’t made good on his promise to improve his relations with the media. McIlroy managed a wan smile on the 18th green on Sunday, after he’d failed to hole a consolation birdie putt: I doubt Tiger would have mustered even a grimace. But I really don’t care whether his tally of mistresses outnumbers the 14 Majors he’s won so far. This isn’t a popularity contest and I don’t really understand why reporters think they have a right to be quite so judgmental and sanctimonious. Did he trample all over his vow of fidelity to the world’s press by getting it on with a waitress in a parking lot?

For The Guardian’s pompous chief sports writer Richard Williams, to be slating Woods yet again today is a disgrace. He’s never going to be loved the way that Nicklaus, Palmer and Ballesteros are: get over it. The story of the 2011 Masters could (and should) be that Tiger is getting back to a semblance of his old self and that he has plenty of new challengers to worry about.

Of course it’s not just Tiger’s empire that is under siege. Later today Chelsea travel to Old Trafford for the second leg of their Champions League quarter-final with Manchester United. The Londoners have a mountain to climb after losing 1-0 at home to United last week. It’s arguably the biggest game of the season so far for both clubs, but all I’m hearing is that Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti will be fired by owner Roman Abramovich if his team don’t win the tie.

As ever, football comes a poor second to fixating on which high-profile manager will be next for the chop. I just wish someone would turn the spotlight on the overgrown adolescents who spend their days in idle speculation about other people’s jobs. It’s a mug’s game.


Three lions, one Tiger, no Becks

David Beckham: hair today, gone tomorrow

Tiger Woods could be heading for golfing oblivion, Fabio Capello is in the doghouse and David Beckham has been cruelly put out to pasture. Yes, it’s just another week in the crazy and cut-throat world of top-class sport. Winners are now big-time losers, reporters act as judge, jury and executioner and the real action is never what is happening on the field.

During the six weeks since Germany thrashed England 4-1 in the World Cup, the recriminations have been long and loud. First there was the disappointing news that Capello, our now discredited coach, would be remaining in his £6 million-a-year post. The FA toyed with the Italian for a few days, before making the announcement on 2 July that dashed the hopes of all blood sports fans in the British media. With Fabio refusing to do the decent thing and resign, most believed it would have been just too expensive for the FA to get rid of him.

Capello’s head was safe — for now — so attention switched to those England players who had the temerity to slip into their designer swimming trunks and jet off on expensive foreign holidays, rather than languish in sackcloth and ashes. Still, this did mean that the rest of us got to enjoy regular updates on Frank Lampard’s romance with TV presenter Christine Bleakley and the progress of Wayne Rooney’s suntan. Where was the shame, the penitence or even the sunscreen?

The vacation couldn’t last for ever: the fates decreed that England would play another friendly before the new Premier League season kicks off this weekend. So Hungary, once aristocrats of the European game in the days of Puskas, came to Wembley for one of those matches that no-one really wants but everyone feels obliged to talk about ad nauseam.

On re-reading my last sentence I realise that “talking” doesn’t adequately cover the build-up to this game. Of course there was debate about who was in the squad (Arsenal’s Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere and the fourth choice Blackburn goalkeeper Frankie Fielding); who was out (Joe Cole, Jermain Defoe and Peter Crouch); and who had hastily “retired” from international soccer (Wes Brown and Paul Robinson). But the big issue was whether Fabio and his flops would be devoured by packs of rabid Ingerlund fans the moment they set foot on Wembley’s hallowed and (we learned) artificially enhanced turf.

Stand-in captain Steven Gerrard, ever the diplomat, lobbed all the right clichés in the direction of the media with phrases like “moving forward”, taking things “on board”, or perhaps even taking it “on the chin”. But clearly everyone — the players, the coach and the press — really wanted lots of booing from the crowd. The headlines more or less demanded a chorus of disapproval that would drown out even the most enthusiastic vuvuzelas.

I foolishly listened to the build-up on BBC radio, which seemed to consist largely of reporters excitedly monitoring the level of booing directed at each England player as the team emerged for a warm-up. The story from the fans themselves was a bit different: those interviewed sounded way too reasonable, optimistic and forgiving to bolster what the BBC clearly hoped would be a gladiatorial atmosphere at Wembley. What was wrong with these supporters — weren’t they just boiling over with frustration?

So I’m afraid I can’t tell you too much about England’s unconvincing 2-1 win over modest opposition, achieved with two excellent second-half goals from Captain Fantastic Gerrard. I don’t want to dwell on the irony of England, who were denied that Frank Lampard equalising goal in Bloemfontein, now conceding a Phil Jagielka own goal to a ball that had actually been cleared off the line. All I heard was a lot of obsessing about disgruntled spectators and needless analysis of Capello’s body language when he failed to show crack a smile at Gerrard’s goals.

The real own goal of the night wasn’t Jagielka’s effort, but Capello’s suggestion that 35-year-old David Beckham was now “a little bit old” to continue his international career. This bombshell came during a brief interview screened at half-time. The damning verdict from pundits was that the Italian was “incoherent”, since his English was, as ever, rather halting. (I wonder how fluent their Italian is.) Now Fabio’s off-the-cuff comment has turned into a full-scale international incident, because he appears not to have informed Becks his England career is over.

Tiger Woods won’t be calling time on his career just yet, but he could certainly do with something or someone taking the heat off him during this week’s US PGA Championship at the quaintly named Whistling Straits course. He has recently embraced that awkward transition from mediocrity to also ran, by finishing on an eye-watering score of 18-over-par at the Bridgestone Invitational. Tiger is a superstar: he knows being merely average is no more appealing than a lifetime of monogamy.

In the week that Manchester United signed Portuguese striker, Tiago Manuel Dias Correia (aka Bébé), I realised that some of the biggest babies in the sport were ensconced in press boxes wailing about Capello. The truth is that the much-maligned Italian’s apparent gaffe over Beckham’s future is a stroke of public relations genius. Now instead of chewing over England’s on-field shortcomings, the press can return to its favourite game of bashing the coach and obsessing over Becks, our new patron saint of lost causes. As a diversionary tactic it is worthy of applause.

(Article first published as Three Lions, One Tiger, No Becks on Blogcritics.)


Jolly greens giant slays the field

It’s a commentator’s nightmare: a name you can’t quite pronounce leading the field at golf’s most venerable championship. South African Louis Oosthuizen — nicknamed Shrek — offered stumbling broadcasters a host of tantalising possibilities, ranging from “Oosthousen” to “Oosterhazen”, for those who can never resist adding that extra syllable.

After the damp squibs that were Wimbledon finals weekend and the World Cup final, this Great Summer of Sport needed an exciting finish almost as much as BP needs an airtight seal or a new CEO. As Oosthuizen, a rank outsider at the start of the tournament, went into the final round at St Andrews with a 4-shot lead over England’s Paul Casey, we hoped for an afternoon of thrills.

The good news — according to the BBC — was that coverage of the 139th Open Championship was available to some lucky viewers in glorious high-definition. But repeated sightings of John Daly’s latest offenses against golfing fashion — trouser designs that were straight out of a bad acid trip — reminded me why I was quite happy to be watching in plain old standard definition. Though he wasn’t a contender, Long John still made a big impact on the final day, striding up the 18th fairway in his eye-popping stars and stripes pants. As his clothing website helpfully puts it: “John Daly is about being comfortable with who you are”.

It’s not clear to me how “comfortable” Tiger Woods is with his new role as the pariah of world golf. The World Number 1 arrived in Scotland with his reputation still under a cloud and his last major win more than 2 years ago. The new game of “bait the Tiger” is one that some members of press pack seem to relish almost as much as Woods used to enjoy his Rat Pack revelries in Vegas. A winner on this course in 2000 and 2005, he must have been relieved when the competition finally got under way and attention switched from marital meltdown to his new putter. But his performance on the greens was lacklustre by his own high standards, with Tiger finishing at 3 under — 13 shots off the winning score. He was never really in contention.

If first-round leader Rory McIlroy had been in one of the final pairings on Sunday afternoon, Oosthuizen might have endured a much more testing afternoon. A duel involving one of golf’s rising stars would surely have injected some tension into what turned out to be a very pedestrian climax to the event. But after shooting a 63, the tournament’s best ever opening round, McIlroy crashed and burned on Friday with what you might describe as a weather-affected 80. Yes, the 40mph gusts of wind were brutal on the second afternoon: I now know what an anemometer is and how to spell it.

With Woods and McIlroy out of the picture and no “charge” from Phil Mickelson, who would halt Oosthuizen’s unlikely run to his first major? Home fans looked forward to a challenge from Shrek’s playing partner Paul Casey, who began the day four shots behind, or from golf’s “nearly man” Lee Westwood. But I was more curious to see what would happen to the smartly attired Henrik Stenson, if he was careless enough to put his ball into the Swilken Burn. Last year the Swede provided some much-needed thrills for female fans, when he stripped to his underwear to play a ball out of a muddy lie during the WGC-CA event.

But any possibility of a dramatic or even mildly intriguing finish disappeared in a welter of mediocre putting and dropped shots from the rest of the field. The commentators kept trying to convince us that there was still time for the South African to screw things up, but a magnificent eagle on the 9th effectively ended that possibility. There never seemed the remotest chance that this steadiest of competitors, who strode the course with a broad smile on his face, was going to lose his nerve. You wondered whether the cosy chats with Casey were part of a cunning plan to dent the killer instinct of his nearest rival. But the truth is that Casey never looked remotely likely to mount a challenge — especially after a triple bogey on the 12th. Oosthuizen finished on 16-under par — 7 shots ahead of Westwood.

A week ago, the family of Nelson Mandela complained that the frail former President was being put under pressure to attend the closing stages of the World Cup. I guess those bully boys from Fifa just won’t take no for an answer. It’s somehow fitting that Mandela’s 92nd birthday should coincide with a resounding South African victory in the Open Championship, following great names like Bobby Locke, Gary Player and Ernie Els. Many happy returns.

(Article first published as Shrek Forever After: Louis Oosthuizen Wins The 139th Open Championship on Blogcritics.)


Spain reigns

Sofa-jumping is an unfairly maligned indoor sport made famous by the loved-up Tom Cruise during an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show in 2005. Now it has a slightly more upmarket rival in the form of “Sofia jumping”, an activity practised by over excited members of the Spanish royal family. On Sunday, Johannesburg’s Soccer City was the venue for Queen Sofia’s not very regal display of joy at seeing Andres Iniesta’s goal finally break the deadlock in Spain’s match with Holland.

You can’t really blame her. It’s been an extraordinary few weeks for Spanish sport, since Rafael Nadal took his fifth French Open title on 6 June and then it followed it up with a second Wimbledon crown. Nadal chose to celebrate with a spontaneous somersault on Centre Court, while Sofia opted to jump onto her seat as Spain’s footballers headed for World Cup glory. At least it shows a genuine enthusiasm for the country’s sporting success. By contrast, Queen Elizabeth’s interest in non-equine sports is probably on a par with Prince Charles’s affection for modern architecture. She’s happy to keep doling out MBEs — even the occasional knighthood — but don’t ask her to party with the Beckhams.

The result may have been welcomed by non-partisans, but the World Cup final will be remembered more for the number of yellow cards handed out by beleaguered referee Howard Webb than for moments of sublime footballing skill. It wasn’t dull: the presence of whining winger Arjen Robben always guarantees plenty of overacting, feigned disbelief and downright petulance. But the widespread condemnation of Dutch “brutality” strikes me as another example of journalistic hyperbole. I didn’t see any broken limbs or open wounds — just a lot of clumsy, ill-disciplined play and lousy finishing.

Nigel de Jong’s superbly choreographed flying kick on Xabi Alonso has, rightly, passed into footballing legend. Much debate has centred on Webb’s reluctance to show him the red card he so richly deserved. But the utter absurdity of football’s laws was best demonstrated in the game’s dying moments, when Iniesta was also booked for the heinous offence of removing his shirt during the goal celebrations. Yes, “blundering Blatter” strikes again, with another nonsensical rule designed to bring the game into disrepute. The man is a total idiot.

The trophy may have been handed out, but a sporting event on the BBC is never really over until you’ve been sucked into one of those closing montages that leaves you feeling shaken, stirred and just a little bit sentimental. Last week’s “The Fairy Story of Wimbledon 2010″ was a bit too whimsical for my tastes, with its talk of “noble princesses” (Venus) and “Scottish warriors” (Andy Murray). Still, at least the average viewer would have understood what the BBC was getting at, before launching into one of those anti-licence fee tirades that keep us all going during these straitened times.

The BBC’s World Cup effort was so spectacularly ill-judged that I still can’t quite believe it was green-lit. Yes, the Corporation chose to present a retrospective done in the mock documentary style of the Oscar-nominated sci-fi satire, District 9. For those who haven’t seen the movie, it’s about some really ugly aliens (known as “prawns”), stalls above Johannesburg forcing them to endure apartheid-like segregation in squalid camps. Their miserable existence is made bearable only by the supply of catfood they obtain from Nigerian hoodlums.

I recommend the film — at least until it descends into generic action shoot-em-up territory during the final half hour. But equating the building of Soccer City — “A Vast Structure Rose Above the Horizon” — with the arrival of an alien spaceship just strikes me as too clever by half. The joke would have been completely lost on those who haven’t seen or heard of Neill Blomkamp’s movie.

So the climax of the Open Golf Championship at St Andrews next weekend has now taken on a whole new dimension. Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson can squabble all they like over the claret jug and the World Number 1 ranking. I just want to know what those whizz-kid editors at the Beeb are lining up for the finale. Is it too much to hope for more Spanish success — Sergio Garcia’s long-awaited first Major and a montage done in the style of Pedro Almodovar?

(Article first published as Johannesburg’s Night To Remember: Spain Reigns In 2010 World Cup Final on Blogcritics.)


Tiger needs a head start

Watching Tiger Woods handing out signed gloves at a recent tournament made me wonder just how far he will have to go to restore his tarnished reputation. Should he start stuffing $100 bills into those gloves in a bid to regain public affection? Maybe not. I think it was throwing large sums of money at some lady “friends” that got the world’s number one golfer into trouble in the first place.

But in sport, as in life, appearance is everything. Just ask David Beckham, a man who has already roadtested more ridiculous hairstyles than the entire English Premier League put together. Imagine the feeding frenzy that would grip the world of wig making should Becks ever go bald.

I think it’s time that Tiger, poster boy for all things Nike, set his sights a bit higher than the “swoosh” — surely one of the most boring logos ever devised. That recent ill-judged ad in which a penitent Tiger gets a dressing down from the disembodied voice of his late father was an embarrassment.

Seriously, who wants to see one of the world’s most celebrated sportsmen being ticked off like a naughty schoolboy who’s been caught smoking behind the bike sheds? It doesn’t say winner to me, and I’m not buying the idea that the golfer’s offences against society are so grave that he needs to market his own line in Nike sackcloth and ashes. Has he killed anyone, defrauded millions of investors or started a war recently?

If he is looking for an image change, Tiger could do worse than ditch the boring black cap and emulate his counterpart at the top of men’s tennis, Rafael Nadal. The Spaniard has enthusiastically embraced the idea that you can be a flamboyant dresser without being a total loser. Notably, Rafa gives the lie to the notion that sporting headgear must be about the ugly practicalities of protecting yourself from the sun, or the possibility of brain damage. Timidity has no place in sport. So the only suitable accoutrement for any star who really wants to be taken seriously is a headband or bandana — the more colourful the better.

Rafa is just the latest in a long line of tennis champions to popularise the headband. In the 70s there was Bjorn Borg, whose cool stripes matched his icy on-court demeanour. Then along came John McEnroe, whose iconic red band should have acted as a warning to underperforming umpires and line judges that the day of reckoning had arrived. At Wimbleon 2007, Roger Federer tried to bring a touch of old-fashioned elegance to the courts of SW19 in his blazer, long trousers and a white bandana with gold “swoosh”. The jury’s still out on that look, Roger.

Next week the US Open gets under way next week at Pebble Beach, California, scene of Tiger’s astonishing 15-shot victory back in 2000. With critics waiting to see him fail this time, he could do worse than take his cue from one of the greatest headbands ever to grace the Monterey peninsula — Jimi Hendrix. On 18 June 1967, rock’s most innovative guitar hero set the festival — and his guitar — on fire with a memorable performance of Wild Thing.

I’m not suggesting that Tiger should torch his putter on the 18th green, but a headband and some Hendrix-style swagger would go a long way to making him look like a winner again.


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