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Stories of winners and losers
The difference between success and failure represents a huge gulf, yet which of the two it is to be can turn dramatically on so many imponderables

Although to some people sport does not come under the heading of ‘business’, I feel it should. In my opinion, sport is the hardest, cruellest profession of all. Of course, the more successful, the higher the rewards, but the pain of daily analysis can be very difficult to live with.

There is no other profession that is regularly analysed to the nth degree three or four times a week, for as many as 40 weeks in the year. Doctors, lawyers and accountants carry on their noble professions, sometimes having a good week, sometimes suffering a slight hiccup or on other occasions perhaps a major faux pas, but it really does have to be a major faux pas before it hits the headlines on a grand scale.

I was reminded of this while watching Wimbledon in the summer. Early on in the proceedings, Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were both on the brink of losing, but they fought back and triumphed, although ultimately it was not to be Federer's year. Nadal went on to win the championship while, the pundits told me, he was not, particularly in the final, at the top of his game. Of course, there are special moments in every sport - players and teams on the verge of elimination, then suddenly a complete turnaround, a slight mistake by the opposition, or a moment of genius, and the tide turns. On the other hand, there are many who have held victory in the palm of their hand but somehow they stumble and the chance has gone, sometimes never to return.

Rafael Nadal
At Wimbledon this past summer, Rafael Nadal emerged from the tournament victorious, but it could have been very different since he was close to being eliminated in the earlier rounds

There are some things you have no control over – why, for example, did Devon Loch suddenly spreadeagle himself when but a few yards from the winning post at the Grand National? I am sure you all have memories of many such things that have happened, not only in sport but in life. The day granny forgot to post her football coupon, perhaps. Oh, if only she had, she'd have won £75,000, a fortune in those far-off days!

In the world of golf, there have been a couple of dramatic collapses over the last few months, not least Dustin Johnston while leading in the final round of the US Open at Pebble Beach. (Let’s leave the poor chap alone for now re the USPGA Championship!) There, Johnson had a burn-out as early as the 2nd hole on the final day. With only a mid-iron to the green, a slight push found a horrid place on the edge of a bunker and he ended up taking umpteen and the rot had set in. It's not a pretty sight seeing competitors disintegrate before your very eyes. Nerves creeping in, the brain going to jelly, the co-ordination disappearing, all in very public view. Some say learning curve. The problem is, some never learn.

These thoughts were going through my head while I and millions of others were watching the football World Cup. I never thought in my heart of hearts that England would win. There were too many things that seemed to be going wrong – lots of tittle-tattle, a whole mishmash of bits and pieces. But it was the lacklustre performance, almost bordering on the shameful, that was hard to take. How come these players, who perform so brilliantly at home, showed such ineptitude?

Perhaps they were out of their comfort zone. In my profession, I came across many golfers who were, on their home ground, damn near unbeatable. I remember competing in Spain, Italy and France against unknown players who would in many cases give the visiting ‘stars’ a good hiding. But, rather like ski instructors, some wines and Neil Coles, they didn't travel well.

A classic case was Arthur Lees, for so many years the professional at Sunningdale. Arthur was a one-off who loved to play for money. A number of members had plenty of that and were very ready to try to give Arthur a spanking. He would make outrageous wagers but invariably came out on top.

If he was around today, I'm sure he would have the audacity to challenge the best ball of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson round the Old Course at Sunningdale if they gave him a 2-up start. I remember Arthur telling me that a visitor once arrived, stating that his handicap was eight and he was prepared to play for a good bit of cash if a deal could be struck. Arthur gave him ten shots. After the match, Arthur, coming off the 18th green, was wiping his brow with a handkerchief and saying “Ee, that was a close shave. D'you know, yon boogger went round in 72 gross. I only did him on t'last!” No one could hole a putt, or get dead out of a bunker, or sow a seed of doubt in an opponent’s mind better than Arthur when playing round the courses at Sunningdale.

The great tennis star, Billie Jean King, best summed up the bigger picture for me when she was asked what it was that great champions had. She replied: “They are frightened of losing. So many others are frightened of winning.” Exactly.

September 2010

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine


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