Boxing and golf — Contrasting yet similar

2010-08-14 00:00

GOLF and boxing are the two most compelling sports in the repertoire. A lot can be gleaned from the quality of the writing about these activities. Both are considered worthy topics by the sharpest scribes. Muhammed Ali used to attract as many intellectuals as consorts. Arnold Palmer was accompanied by an army of admirers and an array of observers.

It might seem fanciful to put them together because one is polished and the other rough; it’s like comparing a sip of sherry with a night on the tiles, or a sojourn at the Botanic Gardens with a stint at Crowded House. It is true, too, that they attract a different clientele. By and large golfers do not think much about breaking bones, while pugilists are not disposed towards fussing over putts.

Other differences spring to mind. Golf is played with a ball and puts itself at the mercy of luck. A bad bounce can ruin a tolerable stroke. The elements are also a factor. Indeed the weather was an important factor in the recent British Open. Happily our local man won so convincingly that he could buy his tractor with a clear conscience. Contrastingly, fortune has little part to play in boxing, at any rate until the judges start counting their cards.

Moreover, golf pits man against course whereas boxing puts two fighters in a ring and says let the best man prevail. Golf prizes its honesty. A hue and cry ensues whenever a practitioner is suspected of improving the position of his ball. Players report even the slightest and most hidden transgressions. Golfers prefer to surrender a prestigious championship than to have their honour impugned. Elsewhere the competitor who dobs himself in is scorned.

No such charge can be laid at boxing’s door. Often it can seem seedy, even grubby. Fights have been fixed, boxers have taken a dive, threats have been made and so on. Seeing has not always been believing. It is also fractured, with so many different governing bodies, each with their own titles, that it’s often impossible to identify a true champion. Greed, gangsters and bookies hang around the fringes, exploiting the warriors who step into the ring.

And yet there is magnificence in both recreations. In their contrasting ways both attract a rare honesty and sporting courage. It is unusual to hear a golfer or boxer making excuses or blaming a referee. They don’t dive or cheat or scream at adjudicators or otherwise demean themselves. To the contrary, they take the blame when things go wrong, or else congratulate their opponent. It’s hard to remember a referee spoiling a fight, yet it happens all the time in rugby, soccer, hockey and even cricket.

Golf’s greatest virtue, evident once again in the current U.S. PG tournament, is its purity. Off the course the players may well be as flawed as the rest of us, though the modern obsession with private lives is as hypocritical as it is regrettable. On course, they become servants of the game, duty bound to uphold its reputation. Golfers can be trusted. How many sports can say that?

Golf also has many glories — the delicate chips, the irons that climb high and drop unerringly onto a small patch of rolled grass, the drive that soars towards the horizon, the putts that torment or gratify by a centimetre. It is an infuriating game too, because even mugs have their moments. Any fool can play a glorious stroke, perhaps a hole, maybe an entire round. But only the cream can be consistent. And even they never master it. Golf bestows its secrets in a second and then snatches them away.

Boxing is much harsher. It is the most exposing of sports; a violent counterpoint to golf’s sophistication. There is no ball, merely gloves, an intimate arena, a time frame and a referee called upon to produce a fair fight. A boxing ring is surely the most fearful, lonely, raw location in sport. It is a place where manhood is tested, where a fighter enters in superb health and risks leaving battered, even broken.

But there is an honesty between the combatants that is compelling. Many of them come from the back streets. Ernie Shavers, who fought Ali, said that before the fight game he’d have been a hit man. It is a tale, often told, of the boy saved by the sweat of the nearby gym. Sport serves two primary purposes; allowing players to prove themselves and providing a legitimate excuse to spend more time with mates. Boxing and rugby add a third quality by drastically reducing the crime rate among young males.

In both recreations the majesty lies in the sight of a champion soaring or of two great combatants stretching each other in direct and remorseless conflict, their sports binding them together in a curious honesty even as their rivalry sets them apart.

Everyone has his memories. But a rand to a cent says that some of the best involve golf or boxing.

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