End of the heady years

2014-04-19 00:00

THE bright promise of a few years ago has faded into a dull acceptance that the glory days of the determined Gary Player and the early achievements of the gifted Ernie Els are not about to be repeated by the current generation of South African golfers, whose ambitions appear to have been satisfied by an abundance of low-hanging fruit.

For a few brief years, hope was all around. Trevor Immelman concluded a two-year spell of brilliant golf by dominating the 2008 Masters and winning quite comfortably despite making a water-filled hash of the 16th hole. He had played with such style and composure that it was almost inconceivable that for the next six years he has not come close to contending in another major tournament.

Certainly, Immelman has had more than his fair share of injuries and illnesses during this lengthy drought, but he no longer looks likely to escape the monniker of being a “one major wonder”. Curiously, his decision to leave South Africa to live in the USA coincided with a lapse in form that saw him lose his playing card for the PGA tour. Whereas he once played all over the world, his schedule is mainly restricted to the States. His home country no longer appears on his schedule.

Two years after Immelman’s victory at Augusta National, a very young Louis Oosthuizen startled the golfing world with a massive victory in the 2010 Open championship on the Old Course at St Andrews. He began that tournament almost unknown outside South Africa and finished it with a reputation, which he still owns, as a golfer with one of the best half dozen swings in the world.

In 2012, he came desperately close to winning the Masters, robbed only by a freakish shot by the talented Bubba Watson, who has just slipped into his second green jacket. So close did Oosthuizen come to winning then that it seemed it would only be a matter of time before he contended again at the Masters. There are still many years left for Louis, but it was disappointing that he should fall away so badly this year after failing to make the cut in the two years after his near miss.

In the year after Oosthuizen’s Open win, Charl Schwartzel came out of the pack to snatch a stunning victory in the 2011 Masters with birdies on the last four holes. He is another South African with a flawless swing that seemed likely to lead him to many occasions when he would get himself into contention in major championships. Like Oosthuizen, time is still on his side. Both of them are in the prime of their careers, but their recent performances have not been such as to convince their supporters that another Gary Player-type career is in its embryo stages.

In 2012, Branden Grace emerged to win four times on the European tour and give rise to hopes, as yet unfulfilled, that he would soon be a major contender. Tim Clark, rattled by the decision to ban the anchoring of putters against the body and beset by injuries, has lost the form and confidence that enabled him to win the Players Championship, the so-called fifth major.

Meanwhile, Ernie Els was soldiering along trying to convince himself and his dwindling army of fans that his putting was not a terminal problem when all of a sudden he popped up and won the Open in 2012. For a brief moment, South Africa’s golf cup was filled to overflowing. The glory days were back! And then quickly gone. The younger generation have gone into a well-padded hibernation. It is remarkable that 20 years after his first U.S. Open win, Ernie is the last South African to win a major and thought of as the man most likely to win another.

It is strange that, in the land of Bobby Locke and Gary Player, all of our best golfers are troubled by putting problems, which may be the key reason why they have run into a period of little success since the end of the heady years. It is a fact of modern golf that the best putter in any week is most likely to win a tournament. The corrollary is that if one takes away excellence with the putter, even the best golfers are almost certainly deprived of any chance of winning. These days there are so many wonderful golfers in the major fields that nearly all of them can win when on song with the putter.

In the last 20-odd major tournaments, only Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson have been multiple winners. This indicates how difficult it is to win even if an on-form golfer is ranked in the top five in the world. The number one golfer in the world, Tiger Woods, has not won a major for close on six years. The thought has probably crossed his mind that he may well not win another one despite his life’s mission to beat the record held by Jack Nicklaus.

Has it been good for golf that the few have been replaced by the many? The Masters management committee, their sponsors and broadcaster are reportedly concerned that the television viewership figures were so markedly down this year following the withdrawal of Tiger Woods.

There is little doubt that each sport needs a few really big names at the top of its respective tree. It is only consistent success that produces the stars that stimulate widespread interest. Golf’s problem may be that the enormous wealth and fame available to the top 50 golfers in the world has had a couple of consequences that may not be in its best short-term interests.

Firstly, there is no doubt that the promise of great wealth has attracted the attention of youngsters and their parents all over the world. After all, what could be more enticing than the prospect of your very own teenager producing Jordan Spieth-like performances that can catapult an entire family into a hithertoe unlikely lifestyle. The consequence of this can be seen in the thousands of golf clubs that play host to a galaxy of kids who putt like god and hit their drives into the heavens.

In Player’s days at KES, children were barely tolerated at most golf courses. Golf held dubious attractions as a career let alone as a path to riches. That is not the case today. The result is that every year the competition at the top of golf grows ever more intense as the latest cum laude graduates from ithe ts learner ranks hit the professional circuits. One can argue that it is now much more difficult for a golfer to become a Player or a Nicklaus or a Palmer, the big three who won 34 majors but, in thinner fields, were able to do so when not playing at their best. We may be entering an era of no-name winners who are great players, but lack the star quality to drive interest in the game.

Golf may have to deal with the fall-out from its own success.

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