• Alistair Tait

WHY?


After two rounds back from lockdown it feels as if I’ve never played golf before. Like I’ve had an arm transplant: the ones I have no longer work.


Not saying they worked brilliantly before lockdown, but at least they could propel a golf ball forwards. My current appendages only seem to be able to hit the ball sideways. Sometimes a long way sideways.


And as I prepare for my third round after a three month break, I’m thinking: What’s the point?


What was it Albert Einstein said?

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”

I’m not alone after reading John Huggan’s excellent Masters preview. Huggan speaks to former champions about the right time to stop playing in the first men's major of the year.


The 1990 Masters was my first trip to Augusta National. I remember watching 67-year-old Doug Ford. The 1957 champion shot 85 in the second round, and I thought: what’s the point? Why would he put himself through that when he knows how good he was?


As Huggan writes:

“All good things, though, have a natural shelf life. So it is that a less attractive decision-making process represents perhaps the only disappointing aspect of that sumptuous package of Masters goodies: When to stop playing in golf’s so-called “rite of spring?”

Ford’s last Masters came in 2001, his 49th consecutive appearance. He doubled bogeyed the first hole and walked off the golf course. He was 78 and had obviously taken his dad’s advice on choosing golf as a career over baseball. His father told him:

"Why don't you stay with the golf. You'll last forever."

Masters winners have lifelong exemptions, and Ford took that quite literally. The green jackets had a quiet word with the 19-time PGA Tour winner. Ford never made it to 50 Masters. He died in 2018 aged 95, probably still thinking about playing another one.


As John asks:

“When does the fall in performance that is the inevitable consequence of age lead to discreet retirement?
“When is it time to give up the opportunity of a lifetime and get out of the way?
“When does embarrassment supersede excitement?
“What scores are too high, too much of a blow to that well-earned pride?

These are questions former champions Ian Woosnam, Sandy Lyle and Jose Maria Olazabal surely have to ask themselves. All are in the field next week.


Olazabal says:

“The bottom line is the score. As long as I can get round in a decent number I will play.”

But he and the aforementioned champions probably won’t make decent numbers, certainly not the numbers they were capable of in their prime. They’ll be lucky to make the cut. Two-time winner Olazabal hasn’t made one since 2014, when 1988 winner Lyle made his last cut too. Woosnam hasn’t made the weekend since 2004, which is why the 1991 champion has previously said he wouldn’t play any more. Yet, like a junkie needing a fix, he keeps driving up Magnolia Lane every April with his sticks in the boot of his rental car.


I have many friends and acquaintances who played golf at a high level who no longer play or, if they do, only rarely. All have the same answer when I ask them why: they know how good they were, and it pains them that they can no longer play to that level.


That applies to Messrs Woosnam, Lyle and Olazabal? What drives them on? What is it about this game that once great players continue when they are shadows of their former selves?


Even golf’s Dorian Gray figure Bernhard Langer surely knows he has no chance of winning, not on a course over 500 yards longer than it was when he won in 1985 and 1993. Not when he’s hitting 3-woods and hybrids to greens most of the field are reaching with 8 and 9 irons.


And so to us. Why do we keep playing when we know we have no chance of playing at our best? If we got beaten up as badly in other endeavours as we do in golf, we’d soon say sod this for a game of soldiers! Yet we continue to bang our heads against brick fairways, “we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” as F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote in the last line of The Great Gatsby.


What does golf have over other sports that compels us to keep looking for the secret when there isn’t one?


WHY?


#JustSaying: “I have to think about where I am going to miss … It doesn’t matter how aggressive I was when I was at my peak, these days I am standing over shots knowing I have virtually no chance to finish close to the hole.” Jose Maria Olazabal on how he now plays Augusta National

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