O’Sullivan’s conflicted relationship with snooker adds gravitas to the game

Ronnie O’Sullivan’s latest instalment of his hate-love affair with snooker has been the subject of much debate within the game, compounded as it was by his inability to emotionally reset himself following his sabbatical from the table and a crowning as world champion that gave the fullest possible exposure to his discordant feelings towards his own sport. However, those concerned with the image of snooker need not fear; O’Sullivan’s frank and fascinating portrait of a man struggling to negotiate the vicissitudes of his own temperament is a resounding testament to the drama and poetry of sport.

Instead of reading with dismay negative connotations into his talk of “snooker not [being] for [him]” or how he can’t “keep putting [himself] through being unhappy”, the game’s well-wishers should treat these as articulations of the timeless, exquisitely cathartic negotiation between the blessing of a sportsman’s talent and the burden of his temperament. When O’ Sullivan, following a flat opening four frames, missed a simple red in his 2008 semi-final with Stephen Hendry and walked off, the initial reaction on his face to that error spoke volumes to the expectations human beings put on their talent, and the subsequent pressure that can swallow them whole if they allow the dam to break. O’Sullivan raised himself from the table ashen-faced, shook his head in an entirely instinctual expression of mingled frustration and self-loathing, and called it quits; his dam had broken, and so was he. Off he walked, leaving a nonplussed and aghast Hendry to also shake his head, collect his cues and walk off an unsatisfied winner.

Yet the regular sports viewers among us would have recognised that fury and frustration O’ Sullivan felt at his sport at that moment as a necessary component of the fierce desire of all artists to produce something of the sort of soaring quality that returns an intangible, almost spiritual satisfaction to its owner ; without this frustration at the immense difficulty involved in producing such virtuoso performances at one’s beck and call, the satisfaction accrued on the rare occasions on which it all falls sweetly into place would also be non-existent. The drama of sport owes much to these raw depictions of the psychological struggles that consume most human beings, whether it lies in O’Sullivan’s inability to cope with the frustration of inevitable dips in his flawless snooker exhibitions, or Luis Suarez’s primal, subconscious urge to bite Branislav Ivanovic following a perceived injustice, or Sergio Garcia’s collapse on the 17th hole of the Players’ Championship at Sawgrass under the knowledge that he could best Tiger Woods in a high-profile battle and surmount the mental hurdles that have haunted him throughout his career, or Richard Gasquet’s tendency to only unfurl his full repertoire of shot-making artistry when he has built a lead and the pressure has subsided.

Dr Steve Peters, the psychologist charged with exorcising Luis Suarez’s demons, has described how human beings struggle to overcome the negative emotions weighing them down as they are often unable to perceive the root causes of those emotions, yet the transparent depiction of this inner struggle through sporting contests is vital and compelling theatre. There are lessons to be learned in Adam Scott’s recovery from a traumatic abdication of his grasp on the British Open Claret Jug at the death, to win the Masters in a nerve-wracking play-off this year, or even the fact that O’Sullivan’s frustration stems from engagement with the highest forms of creative endeavour through the medium of snooker. Sport is a distilled microcosm of the struggles of human life, in which the goals to be attained are clearer and more morally laudable, making the efforts of the protagonists attempting to accomplish them more open to evaluation and reliable as sources of inspiration. Which politician’s success or failure, built on the back of wider forces than himself, can ever be regarded as sincerely or purely as that of the sportsman struggling to overcome his own person to achieve something he knows to be of intangible, immeasurable wealth?

In this respect, O’Sullivan has rendered a great service to snooker by placing it in that hallowed club of sports which by their nature demand the greatest engagement of human talent and spirit from their protagonists, and which carry stories of miraculous successes and heart-wrenchingly heroic failures that will continue to enthrall for generations to come.

Woods’s startling win over the rest at Doral points to a rebirth

Tiger Woods issued a significant statement of intent with his 19-under par, two shot victory at the World Golf Championship in Doral last week, and there was enough about this one to suggest it could prove the start of something greater than the false dawns he has encountered since his return to the game in 2010.

Of all the formidable statistics accompanying his most dominant win since his slide from greatness began (100 putts, beating his personal best for fewest putts in a PGA tournament, or the 27 birdies that were one shy of his most ever in one week, to name but a few), the most startling was this: that for the bulk of the 36 holes played over the weekend, Woods led a star-studded field filled with competitors who have supposedly narrowed the gap to him by either three or four shots. Indeed, were it not for a conservative, pragmatic approach that resulted in a bogey on his final hole, he would have ended the tournament three shots ahead of next best-placed Steve Stricker. Add that to the fact that the Blue Monster Course played nice and true over the four days, offering the finest shot-makers in golf every opportunity to attack the pins, go for birdies and locate their best golf, and the size of Woods’s gap to the rest becomes even more frightening.

During last year’s Wimbledon final Roger Federer struggled with the windy conditions that disrupted his rhythm and timing in the early part of the match, but once the roof had been closed due to rain and external factors had been blotted out, the match became a much purer test of shot-making where each competitor’s innate skill with racket and ball made all the difference. It was then, in those equalising conditions that took away the influence of the elements on the ball’s flight and negated much of the effect the surface had on the ball’s speed, that the gap between Federer and Andy Murray (representing the rest of tennis) in creative shot-making became clear. He destroyed Murray over the remainder of that match in as artistic and breath-taking a way as is possible to imagine, and went on to add another Wimbledon title to his collection.

In many ways the Blue Monster Course was golf’s equivalent of the closed Wimbledon Centre Court that day, offering as fair a test of true ability as possible on a layout un-tampered by overweening weather or the recent trend to stifle golfers by leaving hyperbolically deep rough and deepening and widening bunkers to cavernous levels. It instead sought to recognise the greatest talents in the game by offering a layout that balanced difficulty against the need to allow them room to realise their stunning ability to sink monster putts and put the ball to within an inch of the hole from their approach shots. This encouraged the cream to rise to the top and slug it out with each other, and all the names regarded as the purest talents in golf duly appeared on the leaderboard: Sergio Garcia, Phil Mickelson and Adam Scott finished at 14- under par while McIlroy made a recovery once his confidence had stabilised to finish 10- under par.

In light of these conditions, Woods’s statistical domination of the field entails an altogether more awe-inspiring message: that, on a course as likely as any to offer a true and reliable comparison of where the best golfers in the world stand relative to each other in terms of ability and form, he is three shots better than anyone else. In a game that has supposedly risen in quality since his fall from the top, this was a stunning re-affirmation of the limitless extent of his abilities and consummation of mental and technical excellence into perhaps the most fearsome competitor of our times. Whether he can sustain this run of form throughout the season or, more importantly, replicate it in the Major tournaments in which he has fallen short in recent years, must still be regarded as an unknown. However, the overwhelmingly convincing nature of this victory will have done nothing to dampen the rising belief that he is re-discovering his sporting essence once more, and emerging stronger and greater from his Phoenix-like reconstruction with Sean Foley – as well as lending an ominous degree of weight to his words that he “doesn’t want it to be as good as it was before – I want it to be better.”

Ryder Cup brilliance lifts the spirit and will never be forgotten

What the USA and Europe gave us in this year’s Ryder Cup captured everything that sport is meant to be, and then some. There was not a single player from either team whose body language suggested anything other than the deepest commitment to performing for their country and for an ideal that was bigger than themselves, and there were an astonishing number who used this belief to elevate their games to scarcely believable heights. Twice Phil Mickelson went ahead against Justin Rose in the closing stages of their crucial match with a fabulous putt and chip respectively, and twice Rose hit back by holing putts of his own that exploded the weight of probability and ensured their duel will be enshrined in golfing history. Mickelson’s applause of the first of his opponent’s two putts that kept him alive in the match was given with a sort of ecstatic relish that seemed to recognise that the manner in which each was pushing the other to ever greater heights amidst the cauldron of noise touched on the pure essence of their sporting lives in a way that could not be enjoyed in more lopsided contests, or those driven by prize money. There were delicious moments like this to savour all throughout the three days, including the manner in which Bubba Watson stirred up the crowd to fever pitch on the first tee of his fourballs match and then smacked his ball off the tee right in the middle of the roaring. These were golfers who hit previously untapped reserves of ability and mental strength in service to something greater than themselves, and the infectiousness of the occasion even touched Tiger Woods. Although he only garnered half a point, no-one should doubt the way the 14-time major champion was striving with every ounce of strength he had to find form and join the party. That he didn’t is beside the point, as it was his dedicated body language and complete commitment to a cause other than himself for once that so charmed.

Meanwhile the shots of magic raining down from golfers who became titans for seven hours on Sunday just kept on coming. Nicolas Colsaerts put ball after ball next to the pin from his approach shots. Cut to Jason Dufner holing an eagle putt and letting his sanguine façade slip to bust out a ferocious double fist pump. Jim Furyk’s passion was no less affecting for the fact that it came out most in his losing moments. First he too surprised everyone with an uncharacteristic show of euphoria that quickly turned to disbelief as a sweetly struck putt to close out his match against Sergio Garcia lipped out at the last second. His straining every sinew to hole his putts thereafter was palpable through the screen, as was his despair when an equally valiant effort went past on the last to lose a match he had come so close to winning and concede the initiative to Europe. To see him crouch down in dismay was to feel an intense sympathy that confirmed we were in the presence of a great sporting contest – the kind that holds the unique power to elicit every raw emotion known to man at the same time thanks to the lionhearted commitment of its contestants.

It was left to Jose Maria Olazabal to sum up the transcendent halo cast over this entire tournament by the willing efforts of its twenty-four participants most poignantly. Every ounce of effort they gave in embellishing the game recalled the spirit of Seve Ballesteros, and as he reflected on how he had honoured his dear friend’s memory by winning and through the greatness of his men’s play, Olazabal broke down repeatedly. There may not have been any prize money on offer this week, but the pureness of the Ryder Cup captures everything that is vital about the human spirit, and about golf’s recently passed great champion in Ballesteros. Olazabal, an intense and emotional man, confirmed as much when he spoke these words straight from his heart at the closing ceremony: “All men die, but not all men live. And you [the European team] made me feel alive again this week.” Bravo Europe, bravo Team USA and bravo golf for giving us something to inspire countless generations to come.

Armstrong’s concession lurches sports fans into uncertain new world where nothing is as it seems

In effectively holding up the white flag of surrender by allowing the US Anti-doping Agency (USADA) to strip him of his seven Tour de France titles and ban him for life, Lance Armstrong has burdened all of professional sport with the obligation to confront some ugly truths.

The cold clear light shone on Armstrong’s world by the testimony of former teammates complicit in his crimes still has the power to shock in a sport whose past scandals might have inured us to such feelings by now. In the light of USADA’s compiled evidence (soon to be released to the public), Tyler Hamilton’s interview to CBS about his and Armstrong’s partaking in the wider culture of doping in cycling (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iQZnBpoC2jc) can now be taken at face value. His step-by-step deconstruction of the myth Armstrong and cycling spun, through detailing EPO packages sent back and forth between US Postal team members, furtive trips to Spain on private jets to reap the illegal benefits of blood transfusions and the apparent certainty with which Armstrong knew any positive tests would be covered up, reveals the incestuous extent to which cyclists and cycling’s governing body alike stitched doping into the fabric of the sport to further interests that were to do with anything but.

As big the man, and as hard the fall that awaits him, some of the evidence that the investigation surrounding him has thrown up impels us, USADA and the Court of Arbitration for Sport to look beyond the story of one man’s downfall, and continue probing deeper in a bid to strike the dark heart of the problem. There is enough to suggest that the International Cycling Union (UCI) has been in on Armstrong’s game from at least as far back as 1999, and that they colluded with him to cover up positive tests and further a legend that brought financial rewards to all who were party to its construction. Armstrong continued to fall back on his last, specious bastion of defence yesterday in Austin by insisting that “the only physical evidence here is the hundreds of controls [tests] I have passed with flying colours” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/lance-armstrong-issues-statement-over-usada-doping-charges/2012/08/23/839262ae-ed8f-11e1-866f-60a00f604425_story.html). Yet if such a misleadingly clean record was achieved with the complicity of his governing body, what hope remains for sports fans who would have wished to dismiss plausible conspiracy theories out of hand surrounding certain events in their chosen sports? If the UCI realised that by doing away with honesty and scripting a Hollywood-esque tale of glorious victory from the jaws of defeat in its place that fulfilled most of the storylines people seek from sport and guaranteed a windfall of cash, then why should we believe that FIFA acted from any different motive in awarding the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar respectively? Perhaps more hard for people to believe, but no less worthy of investigation in the mistrustful atmosphere of the post-Armstrong world, is the conspiracy theory trotted about by some that Manchester City’s injury-time winner to secure the Premier League last season was not entirely organic. Another avenue for investigation lies in Spain, venue for the infamous ‘Operacion Puerto’, and a country where rumours that its successful national footballing team received “special” treatment from doctors can no longer be laughed away.

It is now the burden of responsibility of all sports fans, intrepid media personnel and those institutions that still haven’t lost sight of their decency and obligations to investigate any cloud of suspicion around their sport, rather than taking the easy route out of turning a blind eye and continuing business as usual. Otherwise, they leave themselves open to the kind of crushing disappointment and shattering unravelling of truth that cycling fans are grappling with now. Cricket fans might wish to believe that the problem of match-fixing was nipped in the bud when three Pakistani cricketers were banned in 2010, but a more plausible theory to advocate and investigate would be whether the International Cricket Committee banned them to quiet media efforts to probe gambling in cricket and thereby protect their own collusion with wealthy mafia who guarantee them higher incomes than their sport can provide. Those who dismiss such fear-mongering as the petty imaginings of fools disregard how the shoe has gone onto the other foot in the post-Armstrong world. Similarly, can we really trust the PGA to investigate Tiger Woods’s links to Anthony Galea – the Canadian doctor associated with doping athletes – thoroughly at the risk of jeopardising the career of an athlete who has brought staggering benefits to the game of golf and all those employed by it? There is no reason to believe Tiger Woods guilty, but at the same time, there is no longer any reason not to investigate and hopefully disprove any lingering threads of suspicion. This can be the only way in which an increasing number of fans are not lost to their sports through cynicism and a justifiable reticence to believe what they are watching.

For all those who cling on to the hope that it is next to impossible for a sportsman of Armstrong’s stature to lead a double life on and off the cameras in today’s paparazzi world, they have to ask themselves why it took over a decade for his deception to come to light. As with Tiger Woods who maintained an image of being a family man long after that world had ceased to exist, and countless politicians, powerful public figures can control their image through associating themselves with the right “advisors” (and Armstrong had countless of these) and offering important bodies sufficient incentive to get behind them. Sports administrators are as partial as any other person to the lure of money, and if making money means participating in the construction, dissemination and maintenance of a beautiful lie and selling the soul of their sport in the process, then that is what they have proved themselves capable of doing. From now on, nothing is too far-fetched, and no longer should true fans of any sport consider not coming to its rescue because they are enjoying potentially false storylines and epic dramas too much to care.

Woods’s wonky driver demands addressing

For all Tiger Woods’s gushing praise for the swing work he is doing with Sean Foley, and for all Hank Haney and Foley’s sense of righteousness about what is best for his game, it is remarkable how neither coach has managed to solve the simple and pressing issue of restoring his confidence with his driver. His much-vaunted swing changes under Haney and now Foley have coincided with the loss of accuracy in his drives that he had under Butch Harmon and which is needed to take advantage of his power-hitting. This in turn has rendered him a golfer without a driver for many recent rounds in major-tournament golf, a situation which wasn’t quite so critical when his three-wood could match the distance of many players’ drives. However, at the British Open and PGA Championships, there were clear occasions when his decision to drive an iron or 3-wood off the tee at long courses left him with a harder second shot to set up birdie chances because of the longer distances left to the pin. When push came to shove and he had to go for broke, like on the tenth tee at Kiawah, he resorted to the driver and then promptly hit such a reckless sailing hook that it is a surprise no-one was seriously injured.

This is crisis-management golf that does not allow one of the game’s naturally attacking players to play to his strengths. Tiger should have the confidence to attack each hole with the power of his driver, leaving him less pressure on the second shot, rather than (as at Kiawah) only resorting to it when he realised that the Plan B of 3-wood and iron tee shots he was regularly forced to employ had left him too far behind the leaders.

Part of the blame for this apparent blind spot must be significantly attached to his last two coaches, whose overly scientific inculcation of swing mechanics into Tiger’s movements through countless “reps” seems to have overlooked the fact that they have not helped their student rediscover a vital aspect of any golfer’s game in being able to drive straight and long. However, Tiger is also to blame for ignoring what his gut instincts as a golfer must be screaming at him every time he notices a distance disadvantage to Rory McIlroy’s serene 320-yard drives, or realises that he is increasingly playing rescue golf instead of the greens-in-regulation stuff exhibited by the new world No.1 and current best player. He has to instruct his coach to repair the parts of his game so patently missing on the course, such as his distance driving (and pressure putting), because all the reps intended to perfect a new swing will be useless if they do not enable him to use a driver once again.

Sympathy abounds as Adam Scott suffers at the hands of golf

To watch Adam Scott throw away a four-shot lead over his last four holes to surrender the British Open was to be reminded that few sports can match golf’s intensity for shredding a man’s nerves so completely. Everyone will have their own haunting image or decisive moment, but for me it was the concern clouding the normally affable expression on his face as he held his swing finish after his final tee shot and the bewildered look that replaced it once he had missed that final putt that were most affecting. Golf’s cruellest finish seems to have happened to one of its nice guys, whose dignified reserve in its aftermath only heightened the pathos around his plight.

As Adam Scott attempts to recover from the abrupt wreckage of his dreams at Lytham, he should reflect on one or two facts that may bring him some comfort. One, apart from those last few holes where mental frailty tampered with the hitherto faultless rhythm of his swing, he confirmed that he remains one of the most talented golfers in the world today with every chance of setting himself up for another major win soon. Two, his soft-spoken and genial manner, particularly in the face of such a bruising defeat, has won him many new fans around the world. They will be watching him with new interest in the future, and fervently hoping he shares their belief that he can shatter the myth about nice guys lacking the steel to deal with major-tournament golf’s ultimate pressures.

Bubba and Louis breathe soul back into the game

There was a nice study in contrasts when coverage of the US Masters cut from the stirring sporting drama being staged by Bubba Watson and Louis Oosthuizen to show a final round leaderboard that had Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy both way over par and separated by just one shot. Pre-tournament favourites they may have been, but Woods’s performances ever since his return from scandal and McIlroy’s in this Masters seem to indicate that neither players’ games have remained untouched by the soaring fame that has accompanied their success. McIlroy’s public dalliance with Caroline Wozniacki is all well and good, but casually sharing a joking hug with Sergio Garcia – another perennial underachiever – midway through their third rounds because they had finally holed putts did not exactly tell of a player in absolute distress at his poor performance on the big stage. Woods, as we now know, has been bewitched by the bright lights for much longer than his junior rival and the effect is similarly taking an indeterminate length of time to shake off.

Now contrast the cluttered minds and confused directions of golf’s current prima donnas with the hunger and desire shown by Oosthuizen and Watson over the final stretch. Oosthuizen’s ability to combine his sporting competitiveness with personal serenity was remarkable for how sincere it felt, while Bubba Watson’s sobbing shoulders and outburst of spontaneous emotion upon sinking that final putt may be as affecting a sight as you’ll see in sport this year. There was a singular, uncomplicated purity about their duel for the Green Jacket, which came across palpably through the TV screen and endeared us to them. One can only hope that Bubba’s frank emotion and Louis’s sense of tranquility are not diluted by the attention that will be lavished on them as a result of their newfound status. These rookie Masters leaders, with their wide-eyed view of golf and dreams still intact, were almost more captivating than the established names this time around.