Martin Vousden writes

Thought for the Day
All progress takes place outside the comfort zone

Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde
Reputation is known to be a fickle thing – it can take years to build but only minutes to demolish. One moment you’re the superhero flying through the window to rescue the distressed damsel and the next, you’re the evil villain with the waxy moustache and maniacal laugh, tying her to the train track.

The best two golfers of their generation have experienced such a profound transformation, although for one the change has been full of unexpected empathy, while the other has found depths of ignominy from which it is difficult to imagine he will ever recover.

I refer, of course, to Phil Mickelson, whose failure to defend his US PGA Championship was but the most recent demonstration of just how far he has fallen in the estimation of golf fans, his peers, corporate sponsors and, frankly, anyone with a capacity for rational thought. There will be diehard, fanatical Mickelson supporters who will cling steadfastly to the belief that he is someone to hero-worship but to everyone else he has become a pariah. If he bludgeoned Bambi to death with a 9-iron he could hardly be more reviled.

We can only guess why he chose to no-show at Southern Hills because the PGA of America made it clear that he was more than welcome, but all the indications are that he couldn’t face the prospect of interrogation from the world’s press. It was suggested to him that he hold a press conference early in the week to ‘put it all behind him’ and get the nasty headlines out of the way before the tournament started but it’s not difficult to understand that this was a pleasure he could forego.

‘So, Phil, why did you call the Saudi’s “scary motherf*****s,” who “executed people for being gay” and yet apparently be prepared to take their millions? Oh, and why did you put up your own money to pay for lawyers to produce a players’ operating plan for the proposed Saudi Golf League? And can it really be true that you did all this simply to try and strong-arm your own Tour, which you accused of “obnoxious greed,” into forking over a bigger share of media rights? And while we’re at it, have you really lost in the region of $40 million by gambling?’

In light of Phil’s behaviour it is not surprising that those exemplars of moral rectitude, journalists, have crapped on him from a great height. What is more indicative of his exile status is that fellow pros, who usually circle the wagons in defence of their own, have also turned on him. Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods, to name just two (but there are plenty more) are holding the opposite end of the bargepole from Mickelson and it is difficult to see when, where or how his standing among them can ever be properly restored.

On a happier note, at the other end of the public-affection scale we have Tiger Woods, the limping, grimacing, 46-year-old former Master of All He Surveys, endearing himself to even his harshest critics – among whose number I have, on occasion, counted myself. My unbridled admiration of his talents has nevertheless not blinded me to his often surly, boorish manner and his liberal interpretation of the rules, including the spirit and etiquette of the game. There is also, of course, the fact that he crashed a car, driving at more than 80mph in a 40mph zone and only by sheer luck managed to avoid colliding with other, more law-abiding road users, with disastrous consequences. It showed a recklessness bordering on criminality, even though no criminal charges were ever brought.

As a result of his brush with death and near loss of his right leg, the Tiger we see on his return to competition is a figure who invokes enormous sympathy and goodwill. His popularity was never in question simply because of his astonishing record – the Americans, in particular, love nothing more than success – but although easy to admire, he has not always been so easy to love.

In his vulnerability, however, he is now so much more likeable. No longer the relentlessly efficient cyborg of golf who could overpower both courses and opponents, who racked up victories at will and major championships as if by default, he is now a very human creature with whom it is difficult not to feel enormous amounts of sympathy and goodwill. To see this immensely proud champion dragging his injured limb around two of the toughest courses in the world, playing on nothing but memories of who he was, with his only crutch the belief that he can still compete at the highest level, is humbling.

For his sake I hope that he skips the US Open next month in order to give himself a better chance of recovering well enough to compete at St Andrews in July, a flat course that he says is his favourite in the world. He won’t win, but wouldn’t it be a heck of a story if he did?

For different reasons, let us hope that Phil Mickelson does not turn up to the home of golf – it’s reputation does not deserve to be sullied with his presence.

Quote of the Week
A Major golf tournament is 40,000 sadists watching 144 masochists
Thomas Boswell

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