Wednesday, 22 June 2011

The Problem With Being Good At Sport

By Shane Thomas

It's rare that the lead sports story is the same on both sides of The Atlantic Ocean, but at the moment the storming performance of Rory McIlroy at last week's US Open is at the forefront of the sporting consciousness (sure to be closely followed by events at Wimbledon over the next fortnight).

But the very vocabulary of sport means that joy for one will mean sadness for another. And as McIlroy was garlanded with the spoils of victory in Maryland last weekend, Lee Westwood was yet again left empty handed after a major golf championship. Westwood has been either the World Number 1 or 2 in the rankings for almost a year, a huge source of pride to himself, and British golf in general.

But his rewards for consistency have failed to land him one of the game's four major prizes that he so desires, which would confirm his place as one of the best of his generation. Indeed, many American golf pundits - partly stung by the recent dominance of Europeans in a sport that was once their personal fiefdom - have derided Westwood as a choker, a failure, a guy who can't get it done when it matters. And while the large proportion of these sentiments are borne from pettiness and jealousy, there's no doubt that the only way to be remembered is to be a major winner. When one talks about the legends of the game, like Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player or Arnold Palmer, they will often make reference to their major victories, rather than the amount of time they spent as World Number 1.

However, to call Westwood a choker is simplistic and misses the point. To choke is to fail to secure victory after being in a winning position. This has never been the case for Westwood. He has an admirable record in recent major tournaments, regularly finishing in the top ten - indeed, he came 5th at the US Open. But ending Sunday at the top of the tree has become a glass ceiling that so far he's been unable to shatter.

Westwood, along with some of the game's most astute minds say that if he continues to put himself in contention, he'll finally get over the line. But there's no reason to think that'll definitely be the case. He deserves immense credit for the way he returned as one of golf's major powers after falling out of the world's top 50 back in 2007. He refocused his mindset, took a serious approach to his conditioning, and has become a force to be reckoned with as a result. The problem is that it looks as if Westwood's commitment to self-improvement is already extracting the maximum from his game. And so far, it hasn't got him to where he wants to be.

I think Westwood's problem is simple. He is a good golfer, a very good one. But not a great one. Unlike Rory McIlroy, whose potential for greatness was spotted from an early age - and is beginning to be realised after Sunday's triumph - Westwood is an honest trier who's made the most of himself through diligence and application.

In some ways, it's even worse than not being good at all. At least then, you know your place in the pecking order. But to be good at what you do means that the baubles you most covet will always be in touching distance, but always just out of reach when genuine greatness barges its way to the front of the queue.

Being good but failing to reach greatness is not a schism specific to just Westwood. David Beckham, Ricky Hatton, and the England football team have all been victim to this. This doesn't make them failures, chokers or national disgraces. Their only crime was to not be good enough.

However, let's not completely write off Westwood's chances of finding a way to secure the major title he so covets. Dame Kelly Holmes is an example of an athlete who was no better than good, but found a brief window of greatness and leapt through it to reach national hero status. Westwood still has time to do the same.

But that time is fast running out, and as every major championship passes with him failing to win, Westwood's career is falling prey to the law of diminishing returns. Sport brings happiness to many, especially those who succeed at its highest level. But it also mirrors the quote of Gore Vidal, "It's not enough that I succeed, my enemies must also fail." For most, the desperate pursuit of victory is ultimately a futile one. And that pursuit becomes all the more painful when you were born to be good rather than great.

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