It’s not every day you get called an “oaf” and an “imbecile” in the pages of the Sunday Times, but it happened to me today. What’s more, these Bunteresque insults don’t derive from just any old hack: their author is none other than David Walsh, the sports journalist who did more than any other to skewer Lance Armstrong, despite years of intimidation and abuse from that unpleasant bully and cheat. For this reason I’m a great admirer of Walsh’s, so I follow him on Twitter, which is how and where I incurred his wrath. Towards the end of the Masters last week, when it was clear that the winner would be either Australia’s Adam Scott or Argentina’s Angel Cabrera, we had this brief exchange (he tweeted, I responded directly to him):
David Walsh @DavidWalshST
Scott or Cabrera? I am barracking for Scott. You can travel from one end of the golf world to the other, not find one with bad word for AS.
Matthew Bailey @DabberMatt
@DavidWalshST Here's a bad word for AS: "bottler".
My tweet was a reference to Scott’s disastrous collapse at the end of last year’s Open Championship, when he bogied each of the last four holes to lose by a single shot. Having watched many sporting events over many years, I struggle to think of a better example of "bottling". Of course, some comparable cases exist: sticking to golf (which, with its reliance on precision and repetition and its long pauses between shots for self-doubt to fester and swell, perhaps lends itself to the phenomenon more than any other sport), we have Doug Sanders missing a short putt to win the Open in 1970, only to go into a play-off and lose to Jack Nicklaus, and we have Scott’s fellow Australian Greg Norman going into the final round of the Masters in 1996 with a six-shot lead only to shoot 78 and lose by a humiliating five shots to Nick Faldo. Sanders’ name became a byword for a failure of nerve, and Greg Norman’s conversion from Great White Shark to Great White Flag regularly puts him at the top of lists of “sport’s greatest chokers”. But I can’t think of anyone who was so far ahead so close to the end of his event and blew it as badly as Adam Scott did. Three ahead with four to play, then four bogies: that, dear reader, is bottling in its purest form.
However, Walsh quoted my tweet in his article today, and described me as “a man with the sensitivity of an oaf and the timing of an imbecile”.
Was this fair? Well, let’s think about his comment on timing. Last weekend Adam Scott was in contention to win one of golf’s major championships for the first time since his meltdown at last year’s Open. It seems to me difficult to think of a better time to mention what happened the last time he was in the same situation. In fact, isn’t it the single most relevant thing you could say? (And wasn’t everyone thinking the same thing?) So it is hard to see what is “imbecilic” about the timing.
Besides, my tweet obviously wasn’t really aimed at Adam Scott. It was aimed at David Walsh’s irrelevant fawning. At a time of high sporting tension, the climax of a great contest between two tremendous competitors, it just seemed silly to start talking about how everyone thinks one of them is such a lovely chap. To see how silly, imagine if Walsh had instead tweeted “I am barracking for Scott. You can travel from one end of the golf world to the other, and everyone thinks Cabrera is a miserable git.” Scott thoroughly deserved his win, and I was glad to see it happen, but not because he’s Mr Popular: it’s because he put in the best performance when the pressure was on. The fact that he utterly failed to do that last time arguably makes it an even better effort. It certainly doesn’t mean that it is “imbecilic” to mention what happened back then: quite the reverse.
But what about the first half of Walsh’s broadside, according to which I have “the sensitivity of an oaf”? Sensitivity? What is he talking about? Well, perhaps there is some guidance in his own article.
In discussing last year’s Open, Walsh quotes Scott’s absurd statement that on three of the fateful holes “. . . I had putts that were all makeable. If one drops, I get in a playoff, two drop and I win. I missed all three. Another day, they drop” – as if what happened were some sort of statistical anomaly, rather than the cataclysmic taking of gas it so obviously was. If Walsh has any qualms about Scott’s analysis – and as a journalist perhaps he should have – he keeps them to himself.
Later in the same article, Walsh recounts his gentle confrontation with Scott on the subject of the forthcoming ban on the use of his very long, very silly broomhandle putter. Firstly, Walsh meekly opposes its use on the basis that it “just looks wrong”, misrepresenting the real objection, which is that tucking one of those pendulous monstrosities under your chin has nothing to do with golf. As Mike Davis of the USGA puts it, “[t]hroughout the 600-year history of golf, the essence of playing the game has been to grip the club with the hands and swing it freely at the ball”. More specifically, the objection is that “anchoring” the longer putter to a part of the body other than the hands helps those who get the wobbles when on the green. Rory McIlroy, for example, wrote: “Fully agree with the anchoring ban. Better image for the game of golf, skill and nerves are all part of the game”. Similarly, Tiger Woods has said “the art of putting is swinging the club and controlling nerves.” In an article that starts out discussing the strength of a particular player’s nerve, and which goes on to make an issue of the same player’s use of the broomhandle putter, a failure to connect the two seems to me an extraordinary omission. But instead Walsh simply parrots Scott’s whining that it took him a long time to learn how to use the long putter, and making him change is just, well, not fair.
Is this what Walsh means by “sensitivity” – a sort of lame, uncritical deference? It would seem surprising from the man who, almost alone among cycling journalists, was willing to take on the sociopathic Lance Armstrong. But that is what we seem to get. It is an interesting question why David Walsh thinks this is a desirable thing. I, a mere oaf, have no idea.