Friday, 19 July 2019

Is he Misstra Know It All?

Boris Johnson's anointment as Tory party leader being imminent we may find out before too long now whether the man really has a plan for Brexit. I'm not holding my breath. Indeed I'm reminded of Stevie Wonder's song He's Misstra Know-It-All:

He's a man / with a plan / Got a counterfeit dollar in his hand / He's Misstra Know-It-All
Playin' hard / Talkin' fast / Makin' sure that he won't be the last / He's ....
Makes a deal / With a smile / Knowin' all the time that his lie's a mile /  He's ....
Must be seen / There's no doubt / He's the coolest one with the biggest mouth /  He's ....
If he shakes / On a bet / He's the kind of dude that won't pay his debt / He's ....
Take my word / Be aware / Of a man that just don't give a care, no / He's ....
Give a hand to the man / You know damn well he's got the super plan / He's ....
If we had less of him / Don't you know we'd have a better land / He's ....
Check his sound out / He'll tell it all / Hey you talk too much, you worry me to death /
He's Misstra Know-It-All

I don't doubt that Boris Johnson is highly intelligent. Whether he would qualify as a member of Mensa, i.e. in the top 2% of the population on IQ, I don't know but I presume he would. Indeed his mannerisms remind me very much of a boss of mine who had an IQ of over 160 - and was a bully. But even if Boris is that bright that doesn't necessarily make him clever or wise, of course.

The Conservative leadership hustings have naturally created a dynamic in which the two runners appeal to their electorate but it's led to some remarkably un-Conservative pledges, particularly on public spending. I am worried that no party is currently standing for financial prudence and the free market. **** business, one might say, which in due course means we are generally all worse off.

Actually, given that both Ed Davey and Jo Swinson do espouse the free market I am finding that, apart from their slavish see-no-evil devotion to the EU, they are potentially the most attractive option at the moment. If they would say that the EU is better than the alternative but is pretty awful and needs major and urgent reform there wouldn't be much that I could disagree with at the moment, though I suspect they are hopelessly unrealistic on climate change in terms of practicable actions.

I am left feeling that the Tory process has been too public. I know some people just don't accept that it's up to the Tory membership to pick "the next prime minister" as the BBC seem fond of saying and there have been the usual calls for a general election on account of the change of leadership. Boris Johnson has been reminded of the fact that he called for one when Gordon Brown took over from Tony Blair. Hmmm, not that clever then, given Boris's long held ambition to be PM and the fact that, in the time I can remember, more people have taken over as PM during a Parliament than as the result of a general election (Douglas Home, Callaghan, Major, Brown, May and soon Johnson v Wilson, Heath, Thatcher, Blair and Cameron). That's the way our constitution works. The PM is not a directly elected president. Some folk have a problem with that, but I don't. I think it's better that the people who know the candidates decide and then we get a chance to keep them or ditch them once we see whether they know what they are doing. But the systems that the two big parties have gone for, with their membership having the final say, means that the choice is not made by people who know the candidates well. They are strange hybrid systems which I don't think are serving us well. After all, if Corbyn and Johnson are the answers, what on earth was the question?

So does Boris have a plan beyond getting into number 10? I expect you can tell that I doubt it. And even if he does there is very little time before a deadline that he's made clear he doesn't want to flex. And even while hinting that he'll walk away into a no-deal Brexit, he's also said it's a "million to one chance". Great negotiating skills, Boris - telling the other side that you don't really mean it isn't much better than saying no deal is not an option. There is no reason for the EU to move now. The time to walk out and threaten no deal was right at the start, when we gave way on the sequencing point in the negotiations, giving away our best card early. Is it a credible card now? It's going to be an interesting few weeks up to 31 October........







Monday, 15 July 2019

Tim Henman ruined Glasto

I didn't hold out much hope for the  Glastonbury line-up this year and ended up not watching very much of the coverage, though I was looking forward to two of the three headliners, The Killers and The Cure, Stormzy not being my bag. Both me and Mrs H have liked The Killers since they broke through to mainstream attention with their album Day and Age - we've spent many hours in the car listening to its high quality, catchy songs. And I've liked The Cure since being fascinated by their first single on a compilation album I had. The song was called Killing An Arab. Eh? - but I was hooked by their first hit single, A Forest, which I heard on the John Peel show circa 1980. We missed seeing The Killers before they became a stadium band (we don't do stadium gigs, finding it rather like watching on TV but with the TV turned up full at the other end of the house) but we finally caught up with Robert Smith and The Cure a couple of years ago. For me, a huge fan of the new wave era, Smith's catchy pop songs redolent of the Buzzcocks with a hint of Joy Division gloom are musical catnip.

I thought The Killers were hugely disappointing. Having not seen much of them playing live I found I just couldn't warm to front man Brandon Flowers. His singing wasn't bad but it just didn't sound much like the recorded version of his voice to me. His personality grated and, surprisingly, I didn't even like his glittery jacket. Mrs H pretty well summed it up when she asked why Tim Henman was attempting to sing Killers songs. I sniggered because she had a point, but once she'd said it Flowers had no chance of winning me back. I was going to label the photos below but I've forgotten which is which.......












There was also an odd throw away chorus of Human, done just on piano, before going into another song as a tease. OK they did play it in the encore, but with the Pet Shop Boys fella doing much of the singing so it sounded for all the world like a Killers tribute band making a poor fist of the song. All in all a big let down.

As for Smith, his wife (yes, I know he looks a Goth - though he denies it - and wears lipstick but he does have one and they've been together since he was 14) reportedly tells him "sing well" before gigs. She presumably feels he can play his guitar blindfolded so if he sings well it will be a good gig. He did sing well. There were no guests, no dancers, no fireworks, just the band and their songs. Exactly as I like it: I've never seen the point of a dance show on a festival stage, albeit presumably intended for the tv coverage. and guests usually take away from rather than add to the performance.

However, there is a "but". Just like when we saw them in Manchester* they didn't play The Love Cats, Mrs H's favourite - and she's by no means the only one who thinks that. That irritated us when we found out they had played it the next night at Wembley Arena, though admittedly in a longer set. Here they had a full two hours, so no excuse, Robert. The BBC said it was a "wry joke - did anyone miss it?" Well you could plainly hear many of the audience calling for it as the band left the stage. Smith, as many Glastonbury headliners are, seemed very emotional at the end of his set. Bob, the punters would have loved you even more if you'd played your best known song; it was an occasion to give them what they wanted. I know you think Love Cats  is a "sort of stupid pop song" but remember you re-formed The Cure because the stupid pop songs became hits and you found it was more fun doing that than slogging around the world in your alternative career playing guitar with Siouxsie and the Banshees (Smith had dissolved the Cure at one point reportedly under the strain of narcotics and playing his 'emotionally crushing songs' each night).

Other than that, all the hits got played. Well, I say "all", though I haven't checked whether he played every single one. The Cure never made it really big time but there were a lot of hits: 23 in the UK top 40, including Lovesong written for his wedding to Mary in 1989 - not his biggest UK hit but strangely by far his biggest US seller, reaching number 2 on the US mainstream pop chart, most of the others registering only on their alternative chart. Close To Me, Friday I'm In Love, Lullaby, The Caterpillar - all there.

On the positive side, closing with one of his earliest songs, Boys Don't Cry, was a stroke of genius. A lovely song which wasn't a hit on first release, though it eventually earned a silver disc. It would be a bit like Madonna closing her set with one of the singles she did before Holiday, or the Rolling Stones closing with I Wanna Be Your Man,  though that,of course wasn't their own composition. It showed how well Smith's music has stood the test of time. There is a smashing video with a touchingly young Smith singing the song on youtube here. Some 40 years on and now aged 60 Smith's voice hasn't changed very much.

They didn't do Killing An Arab - Smith once called a press conference to explain the song was not Islamophobic but inspired by Camus's L'Etranger. Smith recalls looking at a sea of bemused journalists' faces as he explained existentialism and Camus's philosophy of the absurd. But of course they performed A Forest  - it was brilliant and I've been humming that and Boys Don't Cry ad nauseam since. Though I have also been singing Killers songs. I just don't feel the need to see them live any more.

So the Cure were really good, but I was still left feeling a tad cheated, just as I had when I saw them live. A tease indeed.

*See The Love Cat is a Tease, post of 4 Dec 2016

Thursday, 27 June 2019

It's Different For Girls

I made a prediction to my sons soon after they went to high school in the 1990s: that women's football would become a big spectator sport. They don't remember pooh poohing this suggestion, though I'm sure they did. I couldn't see any reason why women's football should not develop to have a good balance of skill and athleticism. Sure, not as explosively quick as the best men, but no reason why the spectacle couldn't be compelling.

What I didn't know was that it already had been a big spectator sport: before 1921 when the FA banned women playing in officially organised football. The reason? Unladylike....

During the first world war, women working in munitions factories started football teams. And people went to watch in significant numbers as the Football League suspended all fixtures at the end of the 1914/15 season. The popularity continued after the war. On Boxing Day 1920 a crowd of 53,000 watched St Helens Ladies play Dick Kerr Ladies of Preston at Goodison Park. Was the real reason the FA banned the ladies that it was getting too popular?

Women's football has some way to go to equal the gates of 1920 other than for occasional matches. So I've watched some of the FIFA womens' world cup to gauge their progress. Some games have not impressed me but others have. I watched quite a bit of England's last 16 match with Cameroon with interest. I was impressed by all three of England's goals but also by the team's ability, fostered under manager Phil Neville, to play a passing and possession game. Their stated aim of passing opponents into submission worried me - spectators can die of boredom too, after all. But England don't play like that. Yes they try to keep the ball as all good teams should. But they also look to play it forward positively whenever they can. By positively I don't mean lumping it forward or just hitting the target woman - though I did that often enough playing at centre back when there wasn't any other option (sure, it wasn't a woman at centre forward but you know what I mean). The secret to giving players options for passes is of course movement - it's easy to criticise players for just hitting it upfield or indeed for passing sideways too often but if there aren't options you can't manufacture many great forward passes. I thought England were good at creating those options, though Cameroon did give them the space.

And I was also impressed at how they kept their focus while the Cameroon team were allowed to get away with some of the poorest behaviour I've seen on a football pitch anywhere, at any time, though I didn't see the start of the second half when England apparently did look rattled.

But the other thing that strikes me is that folk often say it would be better if women ran the world: it would be gentler and more harmonious. But I don't see much evidence for this in the worlds of business, politics (Myanmar, for example) or sport. Some folk say that's because you have lone women, like Thatcher, trying to outdo the men, and that it would be different if women really ran things. But the Cameroon team have given the lie to that as well, showing that an all-female group can behave worse than men on the pitch, spitting, elbowing and dissenting from decisions almost to the point of going on strike and then disgracefully saying they were the victims of racism.

Talking of an all-female group I was not particularly impressed with the referee either, other than for her patience. Though on reflection, at this stage of development of the women's game, perhaps she dealt with the situations she was presented in the most appropriate way at the time. If it had been a men's world cup match the referee could have expected to be sanctioned and never get near reffing a world cup match in the future. But what was Qin Lang supposed to do when Cameroon refused to kick off for a few minutes while disputing England's second goal?  Not unreasonably she was concerned that the Cameroon team might walk off. As an ex-referee myself (ok, only the Oxford Boys' League) I think she had two options besides the path she took. She could have given a quick warning followed by a yellow card to the woman causing the most trouble in the Cameroonian huddle. But my preferred option would have been to call over the Cameroonian captain and instruct her to get the kick off taken or she would be booked and then, a minute later, sent off. I must admit I only thought of this latter approach the next day and, in practice, either action would probably have escalated the situation into a walk out.

It may well be that the referee took the right approach in being tolerant and patient, though my big problem with that was it wasn't fair on England. Hopefully all the negative publicity will make women's teams around the world realise that such a behaviour won't help their cause of establishing women's football as a big time sport. Meanwhile FIFA will surely take action against Cameroon for failing to control their players and the women's game can move forward.

I'm not sure I will watch a lot of women's football in the future. A bit like I don't watch as much womens' tennis as men's, or women's athletics. For a start I'm a man. And if you want to see the quickest/highest/fastest exponents of most sports that will be male competitors, though I accept that some prefer the arguably greater subtlety of women's tennis to the men's power dominated game. But I hear some of you say that all that squealing and grunting isn't exactly subtle. One might say "not ladylike...."

And don't get me started on the sporadic lobbying for equal pay in football. Tennis is not an example, as the big competitions are held with men v men and women v women (plus some mixed doubles) on the same days to cleverly avoid any issues with the tv and gate money being attributable by gender. After all we all know what the result of that would be. Holding the men's and women's football world cups in parallel is thankfully impracticable, so forget trying to blur that one, equal pay advocaters. But the outcome of the equal pay case brought by the USA women's soccer team could be interesting as they probably get similar or maybe even larger audiences than their men's team does, so fair play if that is the case. Other than such isolated examples the simple fact is that, currently, more men are interested in sport than women, so the men's sports generate greater revenues. That may slowly balance out a bit over time.

I still think that women's football will grow to be a big spectator sport. And maybe the near meltdown by the Cameroon team will draw more attention to the sport; any publicity being good publicity if it makes people take a look.

But it will always be a bit different for girls.... (as Joe Jackson sang in his song turning around traditional male-female mores).

Still, I think I will watch some of England's quarter-final against Norway tonight. Come on you Lionesses!

Friday, 14 June 2019

Broken Stones 2

John Stones got caught out again by playing too much football as the last man between the opposing team and his goalkeeper as England disappointingly lost a winnable semi-final for the second time in a year in last week's Nation's League match.

I have been a huge fan of Stones. He moved to Everton from Barnsley when David Moyes could not get any of his transfer targets in January 2013. Moyes told his team on deadline day that the deals he wanted weren't going to happen but Everton chairman Bill Kenwright would let him spend a million or two on promise. His question was "who should we buy". The answer was 18 year old Stones. Apparently Moyes hadn't seen Stones play but trusted his backroom team. He made his Everton debut in August 2013 and by the following May he had played for England. By then I had predicted that once Stones got into the England team he would be a fixture in it for a decade, for much of it as captain.

After a good start these predictions are not turning out well. Everton fans saw for themselves that Stones has skill and confidence in abundance. But they also saw that he has overconfidence and an apparent reluctance to learn from experience. On one occasion he drove the Goodison faithful to distraction with a series of three turns, one of them the Cruyff version, under pressure from an opponent in his own penalty area. The first turn brought gasps, the second shouts of concern and the third howls of anguish and derision. Stones got away with it that time but what those fans know and Stones won't learn is that all too often you don't.

When Stones moved to Manchester City for around £50M in 2016 I thought that Pep Guardiola would help him get the right balance between playing the ball out and taking too much risk. Again that has proved incorrect. What these guys don't seem to appreciate - and sorry for repeating myself here - is that because football is a low scoring game the balance between risk and reward means that while of course playing composed football will bring rewards, taking too much risk is not likely to give a positive return overall. Yes you can get away with it playing inferior opponents: I remember Man City being commended by a journalist for playing out from the back and getting an equaliser against Bristol City some time ago. Quite, Bristol City. In the first half. In a League Cup tie. I pointed out at the time that this approach could cost Guardiola's team in a crucial match against better opposition, say a Champions League final.

Will Stones learn? I wouldn't bet on it. Will Southgate? Maybe. He gave Joe Gomez a game in Stones's place against Switzerland. Whether this constitutes being dropped depends on what Southgate said to Stones.

I would have said why did you take the risk of fannying about in extra time of a big match when the risk of conceding a goal and with it the game is always going to be higher than the chance of setting up a winning goal by doing so? The fact that Stones got disorientated and fell showed that at least part of his brain knew he was taking a big risk and his brain and body miscommunicated as a result. I'm not suggesting he should have whacked the ball into row Z - he had an easy pass back to his keeper the way he was facing. Having drawn Holland up the field Pickford had a better chance of starting the decisive move than Stones.

When Rio Ferdinand arrived at Manchester United with a reputation as a ball-playing centre-back he automatically reined in his risk taking. It wasn't anything Ziralex said to him (though it might have been concern about being on the end of the hair dryer treatment). Ferdinand assessed the benefit of risk and reward when playing in a good team for himself. Some people can learn by experience others need to be told. I am generally in the latter category and it seems Stones is too, incapable of the self awareness Ferdinand had. And it seems he's not going to get told by either of his current managers. So he probaby won't improve.

The promise shown by the teenage John Stones has not been fulfilled to the maximum extent possible despite, or maybe because of, playing for the manager recognised as probably currently the world's best in club football. I've lost faith in Stones. So, possibly, has Pep Guardiola, preferring the superannuated Vincent Kompany to him through much of the last season.

Gareth Southgate had faith and moved away from his policy of picking players who are playing regularly for their club team. David Walsh, writing in the Sunday Times last week was more sympathetic to both Stones and Southgate, saying that the England manager had little choice as the alternative, Joe Gomez, had also hardly played for his club side lately having just recovered from injury. But hang on - there was a third centre half in the party, Michael Keane. Keane was a fixture in Everton's side and was a key part of their strong run in, with no goals conceded in their games against Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool. Keane has played seven times for England, the last as recently as March, when he scored against Montenegro. Keane isn't a silky smooth footballer like Stones but he can pass and, rather importantly for a centre-back, he can defend. And he is used to playing with England's regular goalkeeper, Everton's Jordan Pickford. Sorry, David, you're plain wrong; Southgate had a choice a made the wrong one.

Everton sold Stones for about twice the price they paid for Keane. I wouldn't swap them myself at the moment if the valuation was the other way around.


P.S. Broken Stones 2 because Broken Stones was my post of 16 June 2016 about Paul Weller, that being the title of his song inspired by Marvin Gaye and which does achieve a Marvin Gaye like feel. Fortunately the Marvin Gaye Estate didn't sue Weller, or at least not yet. I still find it incredible that the estate's case against Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams over the alleged similarity of their song Blurred Lines to Gaye's Got To Give It Up was sustained at appeal in March 2018 by a two to one majority verdict*.

The dissenting judge said the decision let the Gayes “accomplish what no one has before: copyright a musical style,” and expanded the potential for further copyright litigation. She said the songs differed in harmony, melody and rhythm and the verdict "strikes a devastating blow to future musicians and composers everywhere".  The only common factor was the party feel of the two songs. Party feel wasn't exactly novel when Gaye did it: I'm sure Trini Lopez's If I Had a Hammer 15 years earlier in 1962 couldn't have been the first such song. But wait, Gaye's song also influenced Michael Jackson's Shake Your Body and Don't Stop Til You Get Enough. Jackson adapted Gaye's chant of "let's dance, let's shout, gettin' funky what it's all about" to "let's dance, let's shout, shake your body down to the ground" on the former, which sounds pretty similar to me. But Jackson's estate could presumably hire better lawyers than Thicke and probably Gaye's estate too.....

All popular music is derivative, with generally a modest amount of something novel or different in any song, a bit like most PhD theses. The case sets a troubling precedent which could stifle the creative process of building on what's been done before.

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-music-blurredlines/marvin-gaye-family-prevails-in-blurred-lines-plagiarism-case-idUSKBN1GX27P


Wednesday, 29 May 2019

Is Boris or the law the ass?

I am flabbergasted at the news that Boris Johnson will have to defend himself in court over claims that what was written on the side of the Brexit battlebus was a lie. The precise charge is "misconduct in public office". The charge is a crowdfunded private prosecution. How any sentient being could sanction this charge, let alone someone with legal training who one assumes was taught English and some logic, I can't fathom. And it worries me.

For a start, if everyone who held public office could be taken to court for peddling a mis-truth, or saying anything about anything that turned out to be less than 100% correct, then there would be very few people in public office who would not be vulnerable to prosecution. And even fewer willing to occupy such posts.

Secondly, for the crucial part of the time period in the charge, running up to the referendum on 23 June 2016, Johnson wasn't in public office as such, unless you count being a backbench MP. He ceased being Mayor of London on 5 May 2016. (The charge cites the dates as 21 Feb - 23 June 2016 in the run up to the referendum and 18 April - 3 May 2017, in the run up to the General Election, when Johnson was Foreign Secretary). In 2016 Johnson made some daft comments about Turks and Turkey and I expect this was while he was still London Mayor but the statements weren't related his job. In the weeks before the referendum Johnson was speaking in support of a political campaign, not in any capacity as a public servant, because he wasn't one. And arguably it was also the case in the General Election campaign that he was speaking as a political campaigner.

But more fundamentally, where is the lie?

Let's just remind ourselves what was on the Brexit bus:

Vote Leave's campaign bus

"We send the EU £350 million a week". This statement is an exaggeration. After Mrs T's rebate is applied (which comes off before we send any money) we send something like £250M to £280M a week to the bloated blob of Brussels*. (Don't tell me it isn't a bloated blob because I went to the Berlaymont on a monthly basis for while in the 1990s and it will only have got more so). Stats nerds can't even agree on the precise number, which anyway is only known precisely after the event. And the figure is back-calculated once the figures for the year are known. It will have escalated as it is linked to GDP, which has increased more than the projections, so it could be north of £300M by now. So, an exaggeration, but Boris is a damned sight better with numbers than Diane Abbott!

And Boris no doubt didn't personally research the £350M number, it will have been plucked out of the air by the Vote Leave campaign. (The TV docu-drama showed Dominic Cummings shouting at people until they came up with a rationale for a number he liked. Everyone involved in communicating with or persuading people in politics, business and many other fields of endeavour has done this many times......I certainly have!)

OK, so we then get money back for regional projects and the net figure is lower. But we don't have the choice of how to spend that, so the logic that we could take back control and choose to spend it on the health service is 100% correct.

The lie as such comes a step further on when folk like the Welsh farmers, who benefit from this recycling of our cash via the EU, were told they would still get the money, effectively double counting the saving, or spending it twice.  How often have politicians tried to have their cake and eat it in this way?

None of this is new - I argued all of these numbers through in my blog posted 3 weeks before the referendum (Lies, damn lies and statistics in the referendum campaign"  2 June 2016). And I'm pretty sure I've said that, while many politicians dissemble, Boris tells lies, my logic being this last point about double-counting. But he was called out for this at the time and I don't know many people who didn't take the £350M number with a pinch of salt - it was the principle that got leave voters exercised.

However, the point that worries me is that, if we ever fall under the cosh of the Marxist Party of Islington we may become very reliant on the law to protect personal property and personal liberties. It will have to be impassionate, apolitical, logical and rigorous.

I can only think this charge was allowed through by District Judge Margot Coleman either because of her political view on Brexit or a party loyalty or because it has commanded a degree of public support via donations, a bit like a reality TV vote. I can't see any good reason in law or logic for her statement that:

"I accept that the public offices held by Mr Johnson provide status, but with that status comes influence and authority.
"I am satisfied there is sufficient to establish prima facie evidence of an issue to be determined at trial of this aspect."

If this charge is allowed to proceed politicians' answers to questions are going to get even more convoluted, as they would be forced to always quote others for their tenuous "facts". Meanwhile anyone not in a "public office", even if standing for one, would have a different standard applied to them. That would not be logical, fair or workable.

Judge Coleman has taken a first step in a dangerous direction and should have thrown this worthless case out.



* sources on 2016 data: Full Fact says "closer to £250M" (https://fullfact.org/europe/our-eu-membership-fee-55-million/) and another website says "around £280M" (https://esharp.eu/debates/the-uk-and-europe/how-much-does-britain-really-pay-into-the-eu-budget) so even the statistical nerds can't agree with any precision

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Is golf an athletic sport or an inclusive sport?


John Daly used a buggy to compete at the US PGA Championship. Dally currently occupies 1848th position in the world rankings but has a lifetime exemption following his win in the 1991 edition of the tournament. The course hosting the competition, Bethpage Black in New York, does not normally allow golfers to use buggies. It was approved under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Two Daily Mail writers were appalled. Derek Lawrenson said Daly "did golf a disservice...it's an athletic sport now and there should be no going back".

And Martin Samuel, writing at some length, also did not care for the sight of Daly, with his arthritic knees, riding his buggy smoking a cigarette and carrying a large soda cup from McDonald's. Samuel noted that Tiger Woods limped his way to his 2008 US Open win with two lower leg fractures and a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, saying Woods knew the score - injured, you can't play. If you want to play injured, you limp. He argued that golf has worked very hard to shed its reputation as the refuge of fat, wealthy, old guys. He thought it a mistake for US PGA to override the normal Bethpage rule, saying it's not discriminatory to expect professional competitors to abide by the same rules as club members and guests. Daly has requested to use a buggy in next month's Open, for which he qualifies until the age of 60 due to his win at St Andrews in 1995. Noting that Royal Portrush, hosting this year's event, also does not normally allow them, Samuel commended the R&A "for the sake of golf, its status and reputation" to uphold Portrush's rule.

Smauel went on to say "Your physical ability to compete is at the root of all sport, whether you sweat or not. Controlling the steadiness of a hand in archery, darts or snooker requires athletic ability. Nobody sweats bit it's still sport. Golf is the same". He noted that Nick Faldo has said 'walking is an integral part of being a professional golfer' and argued that anyone with a feeling for the soul of the game would agree.

I find walking while playing golf much more fun and far more sociable than using a buggy and I understand where Faldo is coming from. And yet....

Taking Samuel's point, the ability to swing a golf club and strike the ball accurately over large distances combined with judging wind, reading the terrain and having the touch and finesse to putt well is surely the equivalent of Samuel's archer or snooker player. Indeed I would argue the skill element is far higher. Walking between taking the shots is just the necessary act of getting from A to B and you don't have to be good at that bit just able to do it.

So what if you are not? If golf wants to portray itself as a sport only for ripped gym addicts it won't expand it's diminishing participant base. And anyway, it's a risible proposition. Golf actually sells itself as a sport that people with a wide range of physical abilities can play, getting health and fitness benefits from doing so.

So this is just an argument about what it looks like at a big professional competition. In that context what if a superstar kid emerged who could hit the ball like Brooks Koepka and putt like Tiger Woods but who, for some physical reason, could not walk around 18 holes of a golf course? Unlikely I know but the clamour for the sport's governing bodies to allow such a person to compete would be deafening.

Or, heaven forbid, what if Tiger Woods can compete at the highest level but just can't walk 18 holes on four consecutive days? What do you think they would decide then?

I think we all know that if Tiger had needed to be carried around the last few holes of his Masters win in April the acclaim would surely have been even greater. He's done it and he can hardly walk!

These may be artificial "what ifs" but the point is still valid. Is golf looking to be an inclusive sport or not?

Hide behind Royal Portrush's rules if you like (though Muirfield didn't come well out of that situation only a few years back). But in the long run disabilities and discrimination laws and society's expectations will surely mean that, if you meet the qualifying standard to play in terms of golf ability, you should be allowed to play.

The answer to the John Daly problem is actually to review the length of exemptions given to winners of the majors.

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

King Kong on a very good run

It was no surprise that Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson finished first and second in the golf season's second major, the USPGA, at the weekend. The Bethpage Black course is punishingly long. Punishing through length and also the density of the second cut and deep rough for those who stray off the fairway. Koepka and Johnson are the most reliable of the "bombers" (the long hitters) and so will be both far and sure (er, I've heard that motto somewhere....) more often than most. And they hit it so far that, even if they stray off the fairway, they can often reach the green with a lofted club - a wedge or at most 9 iron - giving them a better chance of successfully controlling the shot. The shorter hitters - even those who still hit it a long way - stand a much lower chance from those positions with a middle iron.

So the course was set up to favour Koepka, but his achievement was remarkable. The display of pure power was beyond what we have seen since Tiger Woods first came out and obliterated championship golf courses. Indeed the Sky Sports commentator Wayne Riley took to calling Koepka "King Kong". (Dustin Johnson already has a nickname, of course. For most of the world it's "DJ" but to Mrs H it's "cokehead").

In the run up to the PGA the Golf Channel pundit Brandel Chamblee (yes, they have a dedicated golf channel and that's not a made up name - I think) made a bit of an ass of himself by pondering whether Koepka is a great player or simply having "a good run". Noting that Koepka ended up second in the Masters partly because he three-putted five times in the four rounds, Chamblee said "he's on a heck of a run. Nick Faldo hads a similar run. Lee Trevino had a similar run....is (Koepka) truly a great player - a staggering talent - or is he in a great run? Tiger and Jack, they won regular events at the same clip they won majors.....I just need more evidence...He won three majors that were more about power than accuracy. This week it will be equally about power and accuracy. Golf courses like this are a better measure...."

As Koepka had won three of the last eight majors (three of the last seven he had played in) that was rather going out on a limb. Now that it's four out of his last eight starts in majors it looks plain daft.  In the end it was about power and bottle, as much as accuracy, as Koepka had to dig deep when he faltered on the last nine holes and Johnson closed the lead from seven shots to one, before Koepka steadied the ship and Johnson also started to drop shots. But my main quibble with what Chamblee said was not actually about Koepka. Yes, Koepka has the unusual record of having won twice as many majors as he's won regular USPGA tour events - four to two. This is what Chamblee meant about Nicklaus and Tiger winning tour events "at the same clip": Woods has won 66 USPGA Tour events in addition to his 15 majors and for Nicklaus the numbers were 55 and 18, so Koepka's small number of non-major wins in America is surprising. But Koepka has also won seven times in Europe and Japan and had four wins on the European Challenge Tour (the level down from the main tour) as he came up the hard way, driving himself between tournaments in a foreign country on his own. Maybe not sleeping in his car, as Gary Player did when he first came to the Open but at least, reputedly, changing his own wheel when he got a puncture. So not the gilded ascent of a Woods or, say, a Spieth. Also, if Koepka really has cracked peaking for the majors, as he more or less claimed before this tournament, that would be quite something and not to be knocked lightly. After all, it's what Olympic athletes and Team Sky cyclists work very hard to do.

No, the thing that got me was the reference to Faldo and Trevino. They both won six majors, putting them joint twelfth on the all time list of major winners, only one short of Arnold Palmer and Bobby Jones and one ahead of Seve Ballesteros and Phil Mickelson. And they weren't flashes in the pan, either. Sir Nick's wins spanned nine years (1987 to 1996) and Super Mex's a remarkable sixteen (1968 to 1984). So hardly "a good run". The comparison with Faldo that maybe makes sense is that Faldo, who came to golf late at fifteen years of age (yes, that's very late) was to some extent a manufactured golfer who, having competed near the top of the game without winning big, rebuilt his swing in order to win majors. Which he did because he was one of the ultimate competitors. It may be that the same is true of Koepka and he really can perform best when the stakes are highest.

In the first two rounds of the PGA Koepka was in the marquee group with Woods and Molinari. As Koepka built what was a record low score after 36 holes in that tournament, it looked like he was doing to Woods what Woods had done to so many in the past: overpowering the golf course and intimidating his opponents, striding off down the fairways ahead of his rivals with a stern game face on. There were some differences from Woods. Until Koepka faltered on the final nine holes and Johnson rallied, narrowing the lead from seven shots to one, he wasn't just longer than most of his opponents but also straighter. Not much need for the outrageous recovery shots Woods delivered so many times after errant drives. But there's one point on which Chamblee is right: as a putter Koepka isn't a Woods or a Nicklaus. Just like Rory McIlroy, this is likely to limit his potential. Nevertheless, with four majors to his name by the age of 29 it currently looks like he could go on to reach the group of famous players in the top six of all time major winners, Tom Watson (8) and Gary Player and Ben Hogan (9). After all, it took Woods 21 attempts to win four majors, it's taken Koepka just one more, 22. But then we thought McIlroy would carry on accruing majors just a few years ago. As for rivaling Nicklaus and Woods  by getting into the teens, that looks a long way off for any current players and I would wager just won't happen.

Koepka seems a bit more modest than Faldo. Martin Samuel reported that during last year's USPGA, Koepka was working out in his hotel gym while leading the tournament. He got talking with some of the other guests using the weights and cardio machines. You should have been here earlier, they told him overawed. Dustin Johnson, DJ himself, was here. Man it was a blast. And you just missed him. Five minutes earlier and you'd have seen him. Koepka smiled, without revealing his identity, that he had won the last two US Opens or that he was leading Johnson in the PGA by five shots with 18 holes to go, on his way to being only the fifth golfer to win the US Open and the US PGA in the same year. Putting him with Sarazen, Hogan, Nicklaus and Woods.

Koepka doesn't have the face or name recognition of some of his peers. Indeed, some seem to think he is boring. He may not be flamboyant but he's currently the best golfer in the world, by some margin.

So while I don't think it's likely Koepka will win even half Nicklaus's tally of majors in his career, it looks right now as if he'll outperform his immediate peers: Rory McIlroy (age 30, 4 major wins) and Jordan Spieth (age 25, 3 major wins, possibly getting into form again after a rough spell). With the Open next up, a home game for Rory McIlroy in Northern Ireland, it will be interesting to see how these young guns perform. But it would be a surprise to me if either of them won more majors than Koepka by the time their careers are done.

King Kong's run probably hasn't ended yet.