Monday, 23 July 2018

Wide Open? Mrs H nailed it!

I said predicting winners in a competitive sport like golf was a mug's game (Wide Open Indeed, 18 July). And predictably I was a mug.

My first pick, world number one Dustin Johnson, affectionately called "cokehead" by Mrs H (Johnson took several months 'voluntary leave' from the USPGA tour in 2014 amid rumours of a failed drugs test which Golf Magazine said was his third, all for recreational substances) didn't bring his 'A' game. Maybe he'd brought other stuff with him in his luggage.

Rickie Fowler remains the best current player not to have won a major. I said he had blown hot and cold this year and he illustrated that perfectly by blowing hot and cold in the tournament.

Henrik Stenson had done well in his previous tournament, the US Open but I noted he hadn't played since and wondered if he was saving himself. If so it didn't work - Stenson did ok but never threatened the leaders.

Tommy Fleetwood had one outstanding round but turned in a performance as scruffy as his appearance on the final day, though he was by no means the only one to feel disappointed with how they handled the breezier conditions in the pressure of an Open Sunday afternoon. After all, Jordan Spieth, who has won a lot of bets for me over the last couple of years, had a poor final round, summed up by his agressive if not bizarre choice of  club - a 3 wood (yes, I know they're made of metal) - after pushing his drive into the crowd on Carnoustie's 6th hole. His ball disappeared into a gorse bush and Spieth collapsed from being favourite to win and become the first man under 25 to win consecutive Opens since the 19th Century to finish tied 9th. I normally pick Spieth and was kicking myself on Saturday night, but felt I'd got that one right by the time of the presentation. Fleetwood's day will hopefully come, however. After all, he's a good lad - Everton fan!

I rejected Justin Rose as, while consistently excellent, he hasn't done really well at the Open for a long time. And it looked the same again until he scraped past the cut on Friday with a second round birdie on the last hole. He followed that with an outstanding third round of 64 and good final round to finish tied 2nd while never quite looking as if he might win. His day in the Open may also yet still come. As my mate Dan had picked him, this time he cost me a sleeve of 3 golf balls.

I said the biggest story would be if Tiger Woods won his 15th Major. And it really did look like he would, as he took the lead more than half way through his final round. There were more than glimpses of the old Tiger, though there were also glimpses of the frailties that are normal even for top players but seemed almost totally absent when he was in his prime. It was notable that, having hit a poor shot into the crowd on hole 11, he followed it up with another weak shot and then a third fairly weak one, dropping two shots to par on the hole. I can relate to hitting three poor shots in a row as I do it all too often, but Woods at his best probably never did that. For reasons I've gone into before I personally don't want Woods to beat Jack Nicklaus's record of 16 wins in the Majors, but I'd love him to win a 15th or even a 16th to keep the story bubbling. It could still happen but this was probably his best chance.

One of the reasons it probably won't happen is that the younger players, while having enormous respect for Woods, aren't intimated by him like their predecessors were. And so Francesco Molinari, playing with Woods, held his nerve and won with a superbly composed final day performance. Molinari was the only player out of 79 who didn't drop a shot to par on any of the 18 holes on Sunday. I thought the BBC TV news damned him with faint praise, showing him scoring par after par while others dramatically gained and lost shots, implying it was a bit boring, when some of his par saves were outstanding. And it wasn't just Faldo-esque as he bagged two birdies in the closing 5 holes to seal the deal. (Nick Faldo famously parred every hole in his final round on the way to winning his first Major in 1987).

But not only that, Molinari was one of Mrs H's two picks for the tournament. The other was Ian Poulter, her favourite golfer who she always picks. While appearing to have her head down in her books and puzzles while I watched golf stuff, she had obviously absorbed that Molinari was playing really well this year and I said "good call" when she picked him on Wednesday. When she asked what her prize was and I told her it was 3 golf balls I thought she said something about addressing them, the term for preparing to take a golf shot, which would be odd as she doesn't play golf. I then realised she hadn't said "address" but "a dress"....

Anyway, respect is due to both Francesco and Mrs H, who obviously knows more about golf than me.

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Wide Open indeed

It was a very good and entertaining World Cup. Certainly one of the better ones. And, as I predicted (it wasn't hard!) it was wide open for one of a number of teams, including England for St George's sake, to win (Wide open? 16 June).

I said that, while Brazil were the favourites, I wasn't convinced they had improved that much since they got smashed by Germany in their own back yard last time round. They hadn't.

I said Germany felt beatable. Tick. I said Spain's change of manager could be good or bad for their morale, but they could be ok. They weren't. But they did feature in one of the games of the tournament, against Ronaldo and ten others.

I said that France had a lot of big name players, but I had my doubts. Pogba turned up some of the time - when he does he looks unplayable - but also spent some time, as I predicted, strutting around like a spoiled rich kid but not actually doing anything. In my youth that was called "poncing about" but I guess you're not allowed to say that now. Maybe not, but Pogba shows doing it hasn't been banned. I said I had never been particularly impressed with Griezmann and I'm still not. There are occasional rumours about him coming to the Premier League, but I would be surprised. Even if he wanted to I couldn't see any takers, at least not now Arsenal's manager's name doesn't begin with "Arse".  I wondered whether Mbappe was the real deal - obviously we can all now see that he is, the first teenager to score in a World Cup final since Pele 60 years ago. Because Kante and Matuidi more than covered for Pogba, and Varane and Umtiti defended well, France were able to use their devastating pace (when Pogba decides to move he's fast as well as Mbappe) to look even more dangerous than Belgium on the break. They deserved to win but arguably weren't tested by the highest quality opposition.

I said Belgium could go well. They did and will probably be a bit disappointed at falling short. Undoubtedly they will not be as pleased as England to have got to the semis.

Although I hadn't been holding my breath in anticipation, England delighted the nation, even if their expected limitations, in particular a painful shortage of creativity, were plain to see. Naturally I was delighted that Jordan Pickford did well. Personally I thought he deserved the Golden Glove award. As a 6ft 1in midget he clearly, inch for inch, outperformed beanstalk Thibaut Cortouis, all of 5 inches taller. At least if Courtois does move overseas as is being mooted I won't have to go to Chelsea's game at Goodison next year just to shout abuse at him for his risible comments about Pickford failing to save Januzaj's shot in the first Belgium game and being too small. (Those who know me best know I'm not joking!) Lee Dixon's comments about him trying to save it with the wrong hand were even dafter, even if it had been fed to him by David Seaman: they clearly forgot Pickford is left handed, at least until he made the vital penalty save in the shoot out against  Colombia.  I wonder if England's renewed popularity with the public will survive being in a "group of death" in the new UEFA Nations League with Spain and Croatia (them again, maybe Modric will have been jailed for perjury) in the autumn.

Croatia were the surprise package and they very nearly came through like Greece in Euro 2004, as I said someone might. While England showed football is still a team game, Croatia added grit and bottle to teamwork, coming from behind against both Denmark and Russia before winning both on penalties. Oh and having two top class midfielders helped a bit as well.

The other team I commented on were "perennial underperformers" Argentina, who I said I found unconvincing. "After all, can you win the World Cup with Willy Caballero in goal?" I asked. Rhetorical question, I know - Caballero was soon dropped after attempting to chip the ball over on onrushing Croatian forward, a mistake that I can't separate from Hugo Lloris's pratfall in the final as both were equally brainless. I also said that, for Leo Messi to be ranked the best player ever - as many experts have said he is - he would need to turn in a really good performance in what was likely to be his last World Cup "rather than looking like an imposter most of the time".  The imposter continued to turn up. Now I of course accept that Messi is a great player. But I am fairly sure I am in a minority (I certainly am with my two sons) in saying that, given the choice between them, I would go for Cristiano Ronaldo every time. I see this through the eyes of a lightweight teenage winger and an only slightly more filled out adult centre back. If your team is under the cosh and holding on through an Alamo like siege, you want a player up front who you know you only need to get the right ball to once and he will score a solo goal that will turn the game, even if he hasn't had the scent of a chance all game. For me that's Ronaldo not Messi. Rod Liddle, writing on the heroes and villains of the World Cup in last weekend's Sunday Times, said

Leo Messi. You remember! Long face, lugubrious expression, dodgy tax returns. Never scored a goal in a knockout game in any World Cup. Almost a bystander as Argentina were beaten by France. So good they built the team round him - mistake. So enigmatic he effectively ceased to exist. But such a wonderful club player, which is how he will be remembered - among the second echelon.

Even I think that's a tad harsh, Rod. But the fact is Messi has appeared in four World Cups and, despite mystifyingly winning the Golden Ball best player award in 2014, has never remotely reproduced his club form on that stage. Some players, like George Best, never get the chance to perform in a major tournament for their country. So I accept you can't only take international performances as the main benchmark. But Messi has had more than enough chance to prove himself on that stage and has conspicuously failed. Whereas Ronaldo didn't just draw with Spain with limited help, he dragged Portugal to a European Championships win. I rest my case, boys!

As well as plenty of good football, the tournament seemed well organised and had a good atmosphere. I don't particularly welcome the good publicity for Putin, but he presumably had the advantage of being able to bang up all the Russian hooligans or at least issue some heavy and believable threats as to the consequences if they showed their faces in any of the cities hosting the matches.

We can now turn our attention to an appetising cricket series with India and the Open golf. In passing I note that the Football Association chiefs are now introducing themselves abroad as being from the "English FA" in order not to appear arrogant. I doubt that approach will commend itself to golf's Royal and Ancient....

For my routine bet on the Open (small stake, no cash!) I am picking between Dustin Johnson, whose swing I have always admired and has a natural fade which suits Carnoustie; Tommy Fleetwood who holds the course record there and finally managed to play ok at an Open last time at Birkdale, though after a ropey start; Rickie Fowler who has an outstanding record at golf's majors and must surely win one eventually, though his form has blown hot and cold this year; and Henrik Stenson, a past winner who did well at the last major, the US Open. Stenson hasn't played since - maybe he has been saving himself.

I left Justin Rose off my shortlist. Although he is perhaps the world's most consistent player over the last year or two he hasn't performed at his best in an Open in a long time. But I'd be delighted if he proved me wrong and won.

Picking winners in such a competitive sport is, of course, a mug's game. But the player who would write the biggest story if he won is, of course, Tiger Woods. Woods has a good record at the Open, winning it three times and he plays links golf strategically, unlike many of the pros who turn up with only minor modifications to their normal game. Woods finished in the top 12 in the last Carnoustie Opens, in 1999 and 2007. There is a stellar list of previous winners, including Tom Watson, Gary Player and Henry Cotton. But one other stellar winner's name seizes the imagination: Ben Hogan. Hogan was just short of his 42nd birthday when he came to Carnoustie and won in 1953, his body rebuilt after a serious car accident. Tiger Woods is 42 and has got back into the top 100 in the world golf rankings after major back surgery, following on from a serious knee injury. Oh and a car crash of a private life of course. Could he do it? Well he clearly could. Will he? I'm not betting on it, but what drama that would be.

Thursday, 12 July 2018

How polished is it?

So Boris Johnson has gone from the cabinet, though I expect we'll hear more rather than less from him for a bit, now he's free to speak. Not that he seemed to be backward in coming forward in that respect, mind. And he left with a phrase which can't help but stay in the memory, "polishing a turd". So, is it - the Chequers compromise - a turd?

Well, of course, because it's a compromise then all those seeking a "full" Brexit and all those preferring the softest of non-Brexits will agree that it is, because it's emphatically not what they wish to see. That doesn't mean it isn't the best option now though. It might be, though I have my doubts. However, it might be politically well judged.

If it is the mildest Brexit that most of the Tory hardline Brexiteers could swallow without gagging while also being the hardest Brexit that the Tory remainers can take then it might, with some cross party support, command a Commons majority.

Of course we don't know if the EU will agree to it, or anything like it, though it's notable that they haven't immediately rubbished it like every previous UK pronouncement. The almost radio silence they have maintained suggests a degree of, if not pre-agreement, then at least an advance agreement to leave comments to the actual negotiations. It struck me when May went scooting off to see Merkel and others before the Chequers awayday that an intelligent aporoach might be to agree what could be agreed with the EU beforehand. After all, presenting the cabinet with "this is what we can negotiate" might have been the only way to get agreement round that table. I rather doubt this is what actually happened, mainly because I don't think May is that clever and I doubt it would be any easier to get an unofficial pre-agreement with the biggest gorillas in the rump EU.

But even if there was only an agreement for the EU side to hold their tongues, the clever thing about the Chequers turd is that, if the EU side won't buy it, then it becomes obvious that there isn't much scope for a bespoke agreement. That would mean, as anything softer wouldn't get through the Commons (and wouldn't be much of a Brexit anyway) we're heading for Canada plus plus plus or no official deal. Knowledgeable blogger Wolfgang Munchau has been claiming the probability of no deal is increasing for some time now. One thing May has done is give her Brexiteer wing every chance - and almost every last minute in the negotiating schedule - to come up with a credible version of their Brexit. They failed.

One point that exercised my mind was the statement that we could still do our own free trade deals. Maybe not with the US though, as we would be sticking too close to the EU rule book to import their chlorinated chicken. This rather ludicrous example took hold in our press months ago. On that point, most people seem averse to American chlorinated chicken. And yet we read in the papers a while ago that most of the fresh chicken in our supermarkets is contaminated with campylobacter and that hygiene standards in our processing plants is poor*. Personally I know which I would prefer and it's not food poisoning.

But returning to the main point on the ability to do trade deals with non-EU countries, I think it is notable that, unlike Davis and Johnson, Liam Fox didn't resign, so presumably he thinks he still has a job he can do.

For myself, I don't see how the turd fixes Ireland, though I've already suggested how that can be fixed. (We don't put up border posts whatever. If the Irish are told to do it by the EU then they aren't our border posts and it's not our fault or problem).

The compromise doesn't seem to prejudice my personal red lines: control of borders and no interference in our domestic laws by the ECJ. For example, while I don't have strong feelings about whether prisoners should be able to vote I have extremely strong feelings about a court from outside the UK telling us we must do it. This I will not have - and I think I'm far from alone.

So yes, by definition it's a turd. But it might be the basis of a way forward. Let's see if Barnier thinks it stinks. I don't think I mind too much either way, as long as, if he does, we walk away rather than watering it down further, to mangle my metaphors.

The white paper is published today. We'll see if it's a pile of steaming ordure.

*British supermarket chickens show record levels of antibiotic resistant superbugs. The Guardian, 15 January 2018.