x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Golf:making up the numbers

Ranking systems, big names and crowd attendances raise questions in golf - but we are all only human.

There appears to be an echo at the top of the world of golf.

"I am human and not perfect," said Tiger Woods, the erstwhile world No 1, after crashing his SUV at the bottom of his driveway in November 2009.

"I'm not a machine, I am not a robot," said Martin Kaymer, a third of the way through his inexorable march to the Falcon Trophy this week.

He is up to No 2 in golf's world rankings, and is fast closing the gap on Lee Westwood at the pinnacle.

The words might have differed, but the sentiments were the same: we are only human.

Woods is not perfect? Kaymer is not a hitting-machine sent back from the future to tear-up the National Course, and everywhere else besides? Who would have thought it?

And who, more importantly, would have ever envisaged the competition for the world No 1 ranking being a competitive one?

Not long ago, Woods had such a monopoly, no one else even thought to pursue it.

"I've never really put the No 1 player in the world out there as a goal because we played golf in the Tiger Woods era and that just didn't seem achievable," Graeme McDowell said last week.

The man was so far ahead, he even had his own era.

Kaymer himself has a fixed view. "I consider Tiger Woods the best player in the world, the best player who ever lived," he said on Saturday.

Yet he has now leapfrogged Woods by moving into second-place. "To be in front of him for a week or a month, that would make me happy for sure," Kaymer said.

With the field now open and the No 1 ranking set to fluctuate for some time to come, it is difficult to say definitively who is the best on Planet Golf.

When asked whether they do covet the title, the players tend to plead indifference.

"I think it's more interesting to see how it plays out in the majors, how it goes at the Masters and the US Open and the Open and so forth," Phil Mickelson, the four-time major winner, said.

The four major title winners from last year were all here this week, and Kaymer easily won out.

So is he the best? Probably. At least, until the rust has eased out of Westwood's game following his winter break.

Comparisons are supposed to be odious (an adage which is clearly not true: if that really is the case, why did someone bother thinking up the world rankings system in the first place?)

Perhaps the more pertinent question here is, does the fact there is now a debate over who is the best, which there never was while Woods was so far ahead, add to the appeal of the sport?

Do more people line the fairways, or switch on the television, because there is now a genuine battle for the transient title of "Best Golfer in the World"?

Clearly, they do not. When it comes to watching sport, one-party dominance, apparently, is a good thing.

In the book Why England Lose, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski, two football-loving economists, argued that unbalanced leagues - such as football's Primera Liga in Spain where two teams, Barcelona and Real Madrid, have dominated ad infinitum - are more popular with fans than open ones. They provide the attendance figures to prove it.

Their explanation is essentially three-fold. Unbalanced leagues prompt David v Goliath type confrontations; dominant teams have all the charismatic stars which attract supporters; and the fans either support the big teams or they loath them.

The same broadly follows in the world of golf.

Anyone going up in the final round against Woods, golf's great behemoth, during his glory years, earned plenty of sympathy and support because of the apparent hopelessness of the quest.

A David-like cause, if ever there was one.

On the second point, has golf's charisma quotient dimmed because of the fall of Woods? Definitely.

Even though, the four major winners were all present in the capital this weekend, the galleries still had plenty of elbow-room around the greens.

Had Woods been here, the crowd would have swelled more than the lakes did during Friday afternoon's deluge.

The final point is slightly foggy. The morality police may dislike Woods now for his off-course indiscretions, but golf is generally far too polite for there to be any great loathing going about.

At his height, he was loved in great measure.

So while all the rest jockey to claim his mantle, the best needs to stage a renaissance if golf is to maintain its pull.