Sporting chokes strike fear into the biggest stars

Joe Mclean

The unraveling of 21-year old Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy in the recent US Masters golf tournament was just the latest in a long line of sporting meltdowns. The sporting choke can strike at any time and has been known to effect bigger and more experienced names than the young golfer.

But he is in good company, ever since Devon Loch collapsed just before the winning post in the 1956 Grand National, the enigmatic failure has captured the British imagination far more than the uncomplicated winner.

With victory almost within grasp, the mind can play dangerous games with our sporting heroes. I’m sure more highly qualified people than me, with degrees in sporting psychology could explain the real reasons behind it, but ultimately I have to hold my hands up and say I enjoy watching them unfold. Not in a sadistic way, for it was not at all pleasurable watching McIlroy hacking around Augusta like me at the local pitch and putt. Yet witnessing this drama somehow makes our sports stars seem all the more human, they can fail just like us and it seems they can make mistakes after all.

When it comes to viewing sport, the meltdown is a must see. I mean who really wants to watch the safe pair of hands, the calm head or the steely determined sports star anyway? If they were all in this mould then watching sport would be no fun at all. For every Stephen Hendry I want a Ronnie O’Sullivan, I would much rather see the unpredictable, rash play of Ronnie, with his threat of walking away from the table at any moment hanging in the air, (as he has demonstrated in the past). And for every Michael Schumacher I want to see the flamboyance of an Ayrton Senna or the daredevil attitude of a James Hunt.

In truth there’s nothing better than watching millionaire sport stars throwing a temper tantrum in front of legions of adoring fans. So credit where credit is due to young McIlroy, for handling his public choke in front of millions around the world, in the manner he did. When he left the last green he gave a TV interview and conducted himself in a style befitting a golfer far senior in age and experience than his. In the aftermath he treated the defeat graciously, giving credit to the eventual winner Charl Schwartzel.

Personally speaking, if it had been me I would have been more ‘Happy Gilmore’ than happy go lucky at the end of that round. I would not have been able to conduct myself in that manner, I would have smashed my driver against one of Augusta’s pine trees, threw my golf bag in the lake and launched my putter into the ‘patrons’, but that’s why I’m serving a life time ban from my local pitch and putt course and not playing at the masters.

Other famous stars who have fell at the final hurdle include great sporting names and icons such as Greg Norman, the ‘Great White Shark’ himself faltering on the last day of the Masters at Augusta. In football we witnessed the ‘divine ponytail’ Roberto Baggio famously choke with the final penalty for Italy at the World Cup USA ’94. He had carried his country to the final, scoring the winner in each round, but in the final against Brazil in what should have been his moment of triumph he watched helplessly as his kick sailed over the bar and with it, his country’s hopes.

Another iconic image from the world of golf was of Jean Van de Velde, trousers rolled up, standing in the burn playing the 18th hole of the 1999 British Open, only for him to triple-bogey and snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, with the famous Claret Jug within pouring distance.

For every stiff upper lip and displays of sporting graciousness we also have the rebels of the pack. Those sports stars that wear their hearts on their sleeve and don’t care how many people are watching, if they aren’t winning it then as far as they are concerned nobody should.

When things weren’t going so well, Mike Tyson, once the most feared fighter on the planet, decided to take a bite out of Evander Holyfield’s ear during a heavyweight battle in Las Vegas in June of 1997. Likewise French football star Zinedine Zidane literally saw red at the 2006 World Cup Final, when he floored Italian defender Marco Materazzi with a head butt to the chest of the Italian defender, after he apparently insulted his sister.

In the normally sedate tennis world of strawberries and cream, Serena Williams let her emotions get the better of her, losing her U.S. Open Semifinal against Kim Clijsters in 2009, when she unleashed the following tirade to a lineswoman “ I swear to God, Ill fucking take this ball and shove it down your fucking throat.” An outburst that would surely have them choking on their Pimms at SW1.

Then there is the sub division, the bubblers and criers. From Gazza at the 1990 World Cup to boxer Oliver McCall, who broke down in tears during the fourth round of a 1997 heavyweight title fight against Lennox Lewis in Las Vegas. And in the world of Tennis Jana Novotná, blubbing on the Duchess of Kent’s shoulder after collapsing in a Wimbledon final in 1993.

In sport as in life, failure is only relative: it is how you handle failure that matters. And I applaud the way McIlroy handled his failure after the Masters. Maybe it’s a lesson to us all in how to conduct ourselves, but there is still that part of me that would have loved to see him smash his driver against a tree!


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