There are few better feelings than the sporting mood swing that takes place at this time of year. The clocks go forward and leave behind frozen pitches, abandoned race meetings and the set menu of men chasing balls of varying shapes in fixtures of no relevance. Now is when things start to matter. Defeat at rugby or football can be season-defining, a knockout blow, a pack-up-and-go-home moment. That’s real sport, the kind that matters because the hurt from losing takes time to heal.
There is no denying the appeal of the sharp end of the Champions League and Heineken Cup, but beyond lies a sporting summer of wonderful variety. Formula 1, tennis, cricket and athletics are all stocked with performers as good as it gets, but first up and most tantalising is spring’s heavyweight curtain-raiser, the Masters.
You don’t have to see the world through the bottom of a large pink gin to realise that golf is now the real global battleground of individual sport. Since the Masters of 2001 — 40 majors ago — golf’s biggest prizes have been won by players from North and South America, Europe, Africa, Asia and Australasia. Arguably the best player ever, Tiger Woods, is in apparent decline; his greatest rival, Phil Mickelson, has not won for a year; and of the top three players in the world, all European, only one (Martin Kaymer) has won a major championship.
Who puts on the green jacket in Augusta National’s Butler Cabin on Sunday week is almost impossible to predict. But you might care to have a small investment in Europe’s Lee Westwood and Luke Donald, who have been out there this week having a crafty practice, or much more likely America’s Nick Watney, who should go well. He’s not disgraced himself in three appearances at Augusta, twice in the top 12, has already won on the US tour this year, and is putting very well.
Twenty-five years ago Augusta played host to what many regard as the greatest golf tournament ever. The Masters of 1986 featured a Sunday showdown involving Seve Ballesteros, Greg Norman, Nick Price and the Toms, Kite and Watson. Through it all came 46-year-old Jack Nicklaus to claim his 18th and final major championship. The Masters does epic like few other sporting occasions. The setting helps — how green can one place be? But the timing is also perfect. It is a signal of an end of sporting hibernation, of a game of consequence and, most importantly, of why winning matters.
When Lewis Hamilton made his Formula 1 debut in 2007 he was supposed to be motor racing’s answer to Woods. This was nothing to do with ethnicity, just anticipated dominance for years to come. He blew a championship in his first season, although as a rookie that can be forgiven. He almost blew his second year when, despite a dominant car, he needed to overtake a rival on the last corner of the last lap of the last race to secure the title. The following two seasons brought wins but no championship. What must he have been thinking last weekend as Sebastian Vettel drove off into the distance in his Red Bull? ‘That was meant to be me’ is a fair guess. The combination of Vettel and what Hamilton refers to as a drinks company may well mean that Lewis’s time has been.
Much tut-tutting over Geoff Boycott and his jaw-dropping insensitivity over poor Mike Yardy pulling out of England’s World Cup campaign with depression. But everyone knows Boycs is the meanest man on the planet. If he wasn’t so mean no one would listen to him. And he was probably right too. After all, Marcus Trescothick could hit sixes better than anyone since Viv Richards and he got depressed. Yardy was being smashed out of the ground on worldwide TV. Who can blame him for letting it get on top of him?
Roger Alton is an executive editor at the Times