We get a charge out of seeing people at the top of their game professionally, or in a sport, or whatever. Obvious excellence leads us to reflect on the worth of the person showing it – and the worth of what they do for us. ‘Worth’ like ‘dignity’ is a word that is abused, but we resort to it to describe something that we think is good and to be valued – and not, of course, just in money. If I see someone cast a fly or drive a golf ball as well as I can imagine it, I feel good – just as I feel good when hearing Jussi Bjorling sing Nessun Dorma, or when I look at one of the bridal series of Arthur Boyd. If you are really lucky you can get a super charged sense of grateful elevation at the foot of the Iguazzu Falls, or on the rim of the Grand Canyon, or when Mount Kanchenjunga hauls into half the horizon.
A lot moonshine is spread about advocacy, and cross-examination in particular, but once about thirty five years ago, I sat bedside Neil McPhee, QC, as he cross-examined a hard-nosed manager from the Richmond Football Club – and the little Scot knew where some of their skeletons were buried – for about twenty minutes so as to elicit concessions that neither the witness nor his counsel seemed to notice. Here was a technique that no one can teach. I actually held my breath at times. I was on the edge of my seat – I could have been in the front row of the circle at Covent Garden for Fonteyn and Nureyev. There was a worth beyond my imagining. I have never seen anything like it.
Some sports champions have a complete aura of their worth. Muhammad Ali was a man like no other. He changed other people’s lives (including some of our articled clerks who got close to him on the MCG and who came back with a barely subdued sense of wonder. They had been in his presence, and it showed.) Jack Nicklaus walking down the eighteenth fairway to the adulation of the crowd looked to me to be not just regal, but imperial. He just oozed calm authority. And Viv Richards provoked in his opponents the kind of fear normally reserved for those facing fast bowlers. In a world cup final, the game was stagnating until Richards backed away and flayed the ball to the fence from which it rocked back about half-way to the pitch. As the crowd became frenzied, Richie Benaud said quietly, and nasally: ‘There was an element of contempt in that stroke.’ On his day, Virat Kohli can evoke up similar emotions. These are the kinds of moments we celebrate in sports.
These notions came to me last night as I watched a replay of the Wednesday before the Masters at Augusta in, I gather, the last few years. They get past champions to compete over the par three holes. Gary Player (82), Jack Nicklaus (78) and Tom Watson (68) were matched. Three titans – three world beaters – all with their own majestic aura and each of them way beyond any measured worth. They were obviously not what they had been. But none of them duffed one stroke, and you could still sense an underlying steel in the players in the carnival atmosphere of the adoring multitude. Watson beat the whole field. And I was getting it all for just about nothing – at a time when a virus is robbing us of the balm of sports and our weekends feel barren, if not desolate. As sports events go, you would find it hard to beat this. Here was worth that was indeed beyond all comparison.
Then something happened that event organisers and TV producers just dream of. As happens in these pro-am type days, caddies were given a shot. It came to the turn Nicklaus’ caddie. He was I think sixteen. His practice swings showed that he was a natural whose swing had been finely honed. He showed no sign of nerves. He hit his tee shot cleanly and beautifully. Replays showed Gary Player vocally celebrating the shot from the moment it took flight until the time it came to rest. It ran to the back of the green. Then it started to roll back. In the direction of the hole. And it slowly became clear that something wonderful might happen. Which it did! In the hole! Pandemonium. Then it turns out that the caddy is the grandson of the man some say is the greatest golfer ever, Jack Nicklaus, who looked every bit of his age, and who was celebrating above all others. He just radiated his exultation.
Well, we must just hope that that ‘miracle’ does not put a spanner in the life of that young man –as Neil Crompton’s match winning goal did for him (‘the Frog’s goal’) in the 1964 Grand Final. (I was there with my mum – right behind the Frog, although at the other end of the ground.) The whole crowd and commentariat were suffused with benevolence. It led to a kind of uplift which is so much needed in a frightened world where we are hourly reminded that we are not what we were cracked up to be. It is the kind of innocent elation that you can get from the best of sport or theatre or concert. And what kind of ratbag would wish to put a price on that result?
This is kind of boost we need for what we might hope for that notion that each of us has a certain worth or dignity merely because of our humanity. And, as it seems to me, these great golfers are as well placed as any one to remind us of that basic truth.
Well, I am reading War and Peace for the fourth time, so I may be allowed some mysticism in my solitary sequestration sans sport. But I have to report that Natasha does not get any easier to cope with from one reading to the next, and she just keeps exploding more loudly in the 1972 BBC version until – well you know when until. And I have just passed that bit where Pierre – I thought it was Prince Bolkonsky, to whom I have taken a shine – allowed himself a philosophical observation on the subject of death. When we die, Pierre (Antony Hopkins) says, we either get all the answers – or we stop asking the questions. That notion has always seemed to me to be both fair and comfortable. Who could ask for anything more?