When awe-struck sports fans everywhere in the planet are still rubbing their eyes in disbelief reliving a moment - well, make that 9.58 seconds, to be precise - of near-impossible athletic perfection, one of the most remarkable failures in modern sport may have gone almost unnoticed.
At the Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, the man whose name is synonymous with sporting invincibility - Tiger Woods - brought up another ‘first’ in an extraordinary career bejewelled with pioneering achievements. For the first time ever in a Major championship, Woods failed to win the title after holding the lead going into the fourth and final round.
What is more, the man who will soon become the first billionaire athlete in the history of sport lost to a 37-year-old South Korean world ranked No.110. Yang Yong-Eun did not pick up a golf club until the ripe old age of 19, by which time a teenaged Woods, now aged 33, was already making magazine covers as a prodigy.
Usain Bolt and Woods starred in two events at the extreme ends of the emotional spectrum last weekend. But which is the more surprising?
Most would perhaps opt for Bolt’s feat, something that represents - to borrow Neil Armstrong’s famous words — “a giant leap for mankind.” Obviously, the amiable Jamaican is secretly hatching plans to compete with the great forces of nature, such as light, rather than with fellow members of the species. Maybe astronomers would soon be talking in terms of Bolt-years rather than light-years!
But kidding apart, the greater surprise - even if it was one infused with an aching sadness for some — was Woods’s failure.
It is, too, a surprise that sums up greatness surprisingly well. For, it is a rare intimation of mortality that helps define immortality in sport. That Woods, like his fellow mortals on the golf course, is equally capable of blowing a final round lead is something that, strangely enough, captures the essence of his greatness better than any of his famous triumphs.
Woods won his first Major title at the Augusta Masters in 1997. Since then, he has been almost superhuman in closing out the majors, never faltering at the final hurdle. If the great man was in the lead after 54 holes, those whose job it was to engrave the champion’s name on trophies could confidently begin their work a day ahead.
Last Sunday, Woods, for once, was all too human. “I did everything I needed to except for getting the ball in the hole,” said the winner of 14 Major titles. It is a scenario that every one of his peers would be familiar with. But somehow Woods seemed immune to the viruses that commonly attack his tribe, untouched by golfers’ yips, in a lofty, regal castle of his own.
Psychologically, that fortress was breached by a little known Korean at the 91st PGA championship. But strangely, this might bring greater clarity to our understanding of the Woods phenomenon.
Every time Roger Federer loses before the final of a Grand Slam event - the Swiss maestro has figured in 16 of the last 17 Major finals - every time Woods fails to covert a third round lead into a title on day four, every time Michael Phelps ends up walking behind the winner on the way to the podium - as it happened for the first time in four years in the 200 metres freestyle event in the World Championships in Rome a few weeks ago - we get to realise that the Superman exists only in fiction…and in our imagination.
Sport lends itself easily to myth-making. Often, facts can be lost sight of in a haze of adulation. Woods, Federer and Phelps are great athletes simply because they have managed to maintain incredible levels of motivation over many, many years to make the most of their natural gifts and rise way above the ordinary time and time again.
This, to be sure, doesn’t translate into invincibility or infallibility or indestructibility; it merely offers them a perch in the pantheon all their own even as they soar ever higher “like a cloud of fire,” as did Shelley’s skylark.
Then again, at the end of the day, their true greatness can be understood only when their odd failure on the big stage is exaggerated. This is precisely why the most famous duck in 132 years of Test cricket stands against the name of Donald Bradman - in his last Test innings at the Oval in 1948 - who ended up with an average of 99.94.
Sometimes, just sometimes, there are reasons to celebrate failure, for it provides us the true measure of greatness - the greatness of a Woods, a Federer or a Phelps.