Bill Elliott: Fighting Tiger's corner

A recent radio debate threw up the old "you don’t have to be fit to play golf" argument. Well you do if you want to compete with the best in the world.

IF there is anything I like less than getting up early in the morning it is getting up early in the morning and having a man who is far too smart for his own good ask me dodgy questions for public consumption.

This very thing occurred recently when the producers of Radio 4 s Today programme decided in their finite wisdom that they would like me to put the case for Tiger Woods when it comes to naming the Greatest Sportsman Of All Time. Now this is some title. All Time meant that I was fighting the corner of someone who is maybe only halfway through their career versus everyone else who ever has lived, including David (of Goliath fame), Hercules (early Olympic weightlifting), Pele (football) and, of course, Muhammad Ali (boxing, speaking, good looks and anti-Vietnam war categories).

My opponent was a journalist who unsurprisingly, if boringly, plumped for Ali. John Humphrys, taking a break from trying to stab some cabinet minister s eyes out, acted as referee and, after hearing Ali s name, he threw the discussion over to me. Er, well, I rather like Ali too, I said weakly while Humphrys harrumphed in the style that has made him the holder of the All-Time Radio Harrumpher title.

Undeterred, I pointed out that while Ali was the indisputable All Time Most Interesting Sportsman, his fighting record was terrific but flawed and he had boxed on long past his sell-by date with terrible repercussions. In terms of domination of a sport, helping to grow a game, titles held and records broken, Tiger is now without peer. Also he has a way to go yet.

I surprised myself as I said this because I realised that far from taking part in role play for a bit of radio fun I actually believed it. Viewed kindly, I seemed to have made a bit of a fist of my side of my debate. Except that Humphrys then wheeled on me to ask: Athletic ability? There you are, do you need any real athletic ability to play golf?

Oh god, I groaned inwardly, not that old chestnut. I have yet to spend too much time in pubs and bars but I know I have spent far too much time in these places arguing with some idiot about whether golf may be defined as a sport. It s a pastime innit? The Idiot Of The Day always says. I mean you don t need to be fit and you can even smoke while you re doing it.

Yes, yes, that is correct, I always reply. And, you know what, you can smoke while playing football (I have), rugby, cricket or even, if you choose, while competing in the London Marathon. You can even do all these things while possessing zero athletic ability or aerobic fitness. Watch some Sunday morning park football if you don t believe me. Smoking is a no-no only if you are at the dentist s or, possibly, if embarking on a marathon snog.

While it is not necessary to be either fit or athletic to play golf, in the modern professional game athleticism is a must. Does John Humphrys or anyone else think these guys drive the ball 300 yards-plus just because equipment has improved? Mostly it s because they now can swing the club at up to 150mph.

If the average bloke or blokette you, me, her tried this we would probably (a) split our spines, (b) fall over and (c) choke on our fags. The present-day professional spends his or her time either on the course or practice range or in a gym. Their drink of choice is a bottle of water and they aim to be able to look at themselves naked in a full-length mirror without feeling queasy and then to pull on golf clothing far too tight for them.

Try telling them that athletic fitness is not relevant and be prepared to stand back very quickly. In the nanoseconds I was given by Radio 4 to develop my thesis on this I m afraid I rather let the side down. I ve decided that what I am best at early in the morning is spluttering, not talking, and certainly not dredging up coherent thought.

To do these things a man would need to enjoy serious athletic fitness, feel instinctively that he could, if required, jump over the moon and even then go to bed before midnight. I m afraid I rarely go to bed before the witching hour and, obviously, as a golfer, I am of course serially out of shape.

Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee? How about stumble around like an idiot before striking a ball listlessly?

Actually my radio opponent threw up the butterfly-bee quote as an example of Ali s memorable eloquence. He was, of course, mistaken about this because even the idiot in the pub knows that this was a phrase coined by Muhammad s cornerman Bundini Brown.

Before I could silence him with this piece of history Humphrys harrumphed and closed the discussion. So I m telling them both now. I win. Don t you think?

Editor At Large

Bill has been part of the Golf Monthly woodwork for many years. A very respected Golf Journalist he has attended over 40 Open Championships. Bill  was the Observer's golf correspondent. He spent 26 years as a sports writer for Express Newspapers and is a former Magazine Sportswriter of the Year. After 40 years on 'Fleet Street' starting with the Daily Express and finishing on The Observer and Guardian in 2010. Now semi-retired but still Editor at Large of Golf Monthly Magazine and regular broadcaster for BBC and Sky. Author of several golf-related books and a former chairman of the Association of Golf Writers. Experienced after dinner speaker.