Colin Byrne: Underdogs starting to nibble at heels of superstars

Reality in top golf, as with any other sport, is that it is increasingly narrow margins that separate best from rest

Fabrizio Zanotti of Paraguay on his way to victory at  the BMW International Open at  Gut Larchenhof GC in Cologne last weekend.

Fabrizio Zanotti of Paraguay on his way to victory at the BMW International Open at Gut Larchenhof GC in Cologne last weekend.


I think we are living in a sporting age that is getting less predictable. The old days of the usual suspects lifting trophies is not a given any more. What a privilege it is to watch the depth of talent there is on the PGA and European Tours challenging and winning against the titans of the game.

I recall Shane Lowry telling me, when he arrived in style on the European Tour, that it was only when he started playing with what were his idols as elite players on television that he realised that they were actually no better than him as golfers.

Of course what he learned in his apprenticeship on tour was that what separates you from the rest is how you deal with yourself under pressure, how you manage your schedule, how you practice, ultimately how you squeeze your talent dry, how you treat your profession.

The reality in top golf as with any other sport is that it is increasingly narrow margins that separate the best from the rest. Look no further than the World Cup of soccer this year and the apparent infiltration of the old ascendancy of world football. Five of the last eight games went to extra-time. With teams like Costa Rica getting through to the quarter-finals, it must give every other underdog team new hope. After Argentina’s win over Switzerland the other night, Lionel Messi said “you have to win games on minor details”.

Even those who have not prevailed in the latter stages have lost by the narrowest of margins. Algeria, not the biggest profile in world football, were beaten by a whisker by the relentless but far from perfect Germans.

Obvious victors

I would imagine if you simply looked at the results of say Brazil and Chile and Germany and Algeria you would have assumed, by habit, that they were the obvious victors. Those who watched know the reality.

Now that we are in the midst of yet another Tiger Woods media revival perhaps it is finally time to let go and enjoy the exciting prospect of the depth of talent on tour instead of pre-programmed star gazing and assumptions that the old guard will always come through. It is hard to let go I admit.

As an appreciator of the skill of soccer but not a soccer fan I found it hard to think that a Columbia/Uruguay contest was going to enthrall. Of course it did. From the heart-pounding patriotism of the pre-match Uruguayan national anthem to the last second of a rare 90-minute game at this tight end of the event, I was captivated.

In Germany last Sunday the all-conquering Viking, Henrik Stenson, set off in a four-man play-off with Rafa Cabrera Bello, Gregory Havret and Fabrizio Zanotti.

Smaller fish

Fabrizio is from Paraguay. He was his country’s top amateur for six years in a row before he turned pro and the reality of being a smaller fish in a bigger pond became apparent. He took some time to reach his first title but when he got his chance, no matter how intimidating the play-off may have been with the world’s number two golfer and two other European stalwarts surrounding him, the charming Paraguayan seized his moment for victory on the fifth extra hole.

Having been in a winning position three times previously without success his patience and persistence was finally rewarded.

These tenacious qualities are what produce winners. The winners that we used to assume were going to win because our sub-conscious told us that this is the way it should be. The brand names ultimately prevail they told us and we lazily accepted this.

How emotive it is to watch an underdog challenge the establishment. Anyone watching the dogged Americans as rare underdogs – this unique position they hold in world soccer will not be for long it seems – could not help but wish they could equalise against the deserved winners Belgium on Tuesday night.

Tour card

Much like it was last weekend in Washington and in Köln, both play-offs involved the old and the new. Those we were programmed to think should win and the reality of modern day competition. Anyone who has a tour card and gets into a play-off has a very high chance of winning no matter what has happened in the past.

I recall the advice of my ex-boss Greg Turner from New Zealand, who was acutely aware of his limited talent relative to the superstars. I must have had a skeptical look on my face when he was faced with the challenge of beating a scoreboard full of stars. He calmly reassured me that anyone who plays on tour can beat anyone else on any given day: the superstars just do it more regularly.

I would have been intrigued to hear the sage words of realistic optimism coming from the managers of the underdogs in this year’s World Cup, some of whom prevailed and others who didn’t but went down with grace and courage. Players of undoubted talent, but without the global profile, probably needed some convincing reassurance from the worldly-wise managers to make them believe that they belong.

I didn’t even know what Shawn Stefani looked like before the final round in Congressional in last week’s PGA tournament. No more than I knew who the sponsors Quicken Loans were. The old guard, in the person of Justin Rose, prevailed in a play-off, but the new are only a few millimetres apart in a subtle game of centimetres.

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