Monday, 12 April 2010

Great British 'Bottlers'

Late last night Phil Mickelson won his third Masters trophy. Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood had topped the leader-board at the half-way stage and Lee Westwood was still in pole position as the final day's action got under-way. Neither Poulter nor Westwood, however, were able to capitalise on their strong starts and rather than becoming the first Brit to win the Masters since 1996, Westwood could only add his name to long list of Brits to have 'bottled it' on the biggest stage.

Westwood has finished 3rd, 3rd and 2nd in his last three Majors and seems unable to cross the finishing line and claim that elusive Major trophy. He joins the likes of Tim Henman who get labelled as 'bottlers' or 'chokers' because of their inability to capture the biggest prizes.

Is it wrong to say that he 'bottled it'? He finished at an impressive -13 but his final round was a timid 71. Mickelson cruised past the Brit as he carded a fourth round score of 67 to finish comfortable winner at -16. Westwood played himself into the driving seat but let the trophy slip through his hands. As good as Mickelson played, it was Westwood's title to lose and, when the pressure was on, he did just that.

Unlike Henman, Lee still has many many years left to play and if he continues on the form he has been showing the last couple of years he is sure to have another chance to secure a Major. Mickelson broke his duck at the age of 33 back in 2004 and has gone on to four Majors so there is till plenty of time for Lee, 36, to get his hands on one.

Tiger Tim played in six Grand-slam semi-finals but never reached a final and therefore, obviously, never won a Grand-slam. The question is whether or not Tim was ever good enough to win one of the big four tournaments? I don't think he was. He may have bottled it when he lost in the semi-finals of Wimbledon to Goran Ivanisevic in five sets despite being in a dominant position. Ultimately, he was not as good as Sampras, Hewitt or Federer all of whom beat he regularly. To win a Grand-slam you have to be the best in the world, on that surface or at that time, as you will have to beat the best and Henman did not have the quality to beat the elite.

This is not dissimilar to the situation that Murray finds himself in. He has gone one step further than Henman and has reached two Grand-slam finals but has lost both to Roger Federer. Murray cannot be said have 'bottled it'. He lost to the greatest player to ever pick up a racquet. So high are the expectations that we readily place upon our sports stars that when they fail to reach the heights we expect they are labelled as 'bottlers'.

The England football team has exited both of the last two tournaments on penalties. This was repeated in 1996 and 1998 as well. This has been a classic example of the British vulnerability to 'choking' under pressure. When Gareth Southgate stepped up against Germany in '96 he knew that the hopes and dreams of a nation lay on his shoulders. It is hard not have sympathy for these people who have come so close but been unsuccessful.

As a nation we seem to have a habit of 'bottling it' on the big occasions, but why? My explanation would be that we are generally, as a nation, quite reserved. We see arrogance as such a negative trait in society today and yet is so important in sports. Just look at our cricketing rivalry with Australia. We hate their arrogance and yet that is why they go into the ashes, and other cricket tournaments, with the edge both technically and, more importantly, mentally.

Contrast us with America. They instil clichés such as 'you can do whatever you put your mind to' into their society. They are far more confident and outspoken than ourselves, you only have to look at the characters in the NBA or NFL to see how different they are to our football or in rugby stars. This self-belief could be the difference at the 'crunch moments'. Such assurance, which we some commonly mistake for arrogance, could be why other nations so often enjoy sporting success over us or maybe it is just because we simply don't produce the same level of talent.

If you look at characters like Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Cristiano Ronaldo, Floyd Mayweather Jr, Randy Moss, Tiger Woods (perhaps) even our own David Haye, you can see how their 'arrogance' has been so important to their success. It allows them to perform at the highest level and on the biggest stages with unerring confidence. Talent in, of course, integral but as the old saying goes; 'winning is 10% physical, 90% mental.' It is this mental strength that our sports stars may lack and is why they seem to fall at the final hurdle.

This, in my opinion, is why Sampras could beat Henman, why Germans beat us on penalties, and why Westwood was left watching Mickelson sink a the winning put on the green of 18th hole at Augusta.

I would be very interested to hear what you all think about this matter. Did Westwood 'bottle it' last night? Is it something that is unique to Britain, and if so, why do you think that is?


  1. Westwood was unlucky from what I managed to see. We have to remember he was beaten by an incredible golfer who, if Tiger Woods didn't exist, would most probably have dominated world golf for the last 10 years. Add to this the fact that he had the whole crowd to pull him through. Mickelson played an incredible round. That shot out of the pine needles from behind the tree that he put within 4 feet of the hole was just breath-taking. I reckon Westwood will get over the line soon.

    I think the concept of British people bottling it is wrong though. Did Jensen Button or Lewis Hamilton bottle formula one titles? Did Redgrave bottle his 5th gold? Did Chris Hoy bottle it on the track in China? We have just failed to produce a Federer or a Woods in a sport that really matters. We've done it before (Faldo, 1966) and im sure we will do it again. When you consider the size of our nation and the funding some of these sports get its not surprising really..

    Were the England teams that lost to Germany in 96, Argentina in 98, Brazil in 02 and Portugal twice ever good enough to win the major honours? I dont think so.

  2. Lee Westwood did not bottle the Masters. Mickelson won the Masters rather than Westwood losing which would have been the case had he bottled it. No player has ever shot 4 rounds in the 60s at Augusta which is what Westwood would have been required to do were he to beat Mickelson.

    Lee is a solid tee to green golfer, never likely to pull off breath taking shots e.g. Mickelsons on the 13th (although he did admit he pulled that which means considering a pull gets extra distance that he could have been paying a visit to the creek had he hit it properly or at the very least have had a difficult 2 putt). Instead Lee will hit fairways and greens steadily but due to a less able short game (when compared to Mickelson/Tiger)is not as likely to be able to recover. Which is why he would view the Masters as the least likely of the majors that he could win due to ability to go wild and survive from the pine straw, you go that wild at Turnberry last year and you lost your ball even with the spectators looking for it.

    The turning point for that Masters was the Saturday with Mickelson going eagle, eagle, birdie. Anyway my point is not only that Lee didn't bottle it but that also is best chance of a major will come at St Andrews, Pebble Beach or Whistling Straits.

    Incidentally Faldo was 1996, he isn't that old. Prior to that there was Sandy Lyle and Ian Woosnam. Greg Norman bottled that tournament shooting +6 in the final round having had a 6 shot lead he would lose by 5.

  3. Westwood to win the masters would have to had to shoot 67 on the last day. It came with a stat on the bbc coverage that noone has ever shot 4 rounds in the 60's at augusta which lee would have to had done. not a bottler. just someone waiting his turn. I think just like harrington his time will come to win majors and not just the one

  4. Ok, I appreciate that Mickelson played a great round of golf to win the Masters. The point remains was that Phil was able to have a round of 67 when it mattered. Westwood, having already had three round under 70, was unable to maintain his form under the pressure of being in first place. As good as Mickelson played when you are leading a tournament in the final day then all you must do is continue your form, Lee could not manage this. As I did comment, however, I am sure that Lee will have have the same chance again in the not too distant future and he will hopefully learn from his experience and not bottle it!

    Aside from the case of Westwood though the post was a focus on whether or not this a British sporting trait. Rutherford, I acknowledge that we have certainly produced sportsmen who can dominate their field such as Hoy or Redgrave. As you say though, we need to do it in a sport that really matters and not one of the less cared about Olympic events. Moreover these sports they compete in are not as competitive as the other sports I was looking at. Hoy can get by on his talent to a large extent whereas in other sports the talent differential at the top is minimal and thus mental strength plays a much bigger part. Where have the Wimbledon champions been, the Masters winners, the World Cup medals?

    It is, for me, a combination of the lack of talent, which is to be expected from a country as small as our own, and through a lack of mental resolve. Even though the England football teams may not have been good enough to win the major tournaments over the last 14 years the fact remains that when you are knocked out on penalties, as the case has been four of the last five times, talent goes out the window. It is about the ability to perform under pressure and we generally don't seem to be able to do that.

    It is why as a nation we are so much happier being the underdog at any sporting events because the case usually is that when there is great expectations for a British individual or team it is so often followed by great disappointment.


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