November 18th, 2009
05:54 PM ET

Westwood and McIlroy could provide fitting season finale

Tiger Woods made a brief appearance in Dubai this week, not for the Dubai World Championship, but to inspect his course which has four completed holes.

Lee Westwood could overhaul Rory McIlroy in the Race to Dubai standings.
Lee Westwood could overhaul Rory McIlroy in the Race to Dubai standings.

Its construction is on hold for the moment.

I wonder what discussions took place. It was very much an under-the-radar visit on his way home from winning the Australian Masters and I only found out from some players and agents I know quite well.

He’s gone home now so we can all focus on the season-ender for the European Tour and the sprint to grab the loot in the $15 million Race to Dubai.

I hosted the pro-am prize giving and opening celebration at the Atlantis on Tuesday night where all the players and their families attended.

They are all in a great spirits as they love coming here and making the top 60 to qualify for the richest event must be an awesome feeling.

The facilities around the course for the players and public are excellent, even if on the way out here the course appears from a landscape covered with ugly construction sites.

Lee Westwood, who has reached number five in the world after collecting a bucket of top ten finishes, is my pick to win the tournament and thus overhaul Rory McIlroy in the Race to Dubai standings and collect the $1.5 million bonus.

Lee’s only won once this year but I think we are going to see him break through with a major next year because he’s getting back to his best after months of hard work in the gym and on the practice range.

It’ll be a fitting finale if Lee and Rory battle it out to win the Race to Dubai as they have been the most consistent in Europe all season.

Sometimes it’s hard to believe that Rory is only 20-years-old because he carries himself as if he has been on tour for 10 years instead of only being in his second.

His level of maturity is part of the reason why he copes so well with the pressure of competing at this level and the growing of expectation of him from the public and the media.

It’s been a long year for all the players like Rory and the organizers of the Dubai World Championship so I hope we get an exciting finish come Sunday.

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Filed under:  Golf
November 16th, 2009
09:45 AM ET

Is Pacquiao the greatest?

A "human typhoon" is how one commentator described Manny Pacquiao's demolition of former welterweight champion Miguel Cotto in Las Vegas on Saturday, where, akin to the seasonal storms that have battered his Philippines' homeland recently, the Pac-man rained down powerful punches on his Puerto Rican opponent in a manner that left devastation in the ring.

Pacquiao -- the greatest?
Pacquiao -- the greatest?

Pacquiao has long been revered for his speed, stamina and range of hits, but under the lights of the MGM Grand Garden Arena, the man from Kibawe entered the pantheon of greats with his WBO-title victory.

The win was impressive for a number of reasons. Firstly, Pacquiao was fighting at welterweight for only the second time in his career. There are always doubts whether the strength to win can be maintained when a fighter moves up the weight divisions, so it was remarkable that a man who has gone from super featherweight to welterweight in two years - and who has now fought at nine different weight divisions having started as a light-flyweight - not only had the harder punches, but absorbed the onslaught of a bigger man so easily.

There have been greats who have been multi-weight champions before too (Sugar Ray Leonard, Oscar De La Hoya, Thomas Hearns and Floyd Mayweather), but Pacquiao now has seven world titles to his name - if IBO and Ring magazine belts are included - a mark that beats the record of six set by De La Hoya.

The 30-year-old, who was born in poverty, has also captured his glory the hard way. The twelfth-round stoppage against Cotto gave the world's best pound-for-pound boxer a career record of 50 wins, three defeats and two draws - 55 fights in total. Compare this number of grueling bouts to Mayweather's 40 undefeated, De La Hoya's 45 career fights, Joe Frazier's 37 bouts, Lennox Lewis's 44 or Leonard's 40.

Not only has Pacquiao fought and beaten the best around - including Marco Antonio Barrera, Erik Morales, Juan Manuel Marquez and ending De La Hoya's career - he has endured a greater number of fights than many of his peers.

Bob Arum, a man who has managed some of the biggest names in boxing over the last forty years told reporters: "I've promoted Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, and Manny Pacquiao is the best fighter I have ever seen."

A sentiment that Pacquiao's trainer Freddie Roach agreed with: "Compared to all those names, he's as good as any of them. He's the greatest fighter of his era, for sure. 100 percent."

Like Ali, Pacquiao too has a popularity that transcends his sport. His story of rags to riches has captured the imagination of a legion of fans around the world, he was the first Filipino athlete to appear on a postage stamp and was named as one of the world's most influential people of 2009 by Time Magazine. He also has a keen interest in politics, a passion that should see him run successfully for congress in the Philippines in 2010. If the fight with Floyd Mayweather happens it is expected to be the highest grossing of all-time.

The title of "great" is often used cheaply, but with Pacquiao it is richly deserved.

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Filed under:  Boxing
November 11th, 2009
09:15 PM ET

Tiger brings new excitement to Melbourne

I am a Melbourne boy at heart - the southern Australian city was where I as born and learned to play golf.

Tiger's appearance in the Australian Masters is rivalling the Melbourne Cup in its sporting significance for the locals.
Tiger's appearance in the Australian Masters is rivalling the Melbourne Cup in its sporting significance for the locals.

And like thousands of Melbournians I am thrilled that Tiger Woods is paying a visit to play in the Australian Masters. Sadly I am writing this from London and not from the media center at the course but I am still excited for Australian golf fans.

There will be thousands more spectators paying a visit to the magnificent Kingston Heath just to catch a glimpse of the world number one in action and many more watching on TV.

He hasn’t paid a visit down under for 11 years and he has achieved a lot since then and is now the biggest sports star on the planet.

He brings local and global attention like no other sportsperson and arguably movie star - remember he makes appearances all week and not just a one off on the red carpet.

With that in mind, it will prove to be a great investment by the Victorian Government and some corporate sponsors to pay Tiger’s $3m appearance fee.

My father is the Managing Editor for Rupert Murdoch’s Herald and Weekly times in Melbourne and he says that Tiger is bringing just as much excitement to the city as the Melbourne Cup horse race –- and that’s a big statement of interest in Tiger.

Nothing has ever come close to overshadowing the adrenalin surrounding the Melbourne Cup!

It also means those who don’t really follow golf are interested too.

But horse racing is much bigger in Australia right now than golf and hopefully Tiger will help spark the interest in the sport like Greg Norman did during his heyday.

The top prize for winning the Masters is just AUS$270,000 ($250,000) - part of the reason why top global pros don’t make the long journey down under for the event.

It seems odd that one player is getting 12 times the money of the winner’s cheque for just showing up but that debate is for another time if you ask me.

While Australia doesn’t have a Shark to boost the game it will have to settle for a pricey Tiger.

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Filed under:  Golf
November 11th, 2009
02:07 PM ET

Enke's death shows footballers are human too

The apparent suicide of Germany goalkeeper Robert Enke is a stark reminder that top footballers aren’t immune from the slings and arrows that life throws our way.

We are mourning Robert Enke - Hannover 96's website has been removed of regular content.
We are mourning Robert Enke - Hannover 96's website has been removed of regular content.

In an age when European soccer has never been richer and the rewards for the best players have never been higher it’s easy to envy the game’s stars. Many of them earn more in a week than you or I get paid in a year, simply because they have been born with an exceptional, physical talent.

It’s not easy to empathise with people who are cheered by tens of thousands of fans every week, who travel all over the world at someone else’s expense and who can afford to buy almost anything – houses, jewellery, cars – without thinking twice.

International footballers have lifestyles we can only dream of but that doesn’t mean their lives aren’t a nightmare.

Football may only be a game but, like all professional sport, it is also big business and the pressure to achieve results is huge. Of all the players on the pitch, none is more exposed than the man guarding the net.

As England goalkeeper David James wrote, in the Guardian newspaper earlier this year, “Whereas an outfield player can risk a bad pass and expect to be covered, a goalkeeper has no margin for error. It makes us pretty pedantic and intense at times.”

Tellingly, he goes on to say, “Keepers are guarded and we become more so as we get older.”

Goalkeepers have always been viewed as independent, aloof, a bit quirky even. They pride themselves on being the rock on which a successful team can be built while running the risk that they’ll become the shaky foundations of a bad side.

Robert Enke was a good goalkeeper. He was tipped to be Germany’s number one at next year’s World Cup. After spells with clubs as famous as Barcelona and Benfica, he was playing for Bundesliga side Hannover 96 and his form had attracted interest from the mighty Bayern Munich.

But Enke’s excellence on the field couldn’t protect him from life’s vagaries off it. His two-year-old daughter died three years ago from a heart illness and his wife has admitted the player was suffering from depression. They adopted a baby girl in May and it’s thought Enke was concerned she would be taken away if the authorities learnt about his condition.

If that doesn’t seem an insurmountable problem maybe it simply underlines that Robert Enke’s death is as tragic and mystifying as anyone else’s suicide.

Footballers may be rich and privileged but, in the end, they have no special immunity against the reality of life.

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Filed under:  Football
November 8th, 2009
02:58 PM ET

No slingshot needed as brain triumphs over brawn

The 2009 re-run of David versus Goliath may not have included the slingshot prop of the biblical bout, but the Russian world heavyweight champion, Nikolai Valuev, was felled using the same approach as that which downed the talismanic Philistine: brains outwitted brawn.

Haye stuck to his game-plan in defeating the one-dimensional Valuev.
Haye stuck to his game-plan in defeating the one-dimensional Valuev.

David Haye gave away more than seven stone to WBA titleholder Valuev, but though much had been made of the difference in bulk between the two boxers beforehand, when fight-night came, challenger's game-plan ensured he became the first British heavyweight champion since Lennox Lewis with ease.

Comfortable and relaxed from first bell to last, it is even more remarkable and demonstrative of the rising star of Haye that the former cruiserweight champion secured a points win with a right hand that had been broken in the second round.

Valuev's technique was shown to be slow and one-dimensional. Though the 36-year-old had a fearsome reputation, his straight left jab was his only means of meaningful attack, and when Haye showed that pinning him down with such a blunt instrument would be like trapping oil with a colander, Valuev was left stumped and without a plan B.

The 29-year-old Haye was so effective at avoiding the line of attack from the "Beast from the East" that Valuev was left groping the shadows and spaces the Londoner's lean shape had left in the air prior to moving, a recurring event that morphed the aura of Valuev from fearsome colossus to bemused behemoth in a matter of rounds.

Haye stuck to the script - to hit and not be hit - slipping and sliding around the slow-motion Russian before returning fire with well-placed hooks and humdingers. Prior to the fight, much of the talk was whether Haye would be able to go the distance if required, but in truth the Briton finished with energy to spare, saving the most bombastic combination for round 12.

If fights were still fought over 15 rounds, it was hard to see any other outcome than more punishment for the now lumbering giant, Haye's lifetime dream was minutes away from being realized.

Once crowned, Haye admitted the bout had gone as he had hoped: "I had to make him miss so much that he started thinking twice about what he was going to throw. Once that happened it gave me more room to do my thing."

Haye must face America's John Ruiz in the mandatory defense of his newly-acquired crown for his next fight, but Vitali Klitschko (the WBC champion) has already said that, if Haye comes through unscathed, he is keen to fight to unite the belts.

The victory secured in Nuremburg, Germany may ultimately only prove the first step in a career that will see the unification of the belts by a personality that could light up a division bereft of bums-on-seats characters, but if nothing else it proved once again that the little man can triumph over seemingly unbelievable odds with a little bit of thought.

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Filed under:  Boxing
November 5th, 2009
07:11 PM ET

Matsui's Yankees boost baseball's world profile

The New York Yankees are one of those teams that fans love to hate. You either love the Yankees or you hate them, rarely is there middle ground. Winning the 27th World Series title in franchise history has given the “lovers” of this storied Major League Baseball club reason to smile and the “haters” even more ammunition!

Hideki Matsui led the Yankees to a World Series victory which was closely followed in his native Japan.
Hideki Matsui led the Yankees to a World Series victory which was closely followed in his native Japan.

But there’s something that the Yankees have done that can be lauded by even the so-called “haters”: they’ve helped make the very American sport of baseball become even more of a global game.

Nine of the World Series-winning players on the New York roster were born outside of the United States. The list is fronted by Hideki Matsui, the first Japan-born player to win the World Series' Most Valuable Player award.

Matsui came to the Yankees as a superstar in his native land, a winner of three titles in Japan. But what he did on the game’s biggest stage was simple remarkable. His batting average in the World Series was .615 and he was 8-for-13 at the plate with three home runs and eight runs batted in. Through a translator, Matsui said that he amazed himself: “It’s awesome. Unbelievable.”

Millions of baseball fans in Japan watched Matsui’s heroics. They tuned in at home, in offices, in bars and restaurants, and many even filled downtown Tokyo electronics stores to check out the World Series clinching game. The word “proud” was used time and time again when Japanese baseball fans spoke of the historic performance of their native son.

Asia has always been a hot bed of baseball talent, with Japan feeding the Major Leagues with a number of mouth-watering prospects. Taiwan is now considered an up and coming, talent-rich nation in the region. Of course, Latin America’s contributions to the Major League landscape can not be overstated and now Europe may even be getting in on the mix! This past summer, one Major League team even signed a prospect who calls Germany home. Sure, football will always be king in many parts of the globe, but it’s good to see a sport that I grew up with making major inroads outside of North America.

Forbes magazine has listed the New York Yankees as the fifth most valuable sports franchise in the world. Don’t be surprised if you see Yankees hats and shirts in places where baseball is still a curiosity. After all, who doesn’t want to count themselves as being associated with a winner? Okay, I’m sure the world’s Yankees Haters will take a pass!

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Filed under:  Baseball
November 5th, 2009
02:41 PM ET

Ferguson’s passion still burns brightly

Any thoughts we may have had that Manchester United’s Alex Ferguson might just be a little more conciliatory after a recent brush with English football’s hierarchy over criticism of referees have very quickly proved to be misguided.

Ferguson still makes sure not to pull any punches when dealing with the football authorities.
Ferguson still makes sure not to pull any punches when dealing with the football authorities.

Just minutes after his team’s thrilling Champions League draw with Russia’s CSKA Moscow on Tuesday, the fiery Scot was at it again only this time I have to say he was well justified in his viewpoint.

Fergie, lamenting the fact his men were denied a blatant penalty for a foul on midfielder Darren Fletcher, told post- match reporters that he simply couldn’t believe the decision, describing it as “one of the worst I’ve seen in my lifetime”.

Now how’s that for damping things down!

But for me this latest spat only goes to prove the veteran coach’s appetite for the game is as fervent as ever.

Sir Bobby's advice

The footballing community recently witnessed an emotional farewell to another legendary manager, Sir Bobby Robson.

They came from far and wide to pay tribute to a man who's left an indelible mark on the game he loved. Among those gathered was another of the game's true giants and another "Sir" to boot. That man Ferguson!

There was nothing especially noteworthy about the fact the Scot was at that memorial service in the north- east of England in late September. After all, the great and the good of the football world were all pretty much in attendance. It was more really the little snippet of information Fergie let slip while there that intrigued me.

Remember when he was originally due to retire back in 2001 two seasons after delivering United's first European cup title since 1968? Contrary to popular belief that it may have been his wife Cathy who talked him out of it, the United chief revealed it was in fact Sir Bobby who had a major bearing on his decision. The former England head coach made it quite clear he felt Ferguson was leaving the game far too early.

Once that opinion had been registered, the Scot needed no further reflections. And, as they say, the rest is history. Eight seasons on and one of the sport's most successful managers is still going strong. And how!

Since 1986 he has ruled the roost at Old Trafford, and it's quite clear the passion still burns as brightly as ever. Just witness those frantic last-gasp celebrations when a jubilant Fergie punched the air with glee as United scored the game-winner against a shell-shocked Manchester City recently, scenes hardly in keeping with someone who's not a million miles away from his 70th birthday!

I recall going into the match Sir Alex somewhat demeaningly said that his club's "true" derby was against Liverpool. That's the clash most fans truly relish he added. While there's doubtless plenty of truth to that, judging by the way he danced a jig of joy on the pitch, the fiery Scotsman still keeps plenty in reserve for victories over Mark Hughes' money- laden City.

I personally thought Ferguson would have been strongly tempted to call it quits had his team beaten Barcelona in last season's European Cup final in Italy's magnificent capital city Rome. Indeed, I'm sure he's privately well aware that had his men scored in those opening ten minutes which they dominated, they would surely have gone on to victory against the Catalans.

As it turned out, Barca re-grouped and went on to take control before winning fairly comfortably and that's just one reason I feel the United manager will be around for some time to come. I've got a sneaking feeling, Sir Bobby would have it no other way!

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Filed under:  Football
November 4th, 2009
01:17 PM ET

Has Arsenal's Professor turned into a mad scientist?

Arsenal are flying. They haven’t lost since early September – a run of eleven matches – and if they win their game in hand Arsene Wenger’s side will be second in England’s Premier League.

Wenger's Arsenal have started the season brightly but doubts persist over the Gunners' long term prospects.
Wenger's Arsenal have started the season brightly but doubts persist over the Gunners' long term prospects.

However, even admirers of the Arsenal manager – and I count myself among them – can’t shake a nagging concern.

Is Arsene Wenger’s obsession with beautiful football masking an ugly neglect for winning titles?

I know. I know. That sounds like one of Carrie’s diary entries from “Sex & The City” but you don’t have to be an Arsenal fan to have a crush on Wenger’s young Gunners. Their silky skills and pretty passing can set pulses racing and hearts fluttering.

But the coach who once talked about the metaphorical “prettiest wife at home” must know the best romances are marked with permanent reminders. After four trophy-less seasons, the Arsenal groupies want something to show for their courtship.

In an exclusive interview for CNN, Wenger told me that it was the intelligence of his players which made him confident Arsenal can win the Premier League. He said, “I believe that we have a fair and true chance.”

However, the biggest strengths of his team – its youthful exuberance and technical ability – is also its biggest weakness. The average age of Arsenal’s squad is 23.3, more than a year younger than any other in the Premier League and more than five years younger than the oldest squads. But how often does the youngest squad top the table?

Arsenal’s youth system has been prolific in recent seasons but Wenger has been forced to trust it because the club want to pay off the debt from their new stadium before they splash out on star names.

They have signed experienced players. Andrei Arshavin and Thomas Vermaelen both look like good signings and neither were particularly cheap. But over the same period Wenger sold Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Adebayor.

In the five years up to the end of the 2007/8 season, Arsenal’s net spending (transfer money spent minus transfer money received) was $60 million versus $730 million by Chelsea, $208 million by Liverpool and $157 million by Manchester United.[1]

Those figures prove there is an element of genius about Wenger’s work. He is a master at delivering a lot for very little. Surely, though, now is the time for Arsenal to win a major competition instead of merely illuminating it with their brilliant brand of football.

The longer the wait for another trophy goes on, the stronger the argument that Arsenal’s professor is more of a mad scientist.

[1] Deloitte Annual Review of Football Finance, June 2009.

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Filed under:  Football
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