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Forty years on from the Rumble in the Jungle, we ask why Muhammad Ali continues to resonate – and look at the man behind the myth
Muhammad Ali

“My big concern today is that Ali is famous simply for being famous,”

says Thomas Hauser, Muhammad Ali’s official biographer, friend and someone who knows the former boxer’s life story as well as anyone. “People know that he stood up for his principles, but they really don’t know what his principles were. Really, to fully appreciate what he meant, you almost had to live through his times – and every day pick up the newspaper to find something about this man.”

Ali is widely revered as the greatest sporting figure of all time. Not just – understandably – from people of his own generation, but from those now in their teens, 20s or early-to-mid 30s who, as Hauser puts it, “have no independent recollection of Muhammad Ali as a fighter or Muhammad Ali as a social force”.

Muhammad Ali

Consider this: when the BBC Sports Personality Awards asked viewers to name their sportsperson of the century, Ali came first – claiming more than half of all votes cast. That means that every sports star in history combined – Pele, Jesse Owens, Jack Nicklaus, Michael Jordan, Don Bradman and, yes, even freshwater angling legend Bob Nudd – polled less than Ali.

This is not a one-off. A Sport survey in 2011 asked our readers to name the greatest athlete in history. Again, Ali claimed more than 50 per cent of the vote – his own tally more than the sum total of any sportsman or woman who’s ever lived. Yet Ali is now 72 years old. His last win in a boxing ring came in 1978. Why does he hold a generation far removed from his own in such thrall?

The hype

“Muhammad Ali is someone I’ve been looking up to since I was young,” Amir Khan told Sport when asked to name his boxing idol. “He has had a great career and he’s a role model in boxing – both inside and outside the ring.”

Bearing in mind that Ali was several years retired by the time the now 27-year-old Khan was born, what was it about him that first captured British boxer’s attention? “It’s the way he was outside the ring, really,” says Khan. “He was so sharp, so confident. The way he predicted fights was incredible. That was all new in those days. He’d say: ‘I’m going to knock you out in this round.’ And then he’d knock them out in that round. It was unheard of at the time. It was the charisma he brought to boxing – the hype.”

It was Ali’s personality – his quotes, his bombast, his ability to sell a fight – that made Khan first connect with Ali. Not his skills, social impact or his beliefs. As you’d expect from someone whose workplace is the boxing ring, Khan has now watched many of Ali’s great fights, and understands better than most the impact he had on the boxing world and beyond. 

However, you could easily make a case that many of those who voted for Ali as the greatest athlete of all time based their choices on not much more than an eye-catching smile, some ear-catching quotes and a sense of people going along with a widely held consensus. How many have actually watched a large number of his fights? Or truly understand what he stood for outside the ring in the 1960s and ’70s?

Grasping what Ali meant as a social force is the trickiest part of his legacy. While they might come as no surprise to boxing aficionados, some of the beliefs Ali held in the prime years of his career might shock many who consider him an idol.

Devils and spaceships

Ali was a conscientious objector to the war in Vietnam, a courageous stance in that it cost him financial and sporting success. It led to his being stripped of his world heavyweight championship in 1967 aged 25, and a three-and-a-half-year exile from boxing.

Eventually, it also brought Ali widespread popularity as public opinion in the US slowly turned against the war. In the 1960s, however, Ali belonged to the Nation of Islam. The Nation of Islam, as Hauser explains, “is very different from orthodox Islam. It’s a form of American apartheid, where they preached that the white people were devils.”

The Nation also preached that the white devil race was created by a scientist, Mr Yakub, 6,600 years ago – and that manmade UFOs circled the earth that would one day bomb the world. In other words, Muhammad, David Icke and Tom Cruise have been in touch – and they think your theories are a little out there.

Muhammad Ali

Over time, Ali’s views gradually changed. He became an orthodox Muslim and someone who embraced people of all races and faiths. And yet the fact remains that, for a period at the peak of his career, his stated beliefs make uncomfortable reading for many today – even if they are the understandable result of growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, at a time when racial discrimination was the norm. 

Hauser points out that it wasn’t the details of Ali’s belief structure that were important, but that his stance against the US government and the scale of his profile was such that it changed the world.

“You have to remember that when Ali beat Sonny Liston [in 1964], it was a crime in many states for black people and white people to marry,” he explains. “Segregation was the law of the land, and when he burst upon the scene, an awful lot of black people thought it was better to be white. Reggie Jackson – a very famous baseball player – said that to me. That before Muhammad Ali, there were times when he was ashamed of being black, but that obviously he is proud of being black now. Muhammad Ali was part of that growth process for him. 

“Every time Ali said ‘I’m so pretty’, what he was really saying – before it became fashionable – was ‘black is beautiful’. And he became a beacon of hope not just for black people, but for oppressed people all over the world.”

Nonetheless, Ali took a more militant, segregationist stance than other black civil rights figures, such as Martin Luther King. Ali also turned his back on his friend Malcolm X (pictured, above right) after the latter split from the Nation of Islam. Ali later called it: “One of the mistakes that I regret most in my life.”

Fighting man

When Hauser refers to Ali now being famous just for being famous, he’s referring to people misunderstanding his athletic achievements as well. “People hear names like Sonny Liston and Joe Frazier and George Foreman,” he says. “But they don’t really understand how formidable those opponents were.” After all, aside from hardcore boxing fans and those of Ali’s own generation, how many people have watched the full 15 rounds of his first fight with Joe Frazier? Or the two Ali versus Liston (pictured above) contests?

His social impact simplified; his more controversial beliefs smoothed over; his sporting achievements not fully understood; his legacy built on the tributes of grey-haired experts informing us that he was the greatest. This seems a trite legacy for someone as vibrant and disruptive as Ali.

However, there are other and more justifiable reasons why he remains so revered. First, the fact he was a boxer. Prizefighters fare well in ‘best ever’ sporting polls because of the nature of what they do. We’ve all run a race and can imagine what Usain Bolt goes through; we’re just slower. Most people have hit a tennis ball and can pretend to be Roger Federer or Serena Williams; we just don’t have the same talent. But how many people have donned gloves, set foot in a boxing ring and engaged in a contest where the ultimate goal is to render their opponent unconscious?

The punishment a boxer takes – and dishes out – gives them a superhuman quality above many other athletes. It is somehow more impressive than other athletic pursuits, perhaps because their reserves of courage are so openly taxed. So if we accept that Ali is easily the most famous and most revered heavyweight boxer of all time, it’s no mystery why he sweeps sporting polls so regularly. 

The greatest story ever told

Then there is the unusual narrative arc of Muhammad Ali’s career. Most sportsmen achieve greatness by rising to the top and dominating their sport. Michael Jordan, Michael Schumacher and Jack Nicklaus all had prolonged periods when they were widely considered the best at what they do. Total domination, however, often becomes monotonous.

Muhammad Ali is different. During what’s now regarded as his sporting prime in the 1960s, he wasn’t lauded – he was maligned and criticised because of his beliefs, but also for his perceived weaknesses as a boxer. His reliance on speed and movement (as opposed to heavyweight power) meant many boxing experts belittled his abilities. He then spent much of his prime, from April 1967 to October 1970, unable to compete. Also, in arguably his two most famous victories – his title-winning triumphs over Sonny Liston and George Foreman – Ali was a significant underdog.

Dominance and underdog status do not make comfortable bedfellows. Ali towers over boxing. But, unlike many a great athlete, his career is marked by undulations, great ups and downs, jarring defeats and comebacks. This makes the tales of his successes that much more enticing to tell and retell, the drama embellished by the fact that you had someone so handsome, quotable and charismatic at the centre of an incredible cast of characters. If Ali’s perceived greatness boils down to the fact that the story behind his career is that much more exciting for sports fans of any generation to hear, this is no bad thing.

Writing his own script

Scratch the surface of Ali’s legend and you get a complex, divisive, incendiary, sometimes contradictory character. He could be brilliant, as in his balletic, punch-perfect destruction of Cleveland Williams in 1966. He could be cruel, as in the deliberately slow, 15-round beating he handed out to Ernie Terrell in his next fight. Ali is not is a cuddly figure who can easily be summed up in a snappy paragraph or sentence. Ali is now, perhaps, even given an unwanted mystique by the fact that Parkinson’s Disease and his deteriorated health have, unfortunately, long silenced his famous mouth.

Of course, his achievements – both social and sporting – deserve huge recognition, aside from whether many of his modern admirers fully grasp what they are. He changed boxing as a sport and took it to a new level. He also helped to change American opinions, and therefore took the world to places where it had never been before.

Muhammad Ali

But let’s also give Ali credit for writing his own legacy. The ultimate self-publicist, his hyperbolic schtick was inspired partly by hearing the rhetoric of 1950s wrestler ‘Gorgeous George’. Ali’s put-downs of opponents and poetic paeans to his own brilliance were often said with a wink and a childlike mischief absent from the boorish self-aggrandisement of many of today’s sporting superstars. Yet he was still so frequently telling the world that he was the greatest, that he himself planted the seed that has borne this mighty reputation.

Call yourself the best and the discussions – if you are good enough – will follow. Plant the idea. Get the debate started and you’re part of the way there. Muhammad Ali told the world he was great so often and in so many memorable ways, that the message has resonated. At first, people laughed at the ludicrous braggart, then derided the revolutionary until – as his achievements mounted – people began to agree: to argue the case for Ali’s ultimate greatness, until the vast majority were on his side.

But it was Ali who put that idea in people’s heads in the very beginning. Perhaps Ali’s legacy can be summed up in one sentence after all. Fifty years ago this year, training for his first world title fight, the then Cassius Clay told reporters simply: “I’m the greatest thing that ever lived.” 

It turns out that many agree with him. It just took us a while to catch up.


Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times by Thomas Hauser with Muhammad Ali won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year in 1991

After three years in the role, and with a home World Cup on the horizon, Chris Robshaw is relishing life as England captain
Chris Robshaw

Chris Robshaw tells Sport his England side are “closing the gap” on the All Blacks after the summer Test series in New Zealand.

We speak to him shortly before England’s opening autumn international against the same opposition at Twickenham on Saturday. And we find him in confident mood as his side prepare to test themselves against the southern hemisphere giants – and start to build momentum ahead of the 2015 World Cup. As Robshaw says: “It’s coming – there’s no getting away from it.”

Let’s start by looking back to the 2011 World Cup, when you got to experience the pre-tournament camp. Does that make next year even bigger for you?
“It does. It continues to drive you, and that’s what all players want to do – be involved in an England set-up and go to a World Cup. It’s the biggest prize out there. Martin Johnson spoke in the first meeting we had in 2011, and he said if nothing else comes from this, use it as an opportunity to have a pre-season with the best players in the country, and improve your individual abilities. That’s something that really stuck with me. I was upset not to go, but obviously there can be only a certain number of players who make the cut. You’ve got to make the most of it, and I used the hurt to try to improve myself.”

How do you think you’ve changed as a player over the last three years?
“The skin gets a bit tougher, the shoulders get a little bit broader, you learn how to deal with certain situations. Whether that’s mentally or physically, you learn what works well for you as an individual to recover. The games come thick and fast throughout the season, so there are a lot of games to make sure you produce every week, not just in the big games. I think little things like that make a big difference.”

How has your captaincy style changed?
“It’s always changing, really. I still look to the support of others around me, but you have to be constantly learning. Whenever I play a game or watch a game, if I hear another captain speak to a ref in a certain way that I’ve not heard before, I’ll remember it and use little things like that. At England, we’ve had the likes of Roy Hodgson and Andy Flower come in, so you try to gain little bits of knowledge from them, too. At a post-match function, you can get little things off opposition  captains. It’s finding ways in which you work well, even if it’s taking yourself out of the comfort zone like the stand-up comedy shows and acting classes I’ve done with Harlequins. They’re not natural and very uncomfortable at the time, but they help in different areas.”

Joe Marler is the new Harlequins captain. Has that made your England job easier?
“Yeah. There are little things like after training you can go straight off and get physio, and not have to do certain appearances and whatever – but it’s also post-internationals. Straight after this autumn, for example, we have Leinster back to back. It’s times like that where there will be lots to do and media stuff, where I can take myself out of the equation. And you don’t have to be the one to get the guys going. I think back to the Wales game a couple of years ago, probably the biggest loss of my career [the 30-3 defeat in March 2013]. I was back into the club on Monday and as a captain, you’re the one responsible for getting the guys going and driving the standards. Mentally, I wasn’t in the right place to do that – so I just had to put on a front. Sometimes I need to focus on a Saturday and not worry about the other guys. I think time will tell, but it has been helpful already.”

When England get together, all the talk seems to be about whether there will be a new captain. Do you just accept you will never win some people over?
“You have to really. You just get on with things. Do you just ignore it when people get criticism? In a way, but you still know it’s going on. It probably gets a bit easier to take with time, though, and you just surround yourself with good people and listen to the people who matter.”

You and Stuart Lancaster have returned English rugby to a place where people are proud to be fans – is that something you’ve been aware of?
“It’s something I believe Stuart really wanted to put into place and really develop. As a squad, everyone has really bought into it, and we’ve stepped up our game in terms of how we want to be perceived and what needs to be done to do that. What the shirt means to an individual, what that goes back to, who has worn it before. We have the shirt for a certain period, so it’s making sure you leave that shirt in a better place than when you got it.”

We heard one story where Stuart got players’ parents to write letters about how proud they were, and then read them out in front of the players…
“Yeah, I don’t really want to go into the ins and outs of what we’ve done, but it’s the little touches like that which have gone a long way and really helped guys move forward. Stuart’s surrounded by some great coaches, and they’ve driven home what it means to play for England. Everyone wants  to see this England team succeed.”

How big can the World Cup be for the country?
“We’ve been getting asked the questions for the past three years about it. But it’s exciting, isn’t it? Look at the passion and the spirit that people showed during the Olympics 2012: if half of that buzz can be shown, and people can be inspired to play at grassroots level, that would be fantastic. The brilliant thing about the World Cup is having big and small games all over the country, so everyone can enjoy it.”

Is it a case of embracing it or treating it like ‘just another tournament’?
“You’ve got to enjoy that pressure. There is going to be a lot of pressure, and guys have got to relish it. It’s a huge opportunity – it doesn’t come around very often, and I’m sure the guys will really look forward to. There have been ideas in place for a long time, and there’s a lot of rugby to play. But we’re looking forward to it.”

Rory McIlroy said recently that he’s going to embrace the Augusta hype [surrounding his Grand Slam attempt] when it comes around next year – do you have to adopt that kind of attitude?
“Yeah, it’s the same sort of thing. If you allow the pressure to get to you, you suffer. You’ve got to go out there and say: ‘Actually, I’m going to embrace this, enjoy this and make the most of what we have here.’ This group of guys are getting better every time we meet, and we know there’s going to be more pressure every time we go on the pitch now – we’re ready for it.”

How much do these November games mean in the World Cup context?
“Everyone wants to come and win at Twickenham now. All teams want to remember that the last time they came here, they won. We’ve got to make sure that teams remember the last time they came, it was a formidable place – a fortress, intimidating. And they lost, hopefully.”

New Zealand are first up. Looking back, can you take any positives out of losing three times to them in the summer?
“Of course. We went there to win a Test series, and we didn’t win a game. But we made people take notice; we made people sit up and think: ‘These boys mean business.’ That’s not easy. They are a formidable side, so for us to do that was important.”

Chris Robshaw is an ambassador for GUINNESS. To view GUINNESS’ new ‘Made of More’ campaign, celebrating the character and integrity of rugby’s greatest heroes, see youtube.com/GUINNESSEurope

Download the free Sport iPad app for a behind-the-scenes look at talkSPORT’s Chris Robshaw photoshoot

Neither life nor career have been straightforward for Mario Balotelli, but he is back in England and determined to keep his nose clean
Mario Balotelli

We meet Mario Balotelli at a studio on the outskirts of Milan city centre. He is there to take part in a shoot for his sponsors, Puma, but it is a quiet morning and the usual chaos surrounding a high-profile footballer is strangely absent.

The place is hardly empty – agent, brand representative, stylist, make-up artist, videographer, photographer and various assistants – but the radio is on, the mood is relaxed and the man himself is an exemplar of calm.

The youngest member of the crew is a boy of seven or eight: the son of one of the ensemble described above. He has already requested (and been granted) a selfie of himself with one of his footballing heroes and a signed shirt, when his father sends him Balotelli’s way with one more item to be marked. “Ca fait trop!” protests the child, in French. Too much!

He need not have worried. The Liverpool and Italy forward, fresh from being dropped by both club and country, is more than happy to oblige.

“Every morning, when I wake up, I think that maybe yesterday people are speaking bad things about me,” says Balotelli in an exclusive interview with Sport. “But then I see kids coming up to me, like today, and I think I’m not doing that bad. I could do better – of course, I could do way better – but kids are natural, they are honest. If they look at you and don’t like you, they don’t come up to you.

“So if I see them always coming up to me, then it means I can’t be that bad, either as a footballer or a person. When kids stop asking for my autograph or a picture or whatever, then maybe I will start to think that I need to change something about myself. This is why I love kids. And dogs.”


​“If I say kiss, then she kisses me,” says Balotelli of Lucky, the labrador-pitbull cross that brings a smile to his face before he even mentions her. Lucky lives in Italy with Balotelli’s foster parents – who first took him in at the age of three – and another dog, Tyson the rottweiler. Thoughts of home, and those who reside there, inspire an air of contentment in a character not traditionally associated with it.

“Of course I miss my family and friends in Italy,” he says. “But when I go back, I spend hours talking with my parents. Then I visit my friends and we do normal stuff – you know, playing PlayStation and ping pong. Then I pick up my dogs and we go for a walk.

“They are really clever, my dogs. Lucky is unbelievable – when you look into her face, it is like you are with a real person. When I speak, she listens. I only have to say things one time. If I ask her for her paw, she gives it to me. I ask her to sit, she sits; I say she can run, she runs. Everything I ask her to do, she does.”

The unequivocal obedience of his dogs, the unwavering devotion of his parents, the straightforward honesty of the kids who adore him – these are the characteristics that put Balotelli most at ease. Life was never going to be a walk in the park for a son of Ghanaian immigrants growing up in a country less than renowned for its tolerance of outsiders. It is no surprise that he cherishes simplicity – and, before the fame, the riches and the controversies, this is exactly what football offered him.


“Football has always meant freedom,” he says, without pause, when asked for his earliest memories of playing football. “I go on the pitch and I get to do whatever I want. I remember when I was really young, when I used to go and play in the park with my friends. I always used to come at the last minute, and then whichever team I was going on was always winning. The other team never wanted me to play.”

He smiles at the recollection, and continues: “But I always felt free, and that’s still the same now as it was then. On the pitch, you think only of what is on the pitch. You have to try whatever you can to be the best. If it works, it works. Sometimes, like now, in this period, it doesn’t work so well. But you keep trying, and then it comes. It’s not difficult, psychologically.”

Not everything Balotelli has done in football seems to have been carried out with such obvious lucidity, but his off-field antics have perhaps raised even more eyebrows. It is now almost four years since his 20-year-old self mindlessly threw a dart in the direction of a youth team player at Manchester City. Not long after that, he returned from a shopping trip to buy an ironing board for his mother with a quad bike, a Scalextric set and a trampoline. Most infamous of his capers, however, remains the letting-off of a firework in his bathroom in October 2012. No one was injured, but the press understandably still went to town.

“I have done mistakes in the past, like everybody did when they were young,” he says. “And the firework thing did happen, but it wasn’t me who let it off. I know England is like this, though, so it’s okay. It’s a shame, sure, but I get used to it – the newspapers are always trying to give an image of Mario that is bad, printing things that aren’t true.

“Off the pitch, really I don’t have any problems because I am always home. When people speak bad about me, it’s only because they listen to the media and read what the newspapers say. They maybe lose a little bit of focus on my football, so everybody thinks I am famous for what happens outside the pitch. 

“Someone told me recently that I had apparently said that if I have sex three or four hours before a game, it is working for me on the pitch. Trust me, if I am having sex four hours before a game I am not able to play. I don’t think anyone could. It makes me laugh, but this is not me. 

“I am only focused on football. I live out in the countryside, I am relaxed and I just hope the time that I’m going to score is coming soon. Then maybe they will concentrate more on football and not all the other bullshit.”


“I am a face-to-face person.” Balotelli is speaking to us the day after new coach Antonio Conte named his Italy squad for the most recent round of Euro 2016 fixtures. His name was missing.

“I understand why I am not in the squad,” he says. “I haven’t been scoring, but other players like [Graziano] Pelle and the other strikers have been. So they deserve to be there, but I love Italy and nobody can ever say anything about my national team. I will always love it, but I have to be honest and say I was disappointed at what people were saying and how they were blaming me after the World Cup.

“I think I had two, maybe three chances in all the tournament. Everyone knows I scored against England [pictured, below], but I couldn’t do much else. Even Cesare Prandelli [Italy’s coach in Brazil] has said bad stuff about me. Should he be going and talking to the newspapers about me straight after a game? I did not expect that and I did not reply, because there is no point. I think real men, if they have something to say, then they come to you and say it to your face. I am a face-to-face person, a straight person.”

So, says the 24-year-old, is his new manager at club level. “He is very good, a strong character,” says Balotelli of Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers. “And I think that comes out in the way the team plays. I think he can help me improve as a player. He is very open, everybody can talk to him – but first he looks at the person, and second he looks at the footballer. With Brendan, you need to be a good person – you don’t have to be, how do you say it, a dickhead.”  

Anyone who has seen Balotelli attempt to put on a training bib will know that attention span isn’t his strongest virtue, but Rodgers isn’t the only facet of Liverpool that has piqued the new boy’s interest since arriving in the summer.

“I didn’t really know much about the club before coming here, but I’ve been really surprised,” he admits. “I knew they were a very good team, but I didn’t know they were as good as they are. Of course we need to improve many things because we have started off not very good, but I think the players here are amazing. It’s good to see young English players here too: Sterling, Henderson, Lallana. I think the more players you have like this, the better. Maybe over time you have got used to not seeing so many good young English players like that, but now we are seeing some – it’s good that they are in my team.”


“I need to get in the box more,” says Balotelli when we ask him about his own game. “All the rumours I hear about that – these ones are true. I don’t do it enough, but it is something I am working to try to do more. I have never been a real, out-and-out striker – I have always been someone who goes around the pitch, you know? 

“If it was my choice, I would always go with two strikers. It’s the way I like to play, but Brendan asked me to play as the first striker. I understand that when the ball comes from wide on the left or right, I need to be in the box otherwise there might be no one there at all.”

Beyond an ambition to get in the box more, Balotelli has an eye on only one target: netting his first Premier League goal for a club whose fans have already made him feel at home.

“I can see already that the Liverpool fans really like me, although I know that maybe they are a little upset because I don’t score,” he says. “I see they appreciate that I am working hard, though, which is nice for me. I know I have one goal in the Champions League, but in the Premier League I have to start with one. After that, I might set myself a target, but I swear – right now my first league goal is my first and only objective.

“And the team? You ask me if I think we can finish in the top four – I hope so. But I am focused and I want to work on us winning the league, not coming in the first four places. No one is in this competition to try and lose it, everybody plays to win, and I think Chelsea and Man City are the teams we need to aim for. We have to give our best, and whatever happens will happen, but I hope we can come very close to the Premier League title.”


“Ibrahimovic, Figo, Pirlo.” The three best players that Mario Balotelli has ever counted as teammates, according to Mario Balotelli. Interesting, we suggest, that he has picked three of the most technically gifted footballers of their generation. “For sure,” he agrees. “I was 17 or 18 when I played with Figo at Inter, but he was still brilliant. And Pirlo is amazing – the incredible thing is that he is still getting better now. It’s an easy thing to say that we just want to keep improving as footballers, but it is not an easy thing to do.

“Gerrard too, he is an amazing player. I had really not seen much of him before this season, apart from for England, but wow. I think of him as being at the same level as Pirlo. Vision, technique, but he is powerful as well. Stevie can do anything. It’s going to be very difficult for the team to find another player like him in the future.”

And with that, Balotelli polishes off the last few grapes of a bowl he has demolished since beginning our interview, and rises to leave. But before he goes, one final question, an old Sport favourite: if you were allowed to watch only three sports for the rest of your life, Mario, what would they be? 

“Football, UFC and athletics,” he says, pausing for some time between numbers two and three on that list. But the first of his choices was leaving his lips before the question was even finished. His journey in football has already been a long and eventful one, but Balotelli is still in love with the sport that has always made him feel free. And, at least for now, football is still in love with him. 


Mario Balotelli wears PUMA evoPOWER football boots #ForeverFaster

As the furore around his book rages, Kevin Pietersen tells us he regrets his early mistakes – but is more sinned against than sinning
Kevin Pietersen

Books, bullying and even some cricket

He was the England cricket team’s ultimate bar-clearer. Drinks were drained or carried in hurried anticipation to stadium seats when Kevin Pietersen came out to bat. Fans were keen to see if he could make it through his fidgety first few deliveries, then begin playing the array of innovative, explosive shots that no other player in world cricket has at his command.

In 2014, after an acrimonious split with the England set-up, Pietersen has kept us waiting expectantly for strokes of a different kind: with the pen rather than the bat. Until now. Sport is sitting with KP on a crisp October morning, days before the publication of his incendiary autobiography, looking out over a green pitch at The Oval.

It’s the scene of so many of his England triumphs. Four Test Match centuries, including his very first: a knock of 158 in 2005 that secured an Ashes series victory against Australia in his debut Test series. The nine years since have been packed with runs, tears, fallouts, reintegrations and debate. Pietersen is clearly relishing putting his side of the story across.

“I absolutely loved it. It was sort of therapeutic,” he says of the process of writing the book. “I have been given the opportunity [in the past] to talk about my career, to reply to accusations, to defend my character – but I’ve kept tight-lipped. I stopped doing interviews purely because anything I said would become a distraction to the team. It would make a headline. I didn’t have a great relationship with the cricket journalists, so they would try and twist things.”

Being part of the 2005 Ashes-winning team is something that Pietersen counts as the highlight of his England career, but at the same time marked the beginning of issues that haunt him to this day. “I probably didn’t help myself when I started off playing for England,” he says now, assessing that he tried too hard to show his passion for the country of his mother’s birth and to distance himself from his South African background. “Kissing the [Three Lions] badge, getting the England tattoo, professing too much to be English – I don’t think that sat well with a lot of English people, actually, because it was too much. But I was young. I was immature. I was living the dream. I was scoring runs and living on the crest of a wave. But I probably have myself to blame for a bit of that.”

Pietersen feels more balanced now about his identity. “South Africa is where my heart is in terms of it’s where I was brought up,” he says, while pointing out that he has an English wife, a son born in England and has made his home here for around 14 years now – almost as long as he lived in South Africa. If he feels more settled within himself, however, Pietersen is not at peace with many of his recent England colleagues.

“Andy Flower built a regime. He didn’t build a team.” One of the headline-grabbing aspects of KP’s autobiography is his dislike of the methods of former England coach Andy Flower, who he portrays as excessively negative and carrying a vendetta against him. It begs the question that if Pietersen didn’t rate Flower as a coach, how were England so successful under the Zimbabwean as to rise to the position of number one Test team in the world?

“Anybody could have coached that side. Anybody,” Pietersen replies. “What was working then is that you had everybody on form. You had Graeme Swann, who matured into an amazing off-spinner, winning games with the ball. You had Alastair Cook scoring hundred after hundred. Andrew Strauss was chipping in. Ian Bell was in form. I was scoring hundreds, two hundreds. Jonathan Trott was averaging 55 in Test match cricket. Jimmy Anderson was swinging the ball everywhere. Matt Prior was playing brilliant cricket. Stuart Broad was contributing.

“We had a team that was like the really good Australian side 10 or 15 years ago, where we were able to just demolish teams; if you were a batter and you failed that day, one of the other batters would make a hundred or a double-hundred. And if one of the bowlers was struggling, another would take five or six wickets. So it was actually quite easy to coach that team.”

“Andy Flower had it in for me since the start,” Pietersen says of their relationship. “He’s a stubborn man – and it looked like he was trying his hardest to ostracise me. Any opportunity he got, he would make sure he made me feel like he was my boss. I told him on numerous occasions: ‘Andy, I’m not scared of you. I’m probably the only one in this dressing room that doesn’t fear you.’ I don’t think he liked that.”

“It made me feel horrendous. It made me feel like I was being bullied. It made me feel like they were doing stuff behind my back and like I couldn’t trust anyone.” A major accusation in Pietersen’s book is that a bullying culture was allowed to develop in an England dressing room. That some of his teammates were part of a spoof Twitter account – KP Genius – which satirised England’s most high-profile player. He also claims a division existed between the bowling and batting unit of the team – that the latter were browbeaten and accosted to excess for fielding errors:

“Among the bowlers you’ve got all of the extroverts and loudmouths and you’ve got Prior joining the bowlers because he’s tight with them. Then you’ve got the Bells, the Trotts, the youngsters, [Nick] Compton… and they’re very easily ground down.”

“I’m really tight to a lot of the players who are still playing in the team. And a lot of them, I think, are going to be very happy about the stuff that I say in my book, because I know they agree with me. They might not say it, because that’s how they’re going to have longevity in their career… but I never minded saying it, because it wasn’t right what was going on.”

How does he feel this culture was allowed to develop? “That I don’t know, because I told Andy Flower about it, I told captains about it. I said: ‘This has to stop.’ And that particular meeting in Bangalore the day before we played India [in 2008] where Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss said: ‘Listen guys, this has got to stop – some of the players are intimidated to field the ball.’ And I’m thinking: are you actually serious? There’s actually somebody in this team who’s worried about fielding the ball when he’s playing for his country in case he messes up?”

“His nickname says it all: The Big Cheese.” The most eviscerating chapter in Pietersen’s book is saved for wicketkeeper Prior, who Pietersen views as the ringleader of the tormentors. In his own autobiography, Prior claims that he felt it was a key part of his job to maintain energy levels and positivity around the England team. Pietersen shakes his head at this description. “He would always refer to himself in the third person: ‘Cheese’. ‘Cheesy Peas’. ‘Big Cheese’. That just sums him up perfectly... he was a negative influence.”

Pietersen’s own record of England dressing room behavior isn’t spotless. His first exclusion from the England team came in 2012, after phone messages he exchanged with South African players were alleged to involve derogatory comments about – and handy tactical tips on how to get out – his then England captain, Andrew Strauss.

“The thing that hurt me most about that was the tactical information,” says Pietersen, denying that he discussed tactics and claiming his only misdemeanour was in letting an insult towards Strauss go unrebuffed in a message sent to him. “I think I’ve cleared it up in my book where I’ve said: how on earth would I tell the best bowling attack in the world how to get Andrew Strauss out when they’ve just got him out the week before at The Oval, and after they had knocked him over in South Africa the same way? Any club cricketer – if they played club cricket in Romania, they’d know how to knock Andrew Strauss over. Anyone. Under-10s now playing schoolboy cricket: if Andrew Strauss walked out, they’d go around the wicket, and they’d try and take it away and nick him off.

“So it was stupid – but it was a ploy to try their hardest to get rid of me. It was one rule for one and a totally different rule for another. I had to sign an affidavit about all that stuff and I said to [chairman of the England Cricket Board] Giles Clarke: ‘Okay, will you make the other players sign affidavits that they had nothing to do with the Twitter parody account?’ And he got very defensive and he said: ‘No! I run the ECB, I make decisions and I will tell them what to do.’”

Pietersen also tells of being pushed so far that he was “crying in the dressing room in Andy Flower’s office” – of all places – during the summer of 2012. It’s another side to a man who has often seemed the very image of cocksure bravado on the pitch.

“My insecurities come on because I’m a feel player,” he says, describing the epic battles that raged within his own mind. “I can feel really good for a long time, but then I can feel dreadful. There’s no medium ground in terms of how I’m batting. It happened this season, here for Surrey. On some days I’d think: ‘I could absolutely hammer it today.’ Others, I’d go: ‘I don’t even know which side of the bat I’m holding.’ On those days, I immediately fall back on thinking: ‘Well, you’re actually a bowler [how he began his cricket career], you’re not even a batsman, so maybe you shouldn’t be batting like this.’ But then I’ll get into a situation where I’m smashing it everywhere and I’ll pump my chest out and feel like a million dollars.”

A criticism Pietersen faced during the most recent Ashes in Australia – and throughout his career – is that while he’s capable of million-dollar displays with the bat, he’s too much of an individualist. That he doesn’t tailor his approach to suit the needs of the team. It’s a view he’s quick to refute.

“Somebody who doesn’t know my role in the team might look at it like that. [But] we had Strauss, Cook, Bell, Trott all batting around me. Fantastic batsmen. The ability to bat for two days and score a hundred or more. My job in the England team was to take the game away from the opposition. To take risks. To put fear into the bowlers. To make the opposition captain not know what to do next. And if I batted for two or three sessions, we stood a hell of a good chance of winning a Test match.”

One thing that even Pietersen’s critics don’t dispute is the hard work he put in this past winter in Australia in the nets, working with England’s younger players – and even some of the bowlers – on their batting technique. “It was something I absolutely loved,” he reflects. “What really saddens me when I’ve looked at this summer: Prior is out of the team and Flower is gone [as head coach]. I know that I could fit back into the team comfortably and I could help those guys become better players.”

“I still get messages from some players saying: How would you play this guy?’ The night before England’s last T20 game against India, a player was messaging me: ‘Mate, how am I going to hit this guy? And I’m sitting there on my sofa going: ‘Man, I should be helping these guys and batting with them, because I’ve been so lucky to achieve some incredible things and I’ve had such an amazing journey.’ The media love to label me as selfish – it’s just garbage.”

Pietersen, who turned 34 in June, harbours ambitions of playing for England again.

His book – an engaging read – might not help in this regard. It seems likely to widen the division between those who see KP as a delusional egotist and those who believe this is a man mistreated and misrepresented by the English cricket fraternity.

For those somewhere in the middle, it remains an entertaining time to follow KP – even if part of you wishes he’d bitten his tongue long enough to be part of England’s World Cup tilt next year.

But then, on or off the cricket field, KP never was one for holding back on his biggest shots.

KP: The Autobiography by Kevin Pietersen is published by Sphere, £20

Footballers, rugby players, wrestlers and NFL stars are risking their futures and their lives by playing through concussion. The end results can be devastating

Chris Nowinski was the first ever Harvard graduate to join the WWE.

Wrestling isn’t a common destination for alumni of the prestigious college, but Nowinski took to it with aplomb. He was naturally athletic – he had played as a defensive tackle for Harvard’s American football team and, at 6ft 5in, he had the physique to look the part as a wrestler. His character played on the stereotypes associated with his education – Nowinski wore briefs emblazoned with the Harvard ‘H’, and quoted Shakespeare to his opponents.

In 2003, an incident in the ring sparked a dramatic career change. “I was wrestling in a non-televised match in front of about 5,000 people,” he recalls, when we speak to him on the phone from his Boston office. “I was supposed to get kicked in the head and I was too close to the kick and it caught me under the chin. I immediately forgot where I was, and what we were doing.” He carried on, despite the concussion.

“I didn’t know enough to stop, so we ended up finishing the match, making up a new ending and then I went backstage and downplayed my symptoms. Even though I had headaches and nausea for weeks, I kept on telling the medical team I was fine, because I thought I was supposed to tough my way through those sorts of symptoms.”

It’s a common attitude among sportspeople, who regularly try and play on through concussion. Sometimes, they might not even be aware that they have a concussion – there’s a lack of understanding about what the word actually means. It’s not just getting knocked out. Seeing stars or feeling dizzy after a blow to the head are also symptoms of a concussion.

Over time, repeated concussions can cause serious problems, and scores of retired athletes in contact sports have suffered. “The headaches were pretty consistent for five years,” says Nowinski of his own issues, which forced him to retire from wrestling. “The sleep disorder lasted for threeand- a-half years. I would act out my dreams, I would have dreams that I was choking to death. I had memory problems that lasted for about a yearand- a-half that were pretty tough to deal with, and the depression that comes with those symptoms.”

Keen to spread the word, Nowinski wrote a book called Head Games, which has also been made into a documentary of the same name, exploring the dangers of sporting concussions. Now the 36-year-old heads up the Sports Legacy Institute, an organisation that seeks to raise awareness and lobbies sporting organisations to change their rules for the sake of athletes’ safety. Part of his job is persuading the families of deceased NFL players to donate their relatives’ brains so they can be studied for signs of damage.

Sometimes, he doesn’t even have to ask.


On February 17, 2011, former NFL defensive back and two-time Super Bowl winner Dave Duerson was desperate to get a message across. The 50-year-old sent a text to his exwife, and also left a scrawled note at his home in Sunny Isles Beach, Florida. Both read the same: “Please, see that my brain is given to the NFL’s brain bank.” Then he shot himself in the heart.

The ‘brain bank’, or the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy, is a research lab at Boston University where scientists examine the brains of sportspeople post-mortem to look for signs of damage related to concussion. Duerson’s brain tested positive for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease that has been implicated in the mental decline, bizarre behaviour and suicide of several athletes. The symptoms are similar to Alzheimer’s disease – the damaged bits of nerve cells in the brain form abnormal proteins that then multiply and spread into other areas. “It looks like the brain essentially starts to rot,” says Nowinski. “The most advanced case of CTE we’ve seen was in a former NFL running back whose brain shrunk to half its original size.”

CTE was found in the brain of Justin Strzelczyk, the former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman killed when he drove into a tanker truck at 90mph while driving the wrong way up the freeway during a police chase.

It was also found in wrestler Chris Benoit, who murdered his wife and son before taking his own life. “Benoit’s brain was so severely damaged it resembled the brain of an 85-year-old Alzheimer’s patient,” said one report. Nowinski writes of his former colleague in Head Games: “Whatever role steroids may have played in the situation, I believe he would never have become a murderer without the brain disease.”

One study by the Boston brain bank looked at the brains of 34 deceased NFL players, and found evidence of CTE in 33 of them. Another study, commissioned by the NFL, found retired players over the age of 50 were five times more likely than the rest of the US population to be diagnosed with dementia, Alzheimer’s disease or other memory problems, and that those between the ages of 30 and 49 were 19 times more likely.

The most recent research estimates that 30 per cent of NFL players will develop a neurodegenerative disease. It’s also possible that concussions could help explain some active players’ behaviour, too. Baltimore running back Ray Rice’s suspension from the league for domestic violence is far from an isolated incident – NFL players are about four times more likely to be arrested for domestic violence than you would expect based on their overall arrest rates. Research has linked domestic violence to problems with the pre-frontal cortex, an area at the front of the brain that can easily be damaged in a concussion because it bears the brunt of head-on impacts.


We’ve known about the link between sport and mental problems for almost a century. In 1928, the swaying and slurring of the punch-drunk boxer was investigated scientifically for the first time, and given the label ‘dementia pugilistica’. The plight of Muhammad Ali (diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome) is just one of a long line of warnings about the long-term dangers of repeated head injuries.

Despite that, Nowinski reckons as many as 80 per cent of concussions in contact sports still go undiagnosed – either because players are unaware of the symptoms, or they don’t want to show weakness. However, things are better than they were, according to Welsh rugby star Jamie Roberts, who is also a trained medical doctor.

“Go back six or seven years and there was a three-week rule that was standard, but teams would never stick to it,” he says. “Players get knocked out, go to the side of the pitch, have a splash of cold water on their face and go back on. It’s that macho bravado side: ‘I got knocked, but I’ll carry on playing.’”

Roberts cites an example from his own career, where he stayed on the field for 10 minutes with a fractured
skull before his symptoms worsened and he had to come off. It’s a regular occurrence in football, most recently in the case of Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois, who stayed on the field for 14 minutes after a heavy blow to the head, and who appeared to be bleeding from his ear when he eventually came off.

Staying on the pitch is a terrible idea for several reasons, the foremost of which is ‘second impact syndrome’. The brain is vulnerable in the days and weeks after a concussion – damaged nerve cells teeter on the brink, like buildings after an earthquake. Another hit can lead to instant death or severe disability. Nowinski likens it to “the Death Star in Star Wars when the deflector shield is down”.

“If you keep playing during a concussion, you’re most likely going to increase the length and the severity of symptoms,” he says. Part of the challenge is convincing players that they need to come off – a club doctor can’t do anything [to help] if the player isn’t being honest with them about their symptoms. “Concussions regularly cause problems with balance, reaction time and cognition, so what I tell athletes is that they’re usually dumber and slower when they’re on the field and they become a liability for their team,” says Nowinski.

“I think the World Cup showed that – a couple of players who played through concussion were pulled only when they made a mistake that nearly exposed the team to a goal. So the athletes should be told they should come off not only because it’s the right thing for their health, but also because it’s the right thing for the team.”


It’s not a problem confined to the highest level – there are an estimated three million sporting concussions a year across all levels of sport, and the best way to counteract it is education.

“It’s not just the players who need to be educated,” says Roberts. “It’s coaches, parents and referees. It’s everyone outside the game who can take decisions away from players. If I got knocked out playing for my local club, I’d want to carry on playing and go back to training on Tuesday ready for next Saturday. It’s important for that decision to be taken out of players’ hands, and that’s where coaches and coach education is paramount.”

Baseline testing is one of the ways to take the onus off the players. Roberts explains: “Before any season or campaign, you do a baseline test, which includes questions about your symptoms, balance tests, memory tests, memory recall, numeracy tests, which challenge every part of cognitive function. You have to attain those baseline test scores before you go out on to the field of play.”

Jason Sada is president of Axon Sports, an American company that produces baseline tests for athletes. “It measures something you can’t see,” he says. “It’s used to determine cognitive change – the tests are measurements that shouldn’t increase and improve – when they change, it’s really because there’s an impairment. But it is just one piece of the equation.”

These tools can’t help unless they’re implemented. Change is happening – slowly. Rugby union has been fiercely criticised in the past, but has changed its rules extensively in recent years. “In the elite game, it is pretty much spot on at the moment,” says Roberts. “The concussion bin has been put in place and it’s great – players go off and they’re assessed by a doctor, assessed by a competent healthcare professional and have to attain their baseline tests.”

It took a long battle for the NFL to recognise the dangers posed by concussion, but now the league has one of the best protocols in place for dealing with them. Other sports are following suit: this season the Premier League introduced new guidelines for concussion, including a tunnel doctor, but incidents such as the Courtois one show there’s a lot still to do.

Nowinski is critical of football for its approach to head injuries: “It is probably the biggest problem in sport – you have the world’s most popular sport doing everything wrong on the international stage.”

Jeff Astle (below) played for West Brom and England in the 1960s and 70s, and suffered with Alzheimer’s disease before he died in 2002. His family launched the Justice for Jeff campaign, calling for an independent inquiry on the link between heading heavy leather footballs and brain disease.

“It’s terrible to think what he went through,” said Astle’s widow Laraine when it was confirmed her husband’s disease had been caused by football. “The job he loved in the end killed him. Everything he won, he remembered none of it.” The dry language of the coroner’s report boiled down Astle’s career of crashing headers into four words: “death by industrial disease”.

Like any industry, sport has a responsibility to look after its own.

He’s overcome off-course problems, a drop in form and a barrage of criticism, but now he just can't stop winning
Rory McIlroy

September 2013. To the rest of the world, Rory McIlroy’s meteoric rise has stalled, and stalled badly.

Having won two majors by the age of 23, and seemingly with the world at his feet, McIlroy was suddenly down with the journeymen – he was capable of making cuts but registered just one top-three finish all season.

He had begun the year as world number one, but a string of mediocre results had seen him slip out of the top five (in purely ranking terms, it was to get worse – by April this year he was number 11, his lowest since 2010). Rory McIlroy, blessed with one of the purest swings the game has ever seen, was playing ordinary golf.

And golf fans the world over were immediately able to diagnose his problem – or, at least, so they thought. At the start of the year, McIlroy had signed one of the most lucrative endorsement deals in the history of sport to exclusively use Nike equipment.

Received wisdom decreed that the gear was inferior – and that, in any case, a player needs significant time to get used to new clubs and balls.

He was also involved in a very public relationship with tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, and faced criticism that he was neglecting his game. In short, they said, Rory McIlroy had betrayed his talent for millions of dollars and a pretty girl.

That received wisdom could not have been further from the truth.

Turning Point

Almost 12 months ago, unbeknown to the rest of the world, the Ulsterman was working harder than ever at his game, desperate to get to grips with his new clubs. And then it happened. A breakthrough.

“Suddenly, there was a big turning point in the whole process,” McIlroy told Sport in an exclusive interview to be featured in full next month, ahead of the Ryder Cup. “I got a driver and a ball that I knew I could use. It was one of those eureka moments.”

The 25-year-old may have a reputation as someone who enjoys himself off the course – it is likely that this year was the first time the Open Championship Claret Jug had been filled with Jagermeister, for instance – but there can be no doubting his drive or commitment.

“Once I got that driver I worked really hard last autumn,” he continues. “I went to Asia and played really well, and that culminated in winning in Australia at the end of the year. That was when I knew I had come out the other side.

“I didn’t want to rest at the end of the year. I got straight back out practising and it felt like it was back.”

By May of this year, McIlroy was back in the winner’s circle at the European Tour’s flagship tournament, the BMW PGA Championship. That was soon followed by a pillar-to-post victory in the Open Championship, and within weeks the WGC-Bridgestone event at Firestone and yet another Major, the PGA Championship, were added to the tally. From ordinary to world-beater in a matter of months.

Sky Sports analyst Ewen Murray was especially impressed that McIlroy resisted the temptation to do anything other than work at his game when doubts started to creep in. There were no knee-jerk reactions.

“I like the way that, when things weren’t going well, he didn’t look for a quick fix,” Murray told Sport. “People told himto change his coach, but he’s been with Michael Bannon since he was about six, and he is a friend. They told him to change his caddie, but he’s been with JP [Fitzgerald] for years – and he is a friend too. That showed a lot of maturity.”

Indeed, McIlroy was able to identify his problem quickly. Having thought he would be able to switch equipment seamlessly (he previously used Titleist clubs and balls), he admits to being “a little naive”.

“Yeah, it took a while to feel comfortable with the changes,” he says. “I didn’t think it would, but that was maybe me being a little naive and thinking I could play with anything. I thought it might take six months at the outside, which in a 25-year career is not too bad. A lot of guys maybe change one thing at a time – but I was like, you know what, let’s change everything. But I had a lot of trust in the guys I was working with and confidence in the equipment. Now, everyone can see the results.”

Murray suspects the results would have come quicker, had others not put doubts in the Ulsterman’s mind. “I’m with Rory on this; I think with his swing he could hit anything,” he says. “But there were a few foolish things said, by people who should know better, about his clubs. People forget Jack Nicklaus had three different sets of clubs – one for the US, one for Europe and one for Australia. Rory is so good he could use anything, but the negative chat probably put doubts in his mind. At the end of the day it’s about the Indian, not the arrows.”

The Difference

So what happened? What part of McIlroy’s game has transformed so dramatically that he has won two Majors in succession? Murray is in no doubt: “His driving in recent weeks is the best exhibition I have ever seen. He drove it very well at the Scottish Open – although he had one bad round – then carried that form to Hoylake, but at the Bridgestone he was astonishing. It’s a tight course, and even tighter at the distances he was hitting it. It’s pinched in at 310 yards, but he was carrying that. It was incredible.

“And then he took that to the PGA. The course was rain-softened, true, but I’ve never seen driving of that class, sustained over a period of tournaments. Tiger was never the greatest driver and I don’t think anyone – Nicklaus, Palmer, Player – has hit the ball this well off the tee before.”

Indeed, Dan Jenkins, 84-year-old doyen of American golf journalists, was moved to tweet during the PGA Championship: “I’ve seen four great golf swings in my day: Snead, Hogan, Littler and Rory.”

But there is also a swagger about McIlroy now. He is the player the others fear whenever he is near the top of the leaderboard. He can win from the front, and always with a trick up his sleeve should his rivals dare to get too close. At the Open it was two eagles in his closing three holes on Saturday – while at the PGA, having dropped to fourth with nine to play on the Sunday, he eagled the 10th (despite claiming his second shot was a mishit).

“Other players are fearful of him when he’s near the top of the leaderboard because of the way he plays,” expands Murray. “He takes courses on, and the manner in which he wins is so impressive. He doesn’t fear any course or player, and he has always been the same. He has not changed, and that is testament to the way he was brought up.

“That eagle in the PGA, even if he did get a bit of a break, was the turning point. From there on in, there was only going to be one winner. He understands his swing, and it stands up to pressure. He knows what he needs to do. It was a very impressive win.”

McIlroy’s mental strength is equally impressive. He has always maintained that his game is not as well suited to links courses, and has previously looked uncomfortable at Open Championships. But his win at Hoylake was superb.

“A good year for him now requires a major championship,” says Murray. “He can win at any course, and winning the Open was huge for him. At the back of his mind, I think there was a doubt about links courses. But winning the Open has got rid of that.

“There are no weaknesses in his game right now. There will be hard times again at some stage, because everyone in golf has them. But if he deals with them in the same way he has come through the last 18 months, he will be very hard for anyone to beat.”

After his PGA Championship victory, McIlroy’s earning potential was estimated at $83m a year. Golf was looking for the next Tiger Woods. It needs look no further.