In Good Conscience

Sport changes lives, but not always in the best way

Sports has an embrace almost as wide as life itself.

At the start of this week, English golfer Danny Willett earned a life-transforming pay cheque of some S$2.45 million by winning the Masters at Augusta.

He caught an overnight flight back to Yorkshire, leaving behind the advertising and agency men who will double (at least) his winnings. Financially, Willett should be made for life.

But he had a greater priority. All he could think about was getting back home, and the "pleasure" of getting up in the middle of the night to change his baby son's diaper.

Whatever it's called, it is a dubious pleasure. One that Willett, in the first flush of parenthood after his "Little Man" Zach was born just two weeks before the Masters, said he couldn't wait to experience.

The hands that won the Masters getting stuck into the chores of new paternity. Nice.

Willett is 28, and his life has changed for the better, both domestically and in career terms.

A couple of his contemporaries are not so blessed.

All that (Masters champion Danny Willett) could think about was getting back home, and the "pleasure" of getting up in the middle of the night to change his baby son's diaper.

At the start of this month, British middleweight boxer Nick Blackwell, 26, lay in an induced coma following a bout against Chris Eubank Jr.

The fight was stopped by the referee because of Blackwell's swollen eye, but that may have saved his life. Hospital doctors at first thought he had bleeding on the brain, but it turned out to be bleeding on the skull, which is less life-threatening.

But still it is serious enough to suggest that his fighting days are over. And while the Boxing Board of Control rushed to say everything was done in an exemplary manner, the fact remains that one man battering another around the head is not good for one's health.

And not, in my book, a real sport, not fit for the century we live in.

Then, on Monday this week, James Taylor, regarded as a future England cricket captain, was informed by heart specialists that he must never play professional sport again.

Taylor felt light-headed following a game he skippered for Nottinghamshire against Cambridge University. And, just as a precaution, he went to his local accident and emergency clinic because "something felt not quite right."

He is the last man anyone would have suspected of having a heart problem. Nicknamed "Titch Taylor" because at 1.68m he is the shortest of the English batsmen by far, he was also regarded as the most diligent worker, as the England team's "gym bunny" whenever and wherever they toured.

A gutsy No. 5 batsman, a daring and brilliant fielder at short leg, he worked like a beaver to extract every ounce of ability out of himself - and then some.

In the days when the news sank in that Taylor would never be their team-mate again, and while he waited for surgery to insert a defibrillator into his heart, the current England skipper Alastair Cook said: "James was always proving people wrong, always working as hard as anyone could on their game."

Pugnacious, seriously competitive, a leader in the field, Titch Taylor is only 26.

He will battle through, because that is his nature. His county, Notts, and the England cricket set-up will do what is within their means to help him.

He is due almost S$1 million in insurance money. Many people expect him to become a fine coach, and quite possibly he will be in demand as a commentator - a player caught out in mid-career passing on insight from the dressing room.

Taylor's condition is arrhythmogenic right ventricular cardiomyopathy - known as ARVC.

It is an inherited disease that forms fatty deposits in the heart, leading to constriction that prevents the regular flow of blood.

Fabrice Muamba, the dynamic Bolton Wanderers footballer, collapsed with a similar condition during an FA Cup game at Tottenham in March 2012.

Muamba's case was shocking for the thousands in the stadium and for millions watching the game on TV.

He was "dead" when he hit the ground. A cardiac expert, a doctor from a nearby London hospital who happened to be a Spurs fan, led the efforts to resuscitate Muamba. But his heart stopped beating for 78 minutes and he was lucky in the extreme that football has the awareness and the money to have heart defibrillation machines, by law, at every major stadium.

Muamba, now 28, a father like Willett, had to use his brain and his considerable spirit to reshape his life. He gained some TV exposure as a studio analyst, giving his comments on games he had hoped to play.

He has had some coaching experience, with Liverpool FC's academy. And he studied for and obtained a degree, with honours, in sports journalism.

For different reasons, Willett, Blackwell and Taylor know that their lives have changed almost overnight - as Muamba's did four years ago.

Willett has the world in his hands, when he chooses to come out of the bonding stage with his first son. Time will tell if the Masters was the peak achievement for him, or if winning in Augusta will liberate him to become one of the greats of modern golf.

It was, remember, abetted by a dramatic meltdown on the back nine by defending champion Jordan Spieth. America being America, Willett was almost the forgotten man while so many pontificated on the loss of their champion.

However, after days of soul-searching, Spieth's caddie Michael Greller put on Facebook:

"At the end of the day, golf is a sport. This isn't life and death stuff. There are far greater struggles that exist in the world than not winning the Masters. We are beyond blessed to do what we do. We are grateful to work alongside the greatest golfers and caddies in the world. It is a challenge we relish."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 16, 2016, with the headline 'Sport changes lives, but not always in the best way'. Print Edition | Subscribe