“What’s a birdie?” My wife asks the same question every time a major golf tournament rolls round and I am slumped on the sofa, glass of Old Speckled Hen by my side, watching some chap hunched over his putt. She is completely baffled by golf’s avian nomenclature. As I launch into an explanation of “par” being the regulation number of shots per hole and one under par being a “birdie” and two under par an “eagle,” I can see her eyes glaze over. Don’t even mention an “albatross”. It’s not a gender thing. There are very popular “ladies’ tours” in every part of the world and a large and ever growing band of women who play and follow the game. It’s just that Mrs B is one of those for whom golf’s a completely dotty past-time that spoils a good walk.
We’re on the subject because golf is coming home. On Thursday, the Open Golf Championship begins at the Old Course at St Andrews where golf has been played for six hundred years. Apparently both King James II and James III tried to ban the game in the 1400s because it was taking too much time away from archery practice. St Andrews has been home for centuries to The Royal and Ancient Golf Club which codified the rules of golf in 1897 and administers the game outside the USA and Mexico. Small wonder this famous Scottish course is known as the “home of golf.”
The first Open was held 150 years ago and apart from 1871 and the war years, has been held every year since. The tournament rotates yearly between nine courses in Scotland and England although it returns to St Andrews every five years. This year’s winner will trouser £850,000, but much more important than the money will be the honour of lifting the coveted Claret Jug, one of the oldest prizes in sport. The distinguishing feature of the Open is that it’s always held on a links (coastal) course. Links courses are characterised by uneven fairways, thick rough and deep “pot” bunkers and like most British seaside spots it’s often as windy as hell. The other three major golf tournaments in the calendar are held in the States where links championships are extremely rare.
To win at least one of the four “Majors” is the Holy Grail for any golfer. While there are giants of the game like Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson, Tiger Woods and our own Nick Faldo who are multiple major winners, there are other wonderful golfers, who for one reason or another have never managed to pull it off. Colin Montgomerie, our podgy, irascible Ryder Cup captain this year, was the best golfer in Europe for seven years on the trot, had a brilliant Ryder Cup record, was ranked second in the world, but never won a major. Five second-places was his heartbreaking tally and forever, regardless of his other achievements, Monty will be defined by that most unfortunate tag, “best player never to win a major.” Sport is cruel.
The last two occasions that the Open was held at St Andrews in 2000 and 2005, Tiger Woods romped home at a canter. Woods has amassed 14 major titles and two years ago, hobbled by a serious knee injury, he won the US Open practically standing on one leg. In normal circumstances he would have been a shoo-in to walk away with the title this year at his favourite British course. But as every conscious being on the planet is aware, Mr Woods’ private life has imploded, with revelations of philandering on a scale that would turn Don Juan green with envy. With his squeaky clean family man image in tatters, Woods booked into the obligatory “sex addiction” clinic. He emerged in February to deliver a toe-curlingly embarrassing mea culpa that appeared to be aimed more at his sponsors than anyone else. The bookies still have him as 4-1 favourite but the aura of invincibility has gone. He was missing putts on the final day of the US Open last month that he would have holed in his sleep a year ago.
What makes the Open such a delight for the golfing couch potato is the brilliant BBC commentary team. The star attraction is the 79 year old “Voice of Golf,” Peter Alliss, who pulls off the trick of being chummy and authoritative at the same time although the occasional un-PC remark is not everyone’s cup of tea. He is chock-full of anecdotes as is to be expected from a man who has played golf with 90 per cent of the Open winners since 1900. The rest of the team, all ex-pros, are pretty good as well. There’s the down to earth Aussie, Wayne Grady, Sam Torrance with his unmistakeable Scot’s brogue, the saturnine Mark James and truly eccentric Ken Brown. His “Ken on the course” analyses where he often addresses us in a stage whisper and adopts a “silly walk” has earned him his own appreciation society on Facebook. Presenting this cast of characters is Hazel Irvine, who will have the unenviable task of interviewing the golfers, the world’s great language manglers, after their rounds. Golf is home to the lost adverb. “I putted solid out there, I’m hitting the ball really great,” is the sort of dispiriting fare we can look forward to.
The great thing about the Open is how the tension gradually builds up over the four days. The first hurdle is to make the cut after two rounds when the field is winnowed down to about seventy odd players. The weather can play a huge part, especially on links courses. Lovely conditions for players starting their rounds in the morning can give way to nightmarish gales later in the day when the weekend leaders tee-off.
Major tournaments like the Open are often decided on the last few holes, where holding one’s nerve is as important as skill. There have been some tremendous dramas on the final hole itself. In 1970, Doug Sanders had a three foot putt to win the Open and change his life. He missed and lost the play-off to Nicklaus the next day. Does he still think about that missed putt? “Only every four or five minutes,” he said recently. In 1999 a Frenchman, Jean Van de Velde, arrived at the final hole at Carnoustie with a three-stroke lead. He proceeded to make one catastrophic decision after another and snatched defeat from the jaws of certain victory. Last year, the great Tom Watson aged 59, who won the last of his five Open titles in 1983, was leading up to the final hole. What a shot in the arm that would have been for the Saga Set had he not blown it at the last.
So who is likely to lift the famous old Claret Jug on Sunday evening? Despite his domestic travails, Woods is still the favourite but my money would be on one of the Brits. Lee Westwood is number three in the world but has a dodgy leg at the moment and I don’t think this will be the week when he wins his first major and gets that monkey off his back. Graham McDowell, who did just that a month ago at the US Open, is better value at 25-1 as is Justin Rose, playing the golf of his life, at the same price. But I just have a hunch that Ross Fisher, a 40-1 shot, will be regaling his grandkids in years to come, with tales of derring-do at the home of golf in 2010.