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The Iron Men of Golf
Golf may be the medium through which some achieve relaxation, avoid gardening or even more onerous domestic chores, but to those 288 players with a handicap of plus 1.8 or better who chose to enter the field for the Amateur Championship there is nothing relaxing about it.

Indeed, the Amateur Championship is probably the most demanding of all sporting events for it requires a level of stamina and mental effort that is unknown in any other sporting event. Six consecutive days of golf, two qualifying rounds and eight rounds of matchplay are asked of the winner of the Amateur Golf Championship. One cannot help but ponder how the toughies of the Tour would respond to such a demanding schedule. Certainly, a good many would be a lot leaner and less comfortable as they strode to bank their millions.

It was particularly fitting that this year's Amateur should be played out over the Old Course at St Andrews. This is the 250th Anniversary of The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, the governing body of the game and an establishment dedicated to furthering the great game and not to extracting every possible penny from it. It was also particularly fitting that on all but one day the sun shone and the Old was playing at its hard, dry, running, links best, with only a blustery breeze from the west to test the best in the amateur game.

Qualifying for the 128 places in the matchplay stages required a round on the Jubilee Course as well as the Old. It has often been said the Old carries few penalties for poor driving, but the same cannot be said of the Jubilee where a missed fairway is almost inevitably a dropped shot. The combination of driving accuracy on the Jubilee and the putting touch required on the Old made for probably the most demanding qualifying that the Amateur has seen in decades.

Kevin McAlpine was the leading qualifier for the matchplay stages after smashing the Old Course Amateur record with a 10-under par 62. He also beat the Amateur Championship curse of the leading qualifier falling in the first round, although he did manage to fall at the second despite having Heather MacRae, the Scottish woman international, on his bag.

Stuart Wilson is this year's Amateur Champion. He was the worthy winner of the 36-hole final for he was consistently accurate off the tee and precise in hitting greens. He beat Lee Corfield on the 33rd green with a putting touch that remained consistently sound throughout the week's play.

It is noteworthy that Wilson was throughout some 50-yards short of Corfield off the tee. With only two par three's on the Old, this means that he was required to make up some 800 yards in each round of the course. But this is links golf and the premium is on accuracy and not length. With the possible exception of Gary Wolstenholme, it is not since the days of the great Ronnie Shade that anyone has driven the ball with such consistency throughout the Amateur Championship. But a putting touch is also required and it was on the greens that Wolstenholme came to grief in the third round. He is not enamoured of the Old Course but one expects a 44-year-old of his stature in the game to keep his opinions to himself for fear of misrepresentation - especially since his play was on a par with his weekly Sky golf programme and was even less charismatic.

It is probably significant that only Wolstenholme, his Walker Cup colleague, is more experienced in the Amateur than Wilson. Forfar's Wilson has been to the last 16 in the last two Amateurs and got to the quarter-finals in 2000. He was also one of the more experienced links players and knows the Old well, having had three top-10 finishes in the St Andrews Links Trophy. With his Uncle Ron on his bag he was never likely to make many mistakes. To the huge crowd that followed the play throughout, Stuart was due the big one for the spirit of Sandy Saddler lives on in Forfar Golf Club, where Wilson plays.

Stuart Wilson took the title the hard way. He overcame his much-heralded fellow Scot, Lee Harper, as well as two of last year's semi-finalists. He also overcame the talented Francesco Molinari - a name to watch in the pro ranks in the future.

Corfield's route to the final was not much easier. His most memorable match was his semi-final game with Andrew Svoboda, a 25-year-old New Yorker who is said to be a caddie at Winged Foot. Corfield birdied the last hole to beat Svoboda but it was the Yankee's spittle that was the hardest part of his game to overcome. Andrew is a tobacco chewer and he left the course as well as an innocent lady's white golf shoe strewn with a gut-wrenching brown salivary stream. The Amateur Championship is never dull and always memorable.

Like Molinari, Corfield has the length to make it in the pro game, although his putting, certainly as reflected in the final, could leave him in penury. The Somerset lad three-putted three of the first five holes and found himself three down - a position from which he never recovered, despite playing some wonderful golf. He will be remembered in these parts for his recovery from the depths of the Principal's Nose bunkers on the 16th fairway, from which, impossibly, he reached the front of the green some 125-yards away and halved the hole.

Corfield has the aspiration and the makings of a pro golf competitor. One hopes that Stuart Wilson does not have such thoughts. His similarity to Ronnie Shade is marked and he should reflect upon what befell Shade, as he should the other great Forfarian, the forever-revered Sandy Saddler. Saddler was a great player who, together with Sandy Pirie from Aberdeen, starred in the Walker Cup and was an Amateur contender in the 60s. He was a master baker who never contemplated the pro game. Shade did and had a sad decline.

©    7 - JUNE 2004

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