The Dunhill Links Championship was resolved on the Old Course on Sunday in conditions so benign that St Andrews had more in common with Saratoga, Scottsdale or Sotogrande than it did with the rest of Scotland.
Lee Westwood took advantage of every blink of sunshine and good fortune to take the title and the half-million pound pot, the biggest of the European Tour year. Ernie Els took second spot and sealed the European Order of Merit for 2003.
In keeping with the biggest pot in the Tour's year, more is asked of the players than in any other event in world golf. Their test is certainly a demanding one for they are asked to overcome three tough hurdles of links golf - a round on each of Kingsbarns, the Old Course and Carnoustie, with the top-60 going through to a last round on the Old Course. If playing three courses is not enough of a test, every pro is lumbered with an amateur partner for a simultaneous team event. It just doesn't get any harder than this.
But the real test is consistent scoring on these wonderful links land courses. It is either necessary to score consistently or produce something remarkable. Westwood produced a remarkable course record at Kingsbarns with a 62 and Brian Davies excelled himself with the same score on the Old Course. This is also a record for, although it matches Curtis Strange's score, the course has been significantly lengthened since Strange had his big day.
In contrast to the target golf that pros play weekly, links golf is an altogether different test; it is a proper golfing test and not merely an examination of a mechanical golfing action. Links golf demands a greater range of shots and the quirky old links greens require an altogether different level of study. Links golf tests confidence and character to the full when elation can collapse into despair in the space of a putt and triumph turn to tragedy with a bounce into a bunker - and I mean a real bunker, not simply a hollow filled with sand.
Recovering from despair and confronting tragedy and surviving is what it is all about. It takes persistence, perseverance and patience, with perhaps a touch of good fortune to make a champion and Lee Westwood showed this weekend that he had all that in spades.
It took, however, that extra bit of good fortune to make him links champion for the year and that came at the ninth hole at Kingsbarns.
Kingsbarns is an inviting golf course. Like all great links courses it invites risk but can reward handsomely. It can also penalise heavily too. The 6th hole characterises the place. The big lads can drive it comfortably but they have to get it just right for a miss can be costly. Throughout the tournament the 6th yielded some excellent eagles but it also bit with some blistering double bogies. The ninth is a 558 yard par five, well within two shot range for the big lads, but it is also a hole that forfeits birdies with the utmost reluctance. There is an abundance of fairway to hit off the tee but it requires perfect placing to get the optimum line to the green that is banked in front and behind with the pin set on a plateau between.
Westwood had his lifetime first eagle after a perfect tee shot that left him with a 218-yard shot into the green. He struck it perfectly, in fact he hit it so well that, had it not hit the flagstick and shot into the hole like a rat down a drain, it was destined for the hollow behind the green and a par at best. In one blow, Westwood went from the middle of the pack to the upper echelons of the field.
Ernie Els was always in contention. Even when four strokes off the lead at the start of the last round he was a threat. His patience and perseverance carried him through to what many expected to be a play off, even although he left it to making birdies on the last two holes to make his presence felt. Bunkers had already taken their toll of his score, particularly at the 10th hole when he unforgivably drove into Krugers Bunker, a monumental thing that even a blind man can see from the tee. But Els came back as he was always likely to come back and he made the putts when he had to. It was not Els' day simply because it was Westwoods'.
It speaks volumes for this event and these three great golf courses that it was all so close - even on the last day over the interval of an hour one single shot separated the top-20 in the field. Golf does not come more exciting than this and it doesn't come much better either.
Steen Tinning had an albatross at the 516 third hole at Kingsbarns, as did Montgomerie last year. Tinning had three sixes on his card and Montgomerie, after visiting the now notorious burn in front of the 18th at Kingsbarns, failed to make the cut despite going round in 65. His 73 and 74 at Carnoustie and St Andrews left too much to ask; but for that 6th at the last hole at Kingsbarns he would have had the best turn round in the year for he missed the cut by only one stroke.
The pro-am format of this event has been much criticised in the tabloid press. But the outcome this year delivered the tabloid goods for it was awash with sentimentality. Sam Torrence is reputed to have paid nearly £5K to have his 15-year-old son Daniel as his amateur partner, playing off a handicap of three - Sam made a good investment in an insurance policy with his boy. Sam failed to make the cut after rounds of 76, 68 and 68 but his boy came good with 68 at Kingsbarns and 67 St Andrews for them to finish 37 under par and take the pro-am event. Sam not only covered his investment but he also more than covered his expenses. One hopes, indeed expects Danny Boy to have a significant increase in this week's pocket money.
|| 29 - SEPTEMBER 2003