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Tiger Takes a Break
Tiger Woods turned up at Sawgrass in Florida to contest the Tournament Players Championship clearly out of sorts and neither at one with himself or Pete Dye's creation of a stadium golf course.

Davis Love took full advantage and went home over a million dollars richer. Woods nevertheless played some splendid golf, not only to make the cut in stop-go uncharacteristic Florida weather but also to finish well in the money.

With the big cat's mind elsewhere the mice played and provided some great entertainment. Indeed, it was storybook stuff. The much-enjoyed Pod Harrington led the qualifying and if there is anything that an American golf spectator enjoys more than mom's apple pie it is a stereotype Irishman with a rolling gait, sparkling eyes and a permanent smile.

Jay Haas at 49 was the perfect complement to Pod on the last day's play. With the rugged looks of a combative John Wayne and the casual attitude of a yesterday's hero playing in a club monthly medal, Haas inspires the 'Youre the man' brigade like no other.

Even the supporting cast for Sunday was storybook material. They appeared in their droves, reminiscent of a time when American golfing champions all looked like the kid next door who practised on the vacant lot down the block. Craig 'Who' Perks, the New Zealand born player who took the title last year, for a moment looked as if he might do the hitherto undone and win back-to-back TCP's. Perks was two behind going into the last day with the cuddly Couples, and then there was Mr. Cool himself, Davis Love III.

To really wring the last drop of nostalgia out of a golfing event in the US, pairing Fred Couples and Davis Love is a must. The two bring back memories of their great wins in the early 90s when, as the US golfing brats they strode the world winning the World Cup in places as diverse as Spain and China, each collecting a TPC title and Fred picking up a green jacket along the way.

Add to Fred and Davis the silvering diminutive figure of Corey Pavin and you have a soup that the beer-bellies about the 17th hole pond at Sawgrass can slobber over for a whole year and keep the video sales in Wall Mart going for a decade.

Tim Finchem, the US Tour commissioner and his team certainly have the know-how. With the nightmare of Tiger Woods having yet another stroll to victory gone, pairing Couples with Love at Sawgrass in the last round was inspirational and must have boosted beer sales by an order of magnitude. And everything went according to plan. Davis Love won comfortably and Fred played his supporting role to perfection. Even the Tiger and Darren Clarke played their part in making eagles and spectacular bogies to raise the pulse-rate - but it was ultimately Pod Harrington who complied in his supporting role.

Pod used to have the reputation of a bridesmaid after finishing second 16 times. This he dispelled after winning the Dunhill Links Championship following a play-off with Eduardo Romero in September and taking the BMW Asian Open in November. In December he very significantly won Tigers' personal event from a select field of 16 of the worlds top class players.

Despite the fact that Pod looks as if he is enjoying himself playing golf and making millions at it, he is no mug. Yet, after leading or sharing the lead through 54 holes, he could only provide the entertainment as Davis Love collected the birdies and the title.

Sawgrass is a travesty and brings out the very worst in modern golf. The island green at the 17th epitomises the ethos of the place while forming the epicentre of the yob culture that has become associated with the game in America. Hitting the 17th green is not difficult but pin placing can reduce the difference between a birdie and a double bogie to only a matter of a few feet. But par golf is not what the gallery or a tournament winner is looking for, however, and this hole has brought about a cultural change in the game.

Optimism is at the very core of golf and there can be little optimism left as you watch your ball plop into water only eight feet from the flag. There should always be the opportunity to recover from an errant shot and a par three green in the middle of a pond poses little possibility of that.

Enjoying again the glorious links of Prestwick yesterday I could not help but reflect on optimism in the game and the contrast between the old and the new. Like Sawgrass, Prestwick rewards the long, perfectly placed shot. The errand shot at Prestwick may also be penalised but there is always the optimism that you may well have just missed the bunker or that your ball may have come to rest in a place that will offer the chance of recovery. You cannot design optimism into a golf course. It comes with time and the input of knowledge and loving care.

Prestwick has brought out all that is best in the game since Tom Morris laid it out over 150 years ago. It also brings out the best in entertainment. In my case the entertainment was provided by my Links Golf of St Andrews team members, the bleary Mark Rigg, the youthful Ross Duncan, the stalwart Ewan Bowman of Turnberry Hotel and the guiding, safe and seasoned hands of John Philp, our much respected St Andrews born and bred pro.

We were led by the steady and informed finance convenor of Prestwick, Campbell Cooper, so it came as no surprise to find ourselves leading the event. What niggled was to find ourselves tied for first place by another team, one of whose members, Ian Bunch, the otherwise able secretary of Prestwick, was awarded the cuff-links after some complicated calculation concerning the back nine holes.

But that is golf and I assure you that I will look forward with greater optimism to Prestwick next year than I will to Sawgrass.

The views expressed are those of the author.

©    1 - APRIL 2003

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