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Firestone puts paid to the plodders
Darren Clarke returned to his winning ways in Akron, Ohio at the great Firestone course by winning the NEC Invitational and earning over a $1million for his efforts.

In many respects this event signalled a return to sanity as well as normality for the Firestone course was as normal as any monster can be without recourse to outright trickery. In recent times we have seen great courses ruined by the exertions of people who would find ready employment in Disneyland for their inventiveness and any Las Vegas casino for their capacity to randomly generate champions.

There can be little argument that this year's Major champions are little more than the outcome of randomly generated numbers, like winning cards in a bingo session. They may be good golfers but are yet some way from being great golfers. Darren Clarke is a great golfer. Jonathan Kaye and Chris Riley are US Tour winners and few would question the stature of Woods, Love, Singh and Allenby, who helped support him on the results sheet. Clarke won with a 12-under par total, exactly the total that one would expect or at least used to expect when a pro golfer was believed to play off +3. Firestone was reassuring in this respect as well as reaffirming one's belief that quality and class prevail.

It is certainly clear that the TV viewing punters find little entertainment in the random generation of champions. Viewing figures of this year' US PGA tournament were down 60% on last year. Oak Hill was not great theatre because the leaderboard contained the names of few great artists. Sponsors and broadcasters alike must have had sleepless nights post Oak Hill so Firestone must have come as a welcome respite when the leaderboard was made up of names like Woods, Garcia, Els, Love, Singh and Clarke.

Tiger Woods is ultimately responsible for the random generation system that authority has imposed in deciding Major champions. He is also responsible, therefore, for the label of greatness that has been thrust upon Toms, Weir, Furyk, Curtis and Micheel, and for that matter Paul Lawrie as well. It is the results of authority's best efforts to regulate what, in 1998, was described as the Tiger factor and resulted in measures taken to prevent Tiger's further rampage through the Majors. Measures that resulted in tricked up courses that turned the game into a lottery.

This is not conspiracy theory taken to the extreme. There was a time in the late 90s when it seemed as if Woods would win everything for the foreseeable future. Not only was the laddie winning at a rate hitherto unheard of, but he was also winning by margins that made the second prize seem like the wooden spoon.

Who will ever forget Woods taking the US Open by 15 shots at Pebble Beach, the Open at St Andrews by eight and the Masters by 12? Well, certainly not the administrators for they responded with rough tactics.

Augusta responded with rough grown in places where once lush sward prevailed. The USGA and the R&A similarly generated rough so penal that even to venture into it was dangerous and to play out of it put limb, if not life at risk. Carnoustie in '99 was probably the most extreme case but Oak Hill ran it close. At all venues, however, the net result was that the common denominator in determining the championship became long grass and rough justice prevailed.

The outcome of this is that the plodders have taken over and the game has lost excitement, entertainment and its unique capacity to bring out the best in the exhibition of pure talent.

Plodders have prevailed in this era of rough justice and the product has been pretty dull. Carnoustie had a novelty factor that was enhanced with Paul Lawrie, the local boy making good, and by the tomfoolery of Van de Velde. Bethpage was a slog and, although insufficient to tame the Tiger, it was noteworthy that plodders, including Faldo, filled the top five places. The Old Course and Muirfield were excused, doubtless in veneration, but they were the only exceptions to the general rule of the rough justice of recent times.

Golf has long been perceived by many as dull and boring. Nicklaus and Woods have done much to assuage this concept with drivers and long fairway irons in their hands. Indeed, it is undoubtedly true to say that Woods has brought a new excitement, and with it a new following to the game. Administrators should give him and the other exciting young players that have emerged in his shadow the chance to show off their talent on golf courses that reward attacking flair and put plodders in their place.

©    26 - AUGUST 2003

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