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Getting back to reality
With the madness of the Open behind us, the world as a whole, and certainly the little township of Troon, can now gently slide back into golfing somnolence. Normality returns as Peter Allis and the BBC wind up the cables, pack the cameras and leaves the world to the even more inane Ewen Murray and Sky TV. In the clubs, with Todd Hamilton's confirmation that length does not matter, there is already new talk of medal play strategy and game plans. Men who have carved careers out of the most demanding of professions throw pragmatism to the wind with a new found insight into how to win. The cabals of golf, the 'Tours', return to supping bread-and-butter with the Lichtenstein Open, The Okifinoky Classic and the Ping-Pong Masters. The Open is over for another year, leaving yet more detritus.

Together with some small boys and a few men in really expensive golfing anoraks, I found myself sitting high in the grandstand beside the 8th green at Troon on Thursday morning, as Ernie Els holed out with a wedge from the tee. I became wistful because I was also there when Gene Sarazen made his ace at the same hole 30 years ago. I was also greatly moved by the view over the adjacent Prestwick Course, mindful of the fact that it was there that it all began 144 years ago.

Golf has come a long way since 1860 when eight 'known and respectable caddies' gathered at Prestwick to contest the title of 'Champion Golfer of the Year'. The winner received a silver embellished belt of red Morocco leather, like that awarded to prize-fighters. There was no monetary reward for their efforts. Willie Park won the belt that day but, lest it be thought that he was playing for the honour alone, he was doubtless slipped a few back-handers from his Musselburgh backers for his efforts on their betting behalf. Willie was far from an outsider but he was not expected to beat Tom Morris, who had not only built the Prestwick course but had also been a central figure in putting the Championship together.

Far from the eight caddies playing for a belt and either a small monetary reward or a kick up the backside in October 1860, 2,200 players entered for the 2004 Open and they were playing for a £700,000 first prize and a total prize fund of over £3 million. I tried to share my reverie with the small boys and men in anoraks but, perhaps not surprisingly, I soon found myself alone.

It is hard to decide whether golf has taken over the world or the world has taken over golf. Other than the fact that the objective of getting the ball from the teeing ground and into the hole in the fewest number of strokes, the 133rd playing of the event had little in common with what spawned it. It is not simply the numbers doing it, or how it is done to get the ball into the hole that has changed; every aspect of the game and the Open is now different.

It was not until 1872 that the Open started to rotate venues and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews took over the Championships administration. This was after a year without a trophy because Tommy Morris, the Tiger Woods of his day, had won the belt outright with three consecutive victories. It is thanks to the R&A's determination and independence that the Open is still played over proper golf courses and that it remains truly open to all. But it is due to the modern economics of Wall Street and those in search of the opportunity to make a fast buck that the Championship, and indeed the game itself, has become a mammoth commercial enterprise.

I am sadly old enough to remember the days when the Open Championship tented village comprised an enterprising woman dispensing teas and shortbread from the dark depths of an ex-army bell tent. I also recall the frownings about the first time alcohol was made available at the Open and the first on-site mobile fish-and-chip van. Today, the tented village and the Bollinger tent in particular is, to many, the core of the Open and the raison d'jtre of the event. The village covers acres of land and makes commercially available aspects of the game hitherto unknown. You can enter with a handicap of 28 and, given sufficient plastic credit, emerge with a guaranteed handicap of +3 - such is the range of goods on offer. You could also emerge with a wardrobe that would make Ian Poulter blush.

Golf has become the lingua franca of the chattering classes as well as of movie and pop stars, the has-beens of music halls and the washed-up lesser lights of other sports. Golf has become a way of dressing as well as a way of life. Golfing sartorialism says as much about the player you are as it does about your disposable cash income. The blazer and tie says that you are of the old school; worn with jeans, it says that you are 'in' but that you don't give a damn. The polo shirt with the requisite logo, worn in all weathers, perhaps over a long sleeved crew-necked jersey, with concession sometimes made to a sleeveless pullover, says that you are a mean-man player ready to kick sand in the face of anyone without a 60 degree pitching wedge. The wet-weather gear clad gent sporting the European Tour logo with the inevitable bundle of A4 sheets and a clipboard under his arm is an official and an aficionado and is not to be meddled with. His Harris Tweed cap and the metal spikes in his shoes spell authority and, given the slightest opportunity, he will be especially effusive about the time he spoke to Colin Montgomerie and hint about rubbing shoulders with Nick Faldo - when he was at the top of his game, of course.

The ubiquity of golf surprises many Scots who have been brought up with the game as part of their lives. But it is the ubiquity of the Open Championship that one finds staggering. Who would have thought that it would come to occupy nine hours a day of TV coverage? Who would have thought that it could lead to the cancellation of the Antiques Road Show, not to mention Songs of Praise? Who would have thought that millions of viewers throughout the intelligent world would listen to the sycophantic dribble of a gaggle of inarticulate past-pro golfers and an incoherent Frenchman without complaint? It is only a matter of time before they are joined by a gay lad criticising the players apparel and, worse still, before Colin Montgomerie joins their ranks with his bewildering babble. The day that happens is the day that I pull the plug.

©    26 - JULY 2004

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