Virtuosity with a golf club used largely to be accompanied by character. Those at the top in the game were not lacking in idiosyncrasy and many in the supporting cast were colourful characters who not only lived life in the fast lane but also played the game with a gusto that left half the gallery breathless and the other half teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown.
One never knew what would happen next for the unlikely was almost certain to happen. Then, the top players were yet mortals but with a larger than life quality that somehow brought them more birdies than most through routes of mind-boggling unlikelihood.
It should neither come as a surprise that TV golf viewing figures are declining nor that Pro-Am Tournaments are on the increase. Seniors Tournaments are drawing bigger galleries and greater viewing numbers than regular tournaments and although nostalgia may be a contributing factor it can hardly be the sole reason.
Recently in the USA I learned of and indeed watched a televised golf tournament that was comprised solely of celebrities whose names and faces were entirely unknown to me. It transpired that they were largely out-to-grass baseball players and 'resting' soap stars and the like who were paid appearance money to let their golf hang out in public.
What they played was more akin to a blood sport than golf and my heart went out to the poor sods until I realised that these paunchy guys were clearly enjoying themselves while providing the best entertainment that I had seen in years. From the galleries and the viewing figures a lot of people seemed to derive the same vicarious pleasure as I.
Press reporting would appear to be going the same way. It is noteworthy that the Seniors Tour Championship in Spain and what passed as the Italian Open in Sardinia last weekend received more column inches in the European press than the US Tour Championship in Texas. This, despite a four-way play off with Els and Garcia involved.
The simple fact of the matter is that both of the European events were more interesting than the big one in Houston. While the elite were simply playing for yet more dough at the so-called Champions Course in Texas, the Euro-rabbits were scrambling for their survival in Sardinia and the potbellies were playing just for the hell of it in Girona.
With the hype stripped away, the big boys hitting lush wide fairways and even lusher soft greens in Texas is simply not all that interesting. One gets tired waiting for this week's hot-streak putter to emerge and take the money. In contrast, the Sardinian course had more in common with a municipal park. Fairways were wide and bald and the sand traps were modest to the point that they would blush to be called bunkers. Yet, with only sunshine to compliment it, this track was the testing ground for those who would make it to the Tour next year or find themselves in the far more testing hot-house of the qualifying school.
That Mark Roe made it speaks volumes for his character for he held on while others crumpled. The Tour is better off for Roe's presence for he is a long way from the lacklustre. With only three spectators and a dog, motivation could not have been easy. The Is Molas course is surely not the best venue for this make or break event.
But one can understand the nostalgic interest in the senior's event. There are more characters in every three ball on the Seniors Tour than in most regular Tournament fields. Few can fail to be impressed by the 73-year-old Neil Coles breaking his age on returning a 67 over a 6,866 yards course playing in a breezy eddy off the Pyranees. Coles should be inspirational to players of all ages for he has won a major professional event in six different decades.
Ian Stanley is another character from whose book many should borrow a page. This amiable Aussie deservedly heads the Seniors Order of Merit and for many potbellies he is like a blast from the past on the courses of Europe. Throughout the 70s he, together with his great mates Bob Shearer, Stuart Ginn and Jack Newton, brought spirit and vivacity to the game. Stories of their exploits were the bread and butter of every club bar.
It was not for nothing that Stanley was known as the clown prince of golf. Although he still tends to the fast lane he is now running in a lower gear and being well rewarded for the restraint. He has picked up more than £170,000 for his efforts this year and, having earned a place in the Rest of the World team to take on the US Seniors for the Warburg Cup at Kiwah Island, is guaranteed another $100,000.
Sponsors have reacted surprisingly slowly to the gallery changes. But even the dimmest and dullest suits could not have failed to notice the numbers that pursued Torrance and Ballesteros down the Wentworth fairways in the first round of the World Matchplay, or that Arnie's Army grows by the year.
His following is a case in point for they are not there in anticipation of great golf - they never were. Arnie' s Army is made up of masochists there to witness the great flail, wearing their hearts on their sleeves, relishing a share in the consequences.
Can one expect the Tour to equip a charisma caravan staffed with short Belgian shrinks to park alongside the physiotherapy van in the future?
|| 8 - NOVEMBER 2001