We learn less about start of season form from the first tournaments of the year than we do about the fact that two different games are emerging and diverging in golf. Ernie Els unsurprisingly won the Mercedes Championship in Hawaii with four rounds of superb golf that gave him an aggregate of 31 under par and an eight shot margin of victory. Trevor Immelman won the South African Open in Cape Town, South Africa, having carded 14 under par, less than half Els' score, and after a playoff. Had Els stayed at home and contested his own Open things might have been different but one can be absolutely sure that he would not have been 31 under par.
In Hawaii, Els played some lovely golf against a strong field. But the course more than Els' play flattered him. With the anticipated wind failing to materialise conditions were benign. The Plantation course itself, although astronomically long at 7,236 yards, appeared to be more of a monster than it actually was in play and showed that it takes more than length and a few ponds to make a great golf course. Els may have created a world record for shots under par for four rounds of golf but he did it on a course that required more brawn than brain. His $1million winner's cheque will be rewarding enough but one suspects that he will wish that he had made the record on a course more demanding of respect.
Els finished with a round of 67 after rounds of 64, and two of 65 shots. Remarkable golf and although he won by a staggering eight shots from Mediate and Choi, practically the whole field was under par and half the field in the teens under par.
In Cape Town, Trevor Immelman had things less easy on the golf course. Although the field itself failed to raise the pulse with most of the fat cats of the European Tour opting to put their collective feet up at home, he was nevertheless given a run for his money - a cool million, but sadly in rand.
Cape Town's Erinvale course is where Immelman cut his golfing teeth so he was perhaps at something of an advantage. But Erinvale is also Tim Clark's home course and it was probably not the first time that the two had walked down the extra play-off hole together. Neither can be considered second rate. Clark was the defending champion and has had a year of solid achievement behind him on the US Tour. Although Immelman finished last year on the European Tour without a win he nevertheless made 14th place in the Order of Merit. And although he stood toe-to-toe with Sergio Garcia as an amateur, looking down to him physically but up to him on the golf course, there was always the suspicion that the steady South African would make it more than the wild little Spaniard on the pro circuit. He may well yet realise his potential for although a year older than both Justin Rose and Garcia he is a year younger in terms of pro experience.
Erinvale and the Plantation course are oceans apart and not simply in terms of geography. The latter produced no surprises whatsoever whilst the former brought some heart stopping moments. This is refreshing for golf has long since lost much of its capacity to surprise on the polished places that attract the administrators. The svelte courses, particularly on the US Tour, have made for a bland game that is about as exciting to play as painting a wall and host tournaments that are about as exciting as watching it dry.
Modern resort courses may be splendid to the eye and wonderful in their pristine presentation but their predictability rather takes something out of the game. An unutterably long drive gets instant reward, irrespective of where the ball alights. Miss the fairway by a foot and you are in two-inch rough; miss it by six feet and you are in six inches. Little thought is required for recovery is entirely dependent on body strength. Only very rarely do you find a player losing his head in a dilemma over the shot to be played and only very rarely do you find him make an error in the shot of choice.
Consider the position Tim Clark found himself in at Erinvale in the third round of the tournament. Clark lost a three shot lead at the sixteenth hole after going through the green and ending up taking a nine from nowhere. His ball came to rest on a tuft - the like of which would not be allowed to desecrate the Plantation course. The ball was sitting up inviting a little lob up to the hole. Clark's club passed neatly under the ball three times and his fourth attempt only just got it onto the green. The chap clearly had a rush of blood to the head and it speaks volumes for him that he ended up in a playoff for the title.
The situation Clark found himself in is what makes the game and tests the player. It is the sort of situation that a challenger for the Open could find himself in on one of the old quirky Open venues, as Jean van de Velde will testify. The modern mania to manicure has not only set about making golf expensive for the upkeep of these pristine venues is horrific, it has also made it increasingly boring.
There are clearly two different games of golf emerging, one played on a total artefact of nature and the other played properly.
|| 14 - JANUARY 2003