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Making an exhibition of golf
No matter what the excuse or how you word it, the Presidents Cup is an exhibition golf event and at this time of the year we need more of it.

This is essentially the silly season for golf. It used to be called the close season, the time between the end of one year's tournament play and the start of another. Now, there is no close season because the backroom boys have discovered that the demand for exhibition golf is insatiable. What is amazing is that it took them so long to realise it.

Exhibition golf was established as early as 1870. Two almost simultaneous events in 1870 set the game off on a course that has resulted in events like the UBS Trophy that was played last week at Sea Island in Georgia. Like the Presidents Cup which also took place last week, this time on the African continent at the grandiosely named Links at Fancourt, George in South Africa, the UBS event is merely a commercial vehicle to promote exhibition golf and, as such, provides great entertainment.

In 1870, Tom Morris and Willie Park were matched by the big betting men of the day for a purse of £200 played over the 'best four greens in Scotland.' You may get some appreciation of the enormity of the sum on offer if you understand that the average income in Scotland at that time was not much above £10.

Prior to this Morris/Park match golf was little more than a provincial Scottish pastime. It was played all the way up the east coast of Scotland with only three significant outposts, in Prestwick, Hoylake at Liverpool and Westward Ho! in Devon. Prior to this match much of urban Scotland and all of England was as familiar with golf as they were with the lacrosse game of the North American Indians.

After the match the game had germinated into a seedling of notoriety.

In that same year romance, an essential ingredient of popular success, crept into the game when Tommy Morris won the Championship Belt outright. The Championship Belt, the precursor of the Claret Jug as the Open Championship Trophy, was modelled on the prize fight belts of the day in both dicor and constitution. Tommy's third consecutive win gave him outright retention of the belt - something than no-one had anticipated and which accounts for the fact that there was no Open Championship in 1871 because there was nothing to play for.

Tommy was but 20-years-old and, as well as youth, he brought a flair and colour to the game that it had hitherto lacked. The fact that his father, Tom Morris, had matched Willie Park over four greens in an event that remained unresolved, only added to his popularity.

The Morris/Park match started in St Andrews, the Morris's home green, where Park took the lead against the odds. It progressed to Prestwick, the course that Morris had built 20 years earlier where Morris took the lead that he held through North Berwick some days later. The national press had covered the build up to the match for weeks and during its progress had published a stroke-by-stroke account together with the news of the shifting odds.

Needless to say, the news had reached the pubs and dives of Edinburgh and every chancer with a bob or two to risk was on Parks' home links of Musselburgh for the final round of the contest.

Such was the crowd on the Musselburgh links and so aggressive the partisanship that Mr Robert Chambers, son and heir to the famous publishing house, was forced to take refuge with Morris in a pub before declaring the match abandoned. Litigation followed and it took six months for all parties to accept a null and void ruling on the match.

The combination of the Morris/Park debacle and young Tommy's championship success brought the game out of the gentlemen's clubs and into the pubs and the Victorian parlours. The game became a topic for discussion and ladies demanded to witness it at first hand. Purses were put up at the seaside resorts of St Andrews and North Berwick so that the protagonists could be matched and summer entertainment provided. Even excursion trains were run from Glasgow and Edinburgh to bring the working classes to witness the matchplay spectacle of young Tommy Morris play his friend and adversary, the equally young and dashing, Davie Strath.

Over the next four years, before both young men's untimely deaths, exhibition golf was born and matured into an entertainment.

Matchplay golf is an entertainment and should be promoted as such. The conclusion of the Presidents Cup could not have been scripted better as a spectacle. Els and Woods in the head-to-head that we have waited all year for - and played to resolve the outcome of a 12-man team event - is the stuff of fiction. Some wonderful golf was played by 15 of the top 20 players in the world and the final stage was left to Els and Woods, two of the most exciting players that the game has ever seen.

It was spectacular stuff made all the more exciting because the outcome was unresolved after three extra holes due to failing light. After playing indifferently throughout the previous days' foursome and fourball events, the odds were against Woods doing anything against Els in the last day singles. Woods trounced Els in regular play and looked certain to take the sudden death hole. Only in matchplay golf can you find this level of unpredictability and therefore excitement.

The unresolved aspect was the Morris/Park match all over again and the head-to-head cut and thrust of Els and Woods was as whetting of the appetite as young Tommy and Davie Strath all these years ago.

The world's golf backroom boys and the TV programmers together should wise up to the fact that this is the golf that the punter wants to see and has always wanted to see.

©    24 - NOVEMBER 2003

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