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Witnessing a resurrection
Pod Harrington won the 2002 Dunhill Links Championship after a sudden death play-off with Eduardo Romero. Pod was unquestionably the man of the day despite the best efforts of Colin Montgomerie in playing the front nine holes in 30, but Sandy Lyle was undoubtedly the man of the tournament.

The resurrection of Sandy's game, which brought him a joint third place finish with Montgomerie and Singh brought joy to more than many but it was particularly poignant for me because I literally lived through the ordeal with him every hole of the way.

This state of affairs came about entirely by chance. The revamped format of the Dunhill is played as a simultaneous pro-am in which each playing professional is partnered by an amateur through the three rounds over each of the venues - Kingsbarns, Carnoustie and the Old Course at St Andrews. Pure serendipity brought Dr Duncan Lawrie and Sandy Lyle into partnership and simple commitment to friendship made me lug Duncan's golf bag for the week. We have been close friends and playing companions for longer than we care to think about and I felt more than obliged to caddy him through the ordeal.

Ordeal is certainly the applicable word. As well as the great pleasure of spending three days in the company of Sandy Lyle and his caddy, Dave Musgrove, there is also the constant anxiety about getting in the way. Duncan Lawrie is a two-handicap player well aware that the game requires concentration as well as dedication.

The fact that we were playing with a two times Major winner, trying desperately to salvage his game while at the same time playing for the biggest pot in the European Tour, was never far from our collective mind. Getting in the way while trying to make a team contribution was not easy. Responding to Sanfy's friendly support while at the same time celebrating his successes and sympathising with his failures made for constant anxiety in getting it right.

The situation can be likened to a plumber joining a brain surgeon in an operating theatre. Peter Thomson once, quite correctly, likened a scratch amateur playing with a Major winner to a 28 handicapper playing with a scratchman. Professional tournament players play a wholly different game.

Spending three days playing over three very different and very great links courses with Eduardo Romero and Sandy Lyle has opened my eyes and filled me with despair. These men strike the ball in a totally different way from normal mortal golfers. The clubhead strike generates an altogether different flightpath to the ball and also a different action on the ball on landing. Indeed, tee to green one wonders if it is at all possible to strike the ball better.

It is on the green, or at least within the last 20 yards of the hole, that differences become apparent and money is won or lost.

The contrast between the phenomenal clubhead speed that drives the ball high and long and the delicate stroke of the putting action is very striking, as is the detail with which the playing of each hole is worked out from the tee.

Everything possible is done to reduce risk of error. Bunkers will either be flown or the ball played up short; nothing is left to chance. The shot into the green is calculated in length to the foot and the greens contours studied to get the ball close to the hole. But it is on the green that one sees the real application.

Whereas the club golfer would consider getting a 20 foot putt close to the hole a satisfactory outcome, the tournament golfer sees every putt as a holeable opportunity.

Watching Romero with a driving iron in his massive hands executing a fluid powerful swing, it is hard to believe that he will be eligible to contest the Seniors Tour next year. Sandy Lyle is even more impressive and it is sobering to reflect that over four days, playing three different courses he accumulated 22 birdies and only five bogies. Yet this great player, prior to this event, had not had a top-10 finish in any tournament in the last seven years and has missed the cut in his last seven successive events. Professional golf is a perfidious business.

Professional golf is also exceptionally hard work for player and caddy alike. Sandy Lyle appears with the demeanour of a man of ice yet he is in fact passionate about his game and his concentration and application is absolute. Dave Musgrove is required to calculate distance, provide instant confidence and exercise judgement and support while carrying a bag that a donkey would balk at. That they could both be constantly supportive, informative and constructive as well as entertaining to a pair of amateurs simply enjoying themselves speaks volumes for their characters.

While Sandy addressed himself to the idiosyncrasies of Duncan's swing, Dave Musgrove gave me an ongoing lesson in the finer art of caddying. I am not sure that either of us was as appreciative as we might have been.

But it is the waiting that is the hardest part of golf at this level. Six-hour rounds are commonplace and it is amazing that players can maintain any sort of rhythm, far less concentration for this length of time. The problem of slow play is now attracting consultant specialists but it is a problem that can be simply solved by timing seasoned players like Lyle, and posting these results to younger players as yardsticks.

Sandy's conclusions about the shot or putt are drawn quickly and executed without hesitation. I watched Paul Casey and Justin Rose take longer over putts than I take for lunch and their duration on the tee can be longer than an intercontinental flight and just about as interesting. Something really has to be done or death by ennui will become a hazard in the game. It is hardly surprising that golf is increasingly becoming a young man's game for only the young have the time and stamina to endure a six hour round - and also the inability to appreciate that life will go on despite a missed putt.

©    7 - OCTOBER 2002

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