An imposter at the Open (or, how our man Brian Viner conned his way into golf's holy of holies)
Brian Viner swapped London for the Herefordshire countryside, and his column ‘Country Life’ documents his attempts to chase the rural idyll. Chiefly a sports writer, he pens a weekly sports column and interview for the paper. He is the author of 'Ali, Pele, Lillee and Me: A Personal Odyssey Through the Sporting Seventies'.
Thursday 15 July 1999
There are few things quite as enjoyable, for a man who is approaching middle age with the velocity of a Tiger Woods drive, as the enthusiastic retelling of a student jape.
Nor is there anything quite as sad. But that jape 15 years ago did shed some light on the weird and wonderful world of golf. Moreover, this week at Carnoustie - the grey seaside town east of Dundee, where the 128th Open Championship gets under way today - I was minded to repeat it, just to see whether the old pranksterish spirit still lurks alongside the dodgy back, thickening waist and anxiety over mortgage repayments.
But first, 1984, and the plan of action constructed with more care and precision than was ever lavished on essays analysing the foreign policy of Louis XIV. D-Day was the final practice day, the eve of competition. With the correct swagger, and a reasonably professional-looking bag of clubs, getting into the Championship was easy. But our target was the practice ground - then, as now, overlooked by a grandstand where hundreds of fans assembled to watch the world's finest players smiting balls into the clear blue yonder. With me, they were to get a little less than they bargained for.
A security guard patrolled the gate checking badges, but we had anticipated that, and staged a loud conversation with another friend who wore a garish turquoise polo shirt with bright red trousers and looked, therefore, passably like either a pimp or a professional golfer. "Hello, Brian," he said. "How's the game?" "Not bad, George," I replied. "Need to work on the bunker play but I shot a 71 this morning, which was OK." In my dreams, I might have added, but the guard had heard enough, and cheerfully waved us through.
Another conspirator, Angus, was in the crowd. "Can I have your autograph?" he called. "You're the only good one I haven't got." I strolled over to the fence, and amiably signed 20 or so autograph books, programmes and visors. After all, as I always say, it is the fans who make this the great game it is, and we top players disregard them at our peril.
I bantered with a small boy and his father, not very amusingly, yet everyone within earshot fell about. Billy Connolly at the Glasgow Empire could not have a more receptive audience than a pro at the Open. It is the same with tennis players at Wimbledon. They are mostly so drearily earnest, so blinkered in pursuit of glory, that the slightest evidence of a sense of humour is seized on by the fans much as a starving dog falls upon a bone. By dint of being more animated than many professional golfers, which could also be said of many wooden tee-pegs, Lee Trevino is considered by fans to be funnier than Woody Allen, Mel Brooks and Neil Simon combined. In tennis, Ilie Nastase and Jimmy Connors enjoyed the same status. Similarly, with a single quip about the weather my reputation as a legendary golfing wag was established.
My caddie then fetched a bucket of balls and we stepped on to the practice putting-green, which we briefly shared with just two other players, Greg Norman and Bernhard Langer. After some embarrassingly erratic putting, I felt a tap on my shoulder. The game, it seemed, was up. But in fact it was a journalist from an American golfing magazine, wanting to quiz me about my prospects in the Open. Unsurprisingly, he didn't recognise me. However, by now - rather like the man who pretended to be Stanley Kubrick until he firmly believed he was Stanley Kubrick - I was so consumed by the deception that I was rather offended. Did I truly think I could win it? I would, I replied modestly, simply be happy to make the cut. "Absolutely bloody delirious, I should think," muttered my caddie, with unnecessary irreverence.
We walked over to the fleet of courtesy cars, reserved for players and driven, without apparent exception, by lovely, leggy blondes. I had checked the more obscure qualifiers in that morning's newspaper and gave my name as David Ridley, who was duly crossed off an official courtesy car list. We were given a car, and a driver called Carol. I have always vaguely wondered what happened when the real David Ridley turned up to claim his car. Was he unveiled as an impostor?
Carol chauffeured us slowly out of the practice ground, whereupon Angus, the stooge in the crowd, ran over to the car waving his programme. He was followed, Pied-Piper-like, by a large posse of young autograph-hunters, and I buzzed the window down to oblige them. For a minute or two there was quite a melee round the car, and out of the corner of my eye I watched the former Open champion, Johnny Miller, walking towards us. He peered into the car, a half-smile on his face, plainly expecting to see Tom, Jack, or Seve rather than any Tom, Dick or Harry. His half-smile evaporated, and was replaced by an epic look of puzzlement as this unfamiliar but clearly immensely popular young player whizzed off into the sunset. Or, more specifically, into the bar of the nearby Dunvegan Hotel, where there awaited more free pints of heavy than I care to remember, or indeed can remember.
And so to Carnoustie 99. All this week, the excitement has been almost tangible. And never mind the golf. Yesterday, the landlady of my friend's B&B spotted Catherine Zeta Jones walking along the high street. It might have been the daughter of the woman who runs the launderette, she added. She couldn't be absolutely sure. But it certainly looked like Catherine Zeta Jones. It is rumoured that Tom Hanks is in town. And Richard Dreyfuss.
The golfing stars, of course, are all here. Including me. On Tuesday, I borrowed a set of clubs and boldly went where I had once gone before, this time with a new caddie, Graham, as convincingly hangdog as Dominick had been 15 years earlier. Our jolly jape of 1984 had fallen short of actually striking balls. There'd been a slot available alongside Seve Ballesteros, who went on to win that year's championship, but I'd had a feeling that my occasional shank, an ugly shot whereby the ball veers off almost at a right angle, might possibly give the game away. It might also, of course, have crippled Seve, thereby altering the course of golfing history.
This time, however, egged on by Graham, there was no chickening out. He rolled me a ball and handed me a five-wood. It was a metal wood, that great golfing oxymoron, habitually referred to by Seve as "a mental wood". I took a long, deep breath as, three bays away, the great South African player Ernie Els, the winner of two US Opens, was hammering the ball in the general direction of Norway. Beyond him was Nick Faldo, five times Open champion. And, beyond him, Jose-Maria Olazabal, the reigning US Masters champion.
I stepped forward and joined this formidably gifted and distinguished band. I took two practice swishes. I wiggled. I waggled. I swung. There was a resounding "tink" as metal wood connected with ball. I looked up. The ball was sailing, arrow-straight, into the distance. Its course never wavered. It eventually fell to earth what seemed like minutes later. My caddie stifled a cry of amazement, then burst out laughing. He offered me another ball, but I knew I had been only fleetingly touched by the golfing gods. There would be no repeating that shot. In the crowd, I heard a man say to his wife: "It's just incredible how well these guys hit the ball, isn't it?" Of course, it's possible that he was referring to Ernie Els, but, rather gloriously, I shall never know for sure.
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