Big gambles on the greens

There are the bets that don't quite make it and - more maddening - bets you don't quite make
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Every gambler, like every fisherman, tells the story of The One That Got Away. A decade or so ago I had a tenner riding on a 160-1 double - Durham Edition to win the Grand National and Nick Faldo to win the US Masters. Faldo triumphed but Durham Edition was beaten by half a length. I came tantalisingly close, yet might as well have backed Faldo to take Aintree by storm and Durham Edition to conquer Augusta. This year, indeed, a horse might have fared better in the Masters than Faldo.

The ones that get away fall into two categories. There are the bets that don't quite make it and the bets you don't quite make. The latter variety are more maddening by far. At Royal Ascot this year I was introduced to Willie Carson. I told him I had backed the second-favourite, Pantar, in the day's big race, the Royal Hunt Cup. Carson pursed his lips. I asked whether he had a better suggestion. He surveyed his race card and pointed a stubby finger at Showboat, a 22-1 outsider. "Back him each way," he said. It was better than hearing it straight from the horse's mouth, if only because Carson doesn't have bad breath. And yet, for some reason I still can't fathom, I ignored the tip. The friends I was with, by annoying contrast, were so impressed that I'd received a private tip from Willie Carson that they rushed to the Tote and placed their taxi fare home on Showboat, who duly obliged by romping home six lengths clear. Pantar finished about an hour later.

I prefer betting on golfers than horses, because I am better acquainted with the formbook. Also, because the fields are so large, the odds are much more generous, which does not take account of the fact that only about 15 players, 20 at most, are in with a decent shout of winning the major tournaments. I had an astute pounds 10 each-way at 40-1 on the blessed Jose-Maria Olazabal to win this year's Masters, reckoning that his short- game wizardry, his fondness for Augusta, and his recovery from crippling injury, might combine to devastating effect. You feel like a genius when you get it right. And merely unlucky when you get it wrong.

In the US Open I nearly backed Phil Mickelson. He came second, so an each-way bet could have been pretty lucrative. But I have been backing Mickelson in the majors for the last three years, and he keeps letting me down. He is the new Bob Tway in my life. I first set eyes on Tway in 1985, at the Southern Open in Columbus, Georgia. He didn't win. A man called Tim Simpson won, and in an emotional and frankly excruciating victory speech, thanked the Lord for touching him with His glory. Simpson then roared off in his Porsche and I didn't see him again until the following year's US Masters, when I sat at the back of the 10th green watching him take four putts. Not even the Almighty has those greens sussed.

As for Tway, his immaculate swing and calm demeanour at that Southern Open convinced me that he would one day win a major. Accordingly, I backed him throughout 1986, at odds of up to 100-1. But by the USPGA at the Inverness Club, I was beginning to lose faith. I decided against my usual each-way punt. And you know, of course, what happened next. Tway holed an outrageous bunker shot on the final hole to pip Greg Norman. That shot is still shown on TV occasionally, to demonstrate how unlucky Norman has been. But when I watch it, I think only of how unlucky I was.

That's the trouble with betting on sport. It skews your perspective. Infamously, Rodney Marsh and Dennis Lillee were marginally less gutted than the rest of the Australian cricket team when England staged their Lazarus-like comeback at Headingley in 1981, having made the most of the 500-1 offered by Ladbrokes against an English victory. Less infamously, I was not as exultantly partisan as I wanted to be when Ian Woosnam won the 1991 US Masters, for I had money riding on Tom Watson, who was neck- and-neck with Woosnam going down the 18th.

It was Watson, of course, who won the last Open Championship to be held at Carnoustie, arguably the toughest of links courses, where it returns this week after 24 years. Before Watson, Carnoustie's Open champions were Gary Player and Ben Hogan. Historically, men who have already won several majors, or are on the threshold of doing so, are those who prosper there. Good rather than great players do win the Open, the likes of Mark Calcavecchia and Ian Baker-Finch. But not, I fancy, at Carnoustie. My money, for what it's worth, is on Ernie Els.