Brian Viner: March of the automatons tramples on spectators

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The Independent Online

On Wednesday morning I spent an hour in the excellent company of England's former rugby union captain Martin Johnson, a man who, since retiring, seems to have become even more substantial than he was in his playing days, both in size and in aura.

I have interviewed Johnno several times before - once over lunch in an Italian restaurant in Leicester, where he had demolished a huge lasagne in more or less the time it took me to pick up my knife and fork - and have always found him generous to a fault with his time and his thoughts, even while he was England captain. It is hard, make that impossible, to imagine an England football captain being so accommodating.

Anyway, when I arrived to meet the great man, at a photographic studio in the East End of London, he was reading a tabloid newspaper's account of how Martin Corry and Ben Kay had mucked in rescuing villagers in Gloucestershire stricken by the floods. Johnno looked at me, a fleeting grin deknitting his famously severe brow.

"It says they 'spearheaded' the rescue effort," he said, greatly savouring the word "spearheaded". He considered it a hoot that his former Leicester team-mates should be cast as heroes, but again I found myself wondering whether a pair of England footballers would have done what Kay and Corry did. And if so, which two? "They had a total disregard for their own comfort and well-being," a flood victim said of the two hefty forwards. Comfort and well-being are not commodities that £100,000-a-week Premiership footballers give up easily.

But I mustn't just pick on football. In fact, it was during my soggy sojourn at Carnoustie that I decided to use this column to vent my disapproval of sportsmen living in a cocoon of pampered privilege. Golfers participating in the Open Championship are accorded a godlike status in inverse proportion to the treatment of spectators, who seem to be regarded by some of the marshals and, indeed, some of the players, as little more than a necessary inconvenience. We are told every year after the Open that the crowds have been marshalled superbly, but for "superbly" read "condescendingly". Beside every green at Carnoustie there were men wearing official tabards crouched with their backs to the action, scanning the galleries like secret servicemen protecting the president, their brief not to look for firearms but for anyone moving, whispering or, the biggest crime of all, brandishing a camera or a mobile phone.

Now, it is true that one should never overestimate a large sporting audience, and the Open is no exception. British golf fans swell with pride on hearing top American players say that they love playing over here because the galleries are so knowledgeable. It was a regular refrain of Tom Watson's down the years. But when the point of comparison is an American audience, the compliment diminishes by the power of 10. It is like an elderly, myopic aunt telling you you're looking handsome.

Worryingly, the inanities that scar even the Masters, that most rarefied of golf tournaments, are making their way across the Atlantic. On the second day at Carnoustie I was in the media posse following Tiger Woods, and the instant he unleashed his tee shot at the sixth hole, some moron shouted "in the hole, Tigger!" The sixth, for the record, is a 578-yard par-five. Moreover, some folk use cameras and mobile phones indiscriminately during big sporting events, and it is not overstating the case against them at the Open to suggest that a click at an inopportune moment could influence the result of the entire shooting match.

All that said, elite professional golfers should be reminded from time to time that without the paying audiences, and for that matter without the photographers who so displease them with their very presence, the Bentleys and the private planes would have to go back.

Colin Montgomerie is the worst malefactor of all. He gives every impression that he would rather be playing in a bubble hermetically sealed against all extraneous noise and movement, which is an insult to everyone behind the ropes. It is time he realised that his success, his riches, and our attendance, even with our maddening tendency to cough or twitch at the wrong moments, are indivisible.

Of course, we are all complicit in the conversion of sportsmen (women are not nearly so bad) into spoilt prima donnas. I write about them, you read about them, we all fawn over them, and we get precious little in return except sporting excellence, which you might say is all we need, but I think we are entitled to a little more humanity.

At least titbits of humour used to be tossed to golf crowds. I first went to the Open in 1976 at Royal Birkdale and followed Lee Trevino around. It was like following Ken Dodd. Later, Fuzzy Zoeller was similarly able to banter his way round the course. Those two were exceptions even then - I don't remember Jack Nicklaus ever doing much joshing - but sport at the highest level had not yet become a pursuit for automatons. It is now.

Who I Like This Week...

Padraig Harrington's four-year-old son Paddy, who wondered within range of the microphone, and to the delight of tens of millions of people watching the Open Championship on television, whether he could use his dad's new Claret Jug to put ladybirds in. It was also heart-warming to see young Paddy race into his dad's arms not when the Open was won, but when Harrington thought it was lost, following his double-bogey on the 72nd hole. Even for top sportsmen, fatherhood can put regrets into perspective. I add, of course, my admiration for Harrington himself, one of the least automaton-like of golfers (see rant in main column).

And Who I Don't

The footballers of FC Barcelona, billeted during their pre-season tour of Scotland in St Andrews' Old Course Hotel, where the best rooms overlook what remains, notwithstanding last week's fuss about the 18th at Carnoustie, the most famous hole in golf, the fiendish Road Hole. Yet by all accounts the Barcelona players have expressed no interest in playing the Old Course. They are focusing only on their training at the university playing fields - once trod by yours truly, albeit less in the style of Ronaldinho than Ronald McDonald. All of which is like going to the Nou Camp and turning your back on Barcelona v Real Madrid.