Golf: Carnoustie's war on the time bandits

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The Independent Online
AS DICKENS might have put it in A Tale of Two Cities, these are the worst of times. Slow play is paralysing golf, and the action of the authorities in trying to get championships finished before the millennium is infuriating the leading players.

Twelve months ago, while in contention in the final round of the US Open in San Francisco, Payne Stewart was warned about the pace of play and had a heated discussion with an official. Last Sunday, in the climax to the US Open at Pinehurst, Stewart was again put on the clock, although it would have been a brave man to penalise him a stroke, the margin by which he won the tournament from Phil Mickelson.

Tiger Woods, who was also timed, said: "With severe greens it takes time to figure out the slopes. I understand the pace of play rule but there should be exceptions to it."

Nevertheless, there will be more stop watches in action during the Open at Carnoustie than at the Olympic Games. "To play 18 holes in four and a half hours is unacceptable," Hugh Campbell, chairman of the R & A Championship Committee, said. "I abhor slow play. If I take more than three hours, my mind switches off."

Players have 40 seconds to play a shot and if they don't beat the clock, they are debited with a "bad time". Two bad times and they are penalised a stroke and/or fined, but the money is meaningless. "The rule is tricky to implement," Campbell admitted. "The players are streetwise. It's a major problem, like a slow over rate in cricket and it's an attitude of mind that has developed out of a professional game. There's a hell of a lot of money at stake, but it's now being coached into the amateur game." During the recent Amateur Championship, some slow coaches took six hours for a round - almost as long as Amy Mickelson was in labour.

Father's day

THE DAY after Phil Mickelson finished second in the US Open, his wife gave birth to a daughter, Amanda Brynn. Throughout the tournament, Mickelson had a private plane on stand-by and insisted that even if he'd been leading playing the final hole, he would have abandoned the US Open to be at his wife's side.

Thank goodness, then, that Stewart holed that 15 footer at the last. Had he missed, there would have been an 18-hole play-off the following day, which Stewart would have finished in splendid isolation. The timing of Amy going into labour meant that Mickelson's pager would have gone off somewhere around the ninth hole. "I was going to be with her no matter what," Mickelson said. "Come next June there will be another US Open." The best of times, as Dickens would have put it.

Life's a Beach

ARNOLD PALMER might be tempted to play in the US Open at Pebble Beach, California, in 2000, especially now that he's bought the course. In a magnum force three-ball with Clint Eastwood and Peter Ueberroth, the former baseball commissioner, Arnie has bid $820m, which is hardly a drop in the ocean. They could have built a millennium dome for that.

Making a decent fist

THANK YOU for asking, Jose Maria Olazabal is as well as can be expected. The Spaniard is licking his wounds after punching the wall of his hotel room during the US Open and breaking a bone in the little finger of his right hand. "He can't play for three weeks but he should be all right for the Open," Sergio Gomez, his manager, said. "It wasn't a real disaster. The fracture was so clean, so neat, all he needed was a plastic mould. The only thing he can't do is press his little finger against his thumb."

His trigger finger is OK, so he can still hunt in the woods around San Sebastian. Olly got himself into another fine mess following a 75 in the first round at Pinehurst. In the context of the scores it was not a real disaster but it lit a slow burning fuse. "After the round Jose went to the players' lounge but he couldn't eat anything," Gomez said. "Then he spent 40 minutes on the practice range and he did much better with the driver. When he got back to the hotel, boom... he was like a boxer. He hit the wall with premeditation I would say.

"It was a silly thing to do but it just shows you how frustrated the players get. It's the way the USGA sets up the course. It's the most difficult tournament on earth and I wouldn't be surprised if they put broken glass in the bunkers instead of sand. That's the way they are."

Wild impulse

JOHN DALY had remarked that he couldn't understand how anybody who had won the Masters could punch a wall, but that was before he scored 83 in the last round, putted while his ball was still in motion and finished stone cold sober last. "Wild Thing", who has been known to re-arrange a few hotel rooms in his time, was so exasperated, he announced: "That's my last US Open ever. I've had it with the USGA."

Last week he was telling a different story. "It was just the heat of the moment. I made some stupid comments. I hope the USGA will forgive me." At least by hitting the ball on the move, Daly could not be accused of slow play.

Shark wait

PETER JACOBSEN once remarked that the slums of Chicago are full of first- round leaders. If so, they might be rubbing shoulders with former major winners who blew their careers in pursuit of the greenback. Few are capable of striking the right balance between the practice ground and the board room. Greg Norman is dividing his time between business and family. Revealing the latest venture of Great White Shark Enterprises - housing estates around golf courses - Norman, who has 25 courses on the go, said he would not play in another tournament before the Open.

"I'd probably get as much enjoyment out of business as I do playing," he said. More, judging by his missed cut in the US Open. The big fish will, however, play some golf with the little fish, his 13-year-old son Greg junior, in Ireland and Scotland. Greg Junior recently broke 80 for the first time, so it could be a close contest.