Golf: Restoring lost pride now the only ambition for O'Meara

MARK O'MEARA'S first shot in defence of the Open Championship yesterday set up a chain of events that put a severe strain on one of golf's more equable temperaments.

After going wildly right from the tee, fortunate to find his ball on a path not in the deep, fertilised rough that is presently the source of much cursing, O'Meara recovered to make par but was soon at a loss to cope with conditions that are embarrassing the world's best golfers.

Most are hacking their way around Carnoustie, muttering darkly about the authorities, claiming that normal club selection is impossible, complaining about a capricious wind and worrying about their reputations.

Anyone who follows the most humbling of games closely will know that this is not an unusual reaction. Golfers as a breed need something to bitch about; pin placings, the state of the greens, the width and contours of the fairways, anything that serves to dent their egos.

A thought about events at Carnoustie yesterday, one with which you may or may not be in agreement, is that too many players conditioned themselves to believe that they might struggle to break 80 and were further discouraged by news from the early matches.

When it was worked out that the first 16 matches were completed in a total of 348 shots over par (by that reckoning the standard scratch score at Carnoustie yesterday would be 78) one of the afternoon starters said: "You wonder whether it is worth going out there."

By then O'Meara, the defending champion, had compiled a score of 83, three shots worse than Severiano Ballesteros and nine worse off than his other playing partner, Ernie Els, whose battling 74 was the result of taking only 26 putts in what was an otherwise undistinguished round.

After 11 holes O'Meara had hit only three fairways, struggling to correct a slice that made him a victim of the narrow fairways; a swish here, a swish there, an audible curse when he lost another struggle with the weeds.

Finding no one but the course to blame, Ballesteros twice thrashed his club into the ground after an attempted recovery from the long grass left him still in it only 30 yards forward.

Conversations between Ballesteros and Els clearly centred on the difficulties they were encountering, the Spaniard shaking his head in bafflement and frustration.

O'Meara strode from one crisis to another. Double-bogeys at the second and third, three more dropped shots before the turn. Out in 43, seven over and soon to get worse. Left rough at the 10th, duffed chip, three putts, another double bogey.

Only Els of the three men who set out with nine major titles between them had the look of a contender. "But for my putting I wouldn't have got anywhere near my score," he said afterwards. "When you put the two things together, the way the course is set up [the South African is prominent among those who are unconvinced by denials that the rough has been doctored] and the wind I don't think I have played in more difficult conditions."

Els would settle now for four times the 74 he posted. "It's a helluva score round here today," he said, "but it wouldn't have been possible if the putter hadn't worked so well. That was the key factor. When we started off I felt that things weren't too bad. There wasn't a lot of wind for three holes but then things changed. From then on club selection became more and more difficult. You were guessing. But you've just got to get on with it. Put numbers down."

Nick Price, who was in the group ahead, spotted Els waiting to play from the 14th tee. "Have you had any fun out here?" he called. "No man, not at all," Els replied.

O'Meara struggled on. Another bogey at the 15th, a triple at the 17th. A chipped-in birdie at the last hole was no consolation for the American. "The golf course was very hard and I played poorly," he said. "That's pretty much what happened out there. To shoot 83 is a big disappointment but I tried on every shot and that's the best score I got."

Rubbing a hand across tanned features, doubtless setting the day's experience against moments of golfing contentment, O'Meara added: "Pride hurt? I think a little bit when you shoot in the eighties. I'm a professional golfer. I'm hurt by my score but I felt I got the score I deserved. I made three double bogeys and triple, so it was pretty much those four holes that hurt me most. Trouble was that I didn't drive the ball well and didn't make a lot of putts. That's just asking for trouble."

In common with everyone out there O'Meara found the conditions more difficult than he had ever experienced. "I've known the weather more trying, but not combined with such a demanding golf course. Put together it makes things extremely tough. All I can do is try to play better and restore some of my pride."

Normally the sounds of an Open Championship bring news of thrilling feats. In yesterday's trying circumstances they spoke only of modest achievement. Hearing a roar from across the course, a colleague said: "Somebody has made par."

It was that sort of day. A day for experience and resolution and coming to grips with reality, when it wasn't possible to pepper the pin or even be sure of remaining on the fairway. A day when the Open champion often played like a mug and young Sergio Garcia discovered that it isn't a boy's game.

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