Golf: Sunningdale's week of serious fun

Tim Glover looks forward to a timeless test of all that is best in golf
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THE competition is cut-throat, the standard high, admission to spectators is free and the prize money negligible. Where else would you get a grandfather playing with a teenager, an amateur with a professional, a lady with a gentleman? The Sunningdale Foursomes are endearing and uniquely enduring.

"It's more nerve-racking and annoying than any tournament I've ever played in," said Michael King, and he's played in both the Walker and Ryder Cups. "You think you're the bees knees but you don't half make yourself look silly. On the surface it seems easy but in reality it's a nightmare."

Matchplay at foursomes, the format where you hit alternate shots, is brought into focus at the highest level every two years in the Ryder Cup. "It's a desperate form of golf," King said, "because it's so difficult. You spend the whole time saying sorry. I don't know why but it produces amazingly serious golf."

The suave, urbane, naturally talented King (Sunningdale's upmarket answer to Gazza) has been a fixture in the fixture since the age of 14. As a kid he once came up against the Ryder Cup player Jimmy Hitchcock. "Jimmy was not only my mentor but a family friend but when the bell rang it was like he'd never met me before. It was a very good wake-up call for my career."

For the 57th tournament - the first round is on Tuesday, the final on Friday - disaster has struck. King's partner, James Healey, a young professional from Hull, got his dates mixed up and has to play elsewhere. Under the rules, it's one out, both out. The field is limited to 128 pairs and King's only hope of getting in is if a sufficient number of players scratch.

If that is the case, he will form a new partnership with John Putt. Putt's partner, the golf-mad Nigel Mansell, has withdrawn under mysterious circumstances. The former Formula One world champion, who has broken almost every bone in his body, had a shoulder operation last year. A spokeswoman at Woodbury Park, the golf club he owns in Devon, said: "He has not been able to play as often as he would have liked and doesn't feel up to speed. He's looking forward to playing in it next year."

However, Sunningdale is under the impression that Mansell, who at the age of 44 is expected to make a racing comeback in the British touring car championship, has a cracked rib, a result of a speed-boat accident.

Putt, who won the event in 1973, is a "best practice" consultant with the Formula One team Jordan. Twelve months ago he and Mansell - they gave new meaning to the phrase "drive for show, putt for dough" - were knocked out in the second round, the grand prix ace declaring: "Gentlemen, this is the greatest sport in the world."

No Mansell to attack the flag next week but there are a host of tour professionals, including Andrew Coltart, the winner of the Qatar Masters two weeks ago, Gordon Sherry, Roger Chapman, Paul Way, Derrick Cooper and Richard Boxall.

Cooper and Boxall won in 1992 and 1995 but the defending champions are the Welsh professional Helen Wadsworth and Julie Hall, the outstanding amateur who became secretary of the Ladies' Golf Union.

A couple of likely lads from the north, Mark Glynn and Rick Adams, form the most intriguing partnership. They may not be household names but are the mightiest hitters of a golf ball in history. It's official. Established as a long-driving team, they set the benchmark in Witney of 359 yards. The drive was all carry, that is the distance to where the ball pitched not to where it came to rest. No wind, no slope, no roll. Guinness ratified the achievement as a world record. "Either of us would carry the ball 60 yards past John Daly," Glynn, a martial arts expert who used to play rugby league for St Helens, said. "There's no trickery. It's a question of timing, technique, strength and equipment. Everything we use is perfectly legal."

The entrance fee is pounds 90 per pair. If the winners are professional they will be handed, discreetly, an envelope containing a modest cheque. Nobody says, nobody asks. If amateur, the winners will receive a gift voucher. What matters is getting your name in gold letters on the honours board in the clubhouse.

The real star of the Sunningdale Foursomes is Sunningdale itself, with its classic and timeless heathland stage. The tournament used to be a serious curtain-raiser to the European season - Max Faulkner was a winner in 1950, the year before he won the Open - and there are those, like King, who would like to see it upgraded as an international championship.

"It's an extraordinary event," King said. "Nobody likes to lose but the thing is you can be beaten by anybody. Above all it's at a good time of the year and on a great golf course."