Golf: The banana-shaped albatross

It was an unbelievable shot by Nicklaus - but my friend Davey's was even more remarkable
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The Independent Online
ONE OF the many joys of golf is that bog-standard players - or even players who aspire to bog-standard, like my friend Davey - can, if the wind is blowing from the west and Venus is in the ascendant, hit a shot as perfect as any that their golfing heroes might hit. Moreover, they can perform these heroics in the same arena as their heroes. I can think of no other sport of which this is true.

Take Davey, a golfer so poor that divots leap out of the ground on their own when they see him coming, a man for whom "keep a 13 off your card" would provide a reasonable challenge. Yet a few years ago, on the par- five fifth at Castletown, a splendid links course on the Isle of Man, I saw Davey hole his three-wood second shot for an albatross. It was shaped too much like a banana, and stayed too close to the ground, to earn many points for artistic merit. Nevertheless, it hit the pin with a dull clunk and dropped into the hole.

With his vast handicap, Davey thus scored seven Stableford points on one hole, not many fewer than he would normally expect to accumulate in an entire round. And to make the moment even more special, he had already suffered the ignominy of a fresh-air shot on the first tee. In fact I wrote to Golf World magazine, asserting that this was a unique achievement, that in the 500 years or more that people have been playing golf, nobody had surely ever sunk so low, then soared so high, within five holes.

An albatross - double eagle to the Americans - is extremely rare even on professional scorecards. The odds on it happening are roughly 10 times greater than those for a hole-in-one. It is highly unlikely, for example, that even Tiger Woods will leave the forthcoming US Masters having scored a two on a par five, still less a one on a par four.

In 1935, however, Gene Sarazen did just that. He needed three birdies in the final four holes to tie Craig Wood, who was in the clubhouse on 282. So at the long 15th, Sarazen elected to go for the green with his second shot. With a four-wood, he struck what remains the most remarkable shot that the Augusta National has ever seen. Perhaps that the game itself has ever seen. It landed on the far bank of the lake in front of the green, took a couple of skips on to the putting surface, and gently rolled into the hole. With that two, Sarazen tied Wood, parred the remaining three holes, and as posterity demanded, won a 36-hole play-off the next day.

Only a dozen or so spectators saw Sarazen's astonishing shot. Most of the subsequent great shots in the Masters - Larry Mize's wondrous fluke at the second play-off hole in 1987, for example, or the following year, Sandy Lyle's brilliant seven-iron from the fairway bunker on the 18th - have been enjoyed by a rather bigger audience. But in 1986, I was privileged to witness, with no more than seven or eight others and out of range of the TV cameras, one of the finest shots ever hit in the Masters.

It happened on the eighth hole, a fairly unremarkable, uphill par five. I was hurrying through some enormous pines heading for Amen Corner when a ball came to rest practically at my feet. I waited to see whose wayward drive it was. A minute or two later, a frowning Jack Nicklaus arrived. He was level par for the round, just two under for the tournament, and hadn't a snowball's chance in hell of winning a sixth Green Jacket. Not at the age of 46.

But if anyone can lower the temperature in hell, it is Nicklaus. He took a long look at his lie. The only sensible option was to chip out sideways. Then he marched forward 10 yards or so and contemplated a gap between two pines of no more - I swear - than 18 inches. He returned to his ball. "Well," he said to his son Jackie, who was caddying, "if we're gonna win the gaalf tournament..." Unbelievably, he took out a three-wood, and smashed a shot straight through the gap. He completed the hole with a chip and two putts for par, which didn't particularly help his scorecard, but psychologically, represented the beginning of a charge which ended with a 65 and victory by one shot. That shot.

It was the second most remarkable shot I have ever seen on a golf course, struck by probably the greatest player ever to have graced the game. It is pipped by a shot struck by possibly the worst player ever to have disgraced the game. As I say, that is the joy of golf.