Golf: The making of a monster
Like adding a skid pan to Silverstone, it discouraged aggression and rewarded caution
Brian Viner swapped London for the Herefordshire countryside, and his column ‘Country Life’ documents his attempts to chase the rural idyll. Chiefly a sports writer, he pens a weekly sports column and interview for the paper. He is the author of 'Ali, Pele, Lillee and Me: A Personal Odyssey Through the Sporting Seventies'.
Monday 19 July 1999
When Carnoustie was reinstated as an Open Championship venue, the world of golf cheered. Some folk still wondered whether, even with the construction of a posh new hotel, the bleak little pebble-dashed town could still cope with the razzmatazz of the modern-day Open. But everyone agreed that the course was probably a purer test of golf than could be found anywhere else in the British Isles, maybe anywhere else in the world.
As it turned out, the town coped admirably and, against all the odds, ended up winning more friends than the course. Sergio Garcia, for one, will not want the Open to hurry back to Carnoustie, unless he is burning to avenge his humiliation. St Andrews next year will seem like a pitch-and-putt by comparison, while Carnoustie, once synonymous with excellence, now seems to be a byword for epic unfairness. Which is itself unfair, for the course is still a great one.
The villains of the piece, by common consent, are the men who sit on the Championship committee of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club. "Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks. Rage, blow." Was that King Lear, or a chap in blazer, flannels and R&A tie, standing on the first tee roaring at the heavens, just after dawn last Thursday morning?
For the officials did all they could to turn Carnoustie into the severest challenge ever to confront the world's best. Apparently, they commanded the greenkeepers to chuck fertiliser on the rough, which made even the sparse tufts just off the fairways look like Tina Turner on a bad hair day. The fairways were reduced, in places, to barely 10 yards in width. In short, they turned it from being hard to shoot even par to being nigh on impossible.
What they did was like adding a skid pan to Silverstone, in the sense that it discouraged aggression and rewarded caution, which made the Open a less enjoyable spectacle than usual.
I got my first taste of the brewing controversy a week ago today when I had lunch with the five-times Open champion Peter Thomson. The great man had just come back from Carnoustie. "I think they may have crossed the line this time," he said, meaning the line between toughness and unfairness. Thomson hoped that the players would kick up a stink before the Championship, forcing some last-minute adjustments to the course. But he knew they wouldn't. "They're too polite these days," he complained. Years ago, he said, the leading pros were more inclined to flex their muscles.
In 1967, according to Thomson, the R&A was more or less forced to permit the larger American ball to be used in the Open, after receiving a letter from the top American players, who threatened to pull out otherwise. There was later some doubt about the provenance of the letter. But whether genuine or not, it had the desired effect.
Similarly, suggested Thomson, old mischief-maker that he is, the Championship committee would think twice about tricking up the Open venue if the likes of Tiger Woods threatened to boycott the event.
Thomson's recollections of staying in Carnoustie during the 1953 Open (he was, remarkably, to win the claret jug in 1954, 1955 and 1956) would not strike much of a chord with his modern counterparts. He stayed in the Station Hotel, which used to shudder when the London-Aberdeen express thundered by, and had no en-suite facilities. Indeed, Ben Hogan nearly went home to Texas when he found that he couldn't pee without first taking a stroll along the corridor.
Which brings us to Jean-Baptiste Ado. Jean van de Velde is not the first Frenchman to do well at Carnoustie. Ado, a protege of Henry Cotton's, also had a fine tournament there in 1953. He was an unsubtle but powerful player, whose strength, it was rumoured, came from carrying contraband over the Pyrenees.
Not expecting to make the cut in the Open, Ado gave up his room in Dundee, so Roberto de Vicenzo invited him to share his room at the Station Hotel. But when Ado went for a pee in the night he inadvertently locked himself out, and, unwilling to disturb his host, kipped down in the corridor. "I know, because I tripped over him," said Thomson.
Carnoustie's hotels have come on a bit since then. Thanks to the men in blazers, however, the course is not what it was.
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