Golf: The Open - Hacked-off stars drive on the hackers

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The Independent Online
PROFESSIONAL sportsmen sometimes need to be reminded that we pay to observe their grief as well as their glory; that alongside the inestimable luxury of an enviable lifestyle prowls the occasional inconvenience during which we expect them to demonstrate that they possess a full range of skills and the temperament to go with them. A touch of grace amid the duress never goes amiss, either.

These expectations have a particular relevance to a sport like golf in which a considerable number of top performers achieve multi-millionaire status. This tends to heighten our demands on them not because we resent their riches but because at some stage in the process of their becoming hot commercial properties they cease to be mere brilliant golfers and become the central characters in a very saleable series of dramas.

That these sporting soap operas take place mainly under blue skies and blazing sunshine and on courses designed with heaven in mind adds to the good fortune of their calling. So when they are occasionally re-united with a challenge closer to the game's origins they are not entitled to be outraged.

This opinion would not have been welcome at Carnoustie during the past few days and if uttered near the plush locker-rooms might have earned the uncomfortable insertion of a five-iron but it is valid, nevertheless. The chorus of whingeing that has been clouding the air above The Open ought not to be excused as the justifiable complaints of a harshly-treated section of the sporting community.

No one could doubt the fiercely formidable task confronting the world's finest golfers when they teed off on Thursday and directed their aim towards the narrow and unreceptive ribbons of fairway that divided the deep banks of wild grass rippling menacingly in the wind. By common assent, no assembly of top-ranking players in living memory have faced a tougher test.

And they are entitled to have a moan. Indeed, if you took moaning rights away from any level of golfers you would destroy one of the game's inherent charms. No matter how good or bad you are, your experiences on the course can vary from the mildly frustrating to a total crock of crap and part of the recovery process is to tell someone about it. For the ordinary club golfer, however, finding someone to listen to a tale of golfing woe becomes increasingly difficult. Members soon learn not to ask anyone how his round went in case he tells them. But one of the many advantages enjoyed by professionals is that when they run through a catalogue of their calamities, many willing ears are cocked in their direction.

Hence the wide circulation for the crescendo of howls that have accompanied the first rounds of the 128th Open and may have given the impression that what is happening on the north side of the Tay Estuary threatens the very fabric of world golf by wiping out the reputations of the leading practitioners of the game.

If this was not serious enough, the feeling being generated is that the condition of the course has been engineered by Carnoustie and the Royal and Ancient to create a hell-hole not fit to be regarded as a fair and honest test of true golfing ability. The accusers are not quite agreed if this was totally deliberate or just a botched-up attempt to toughen it up a wee bit.

Much centres on whether fertiliser was used to bring a touch of jungle to the rough. There is no argument that the fairways have been severely narrowed at vital landing points or that the strip of semi-rough is not as generous as it could be. What is in dispute is whether the knee-high rough is an act of God or manure. Although there are those who swear they've seen fertiliser being administered, there is compelling evidence from other links courses that the blend of early summer rain and warmth has caused a furious growth that couldn't be controlled without a vast cutting exercise that was out of the question. As a regular and inexpert performer on a links course at Royal Porthcawl I can faithfully report that the rough is wicked in Wales, too, and is exacting from me a toll of four or five balls per round. No one heeds my complaints about all those bad hay days.

Carnoustie's problems were added to by the recent hot, dry spell that hardened the rolling fairways to the extent that uneven bounces have been diverting even well directed shots into trouble and it has been difficult to control an approach downwind. But these are far from uncommon happenings in links golf where taking the rough with the smooth has long been basic to the philosophy of those who play it frequently.

The final, and most unpredictable, factor has been the wind. Had it not blown with such telling effect on the first two days the course's cruelties would not have been as drastic. But in a game so directly exposed to nature and the elements such hardships shouldn't be a surprise. And while it may be desirable for top players to be protected from humiliation, golf is a game that humbles everyone sooner and later.

For those of us whose golfing experiences are a regular manifestation of nature's inhumanity to man, this Open is more familiar than most. Not that we wouldn't run a mile from such a devilish course but the sight of men threshing about in the rough, of having trouble locating their ball and of seeing regular scores of seven, eight or nine, are not uncomforting.

And to hear Greg Norman solemnly going into serious details about his air-shot on the 17th would have been music to the ears of your average rabbit. Our disasters are a result of our own limitations and not the savage punishment of a cruel course but it amounts to the same thing in the end and neither of us should feel it is a demeaning experience.

Much has been made of the fact that Carnoustie hasn't been ringing with the sound of cheering. But neither has anyone been laughing. Rather, the galleries have been engrossed by a struggle with which they can identify. This is partly why Seve Ballesteros has continued to draw a big following despite his struggles. Some fans derive more pleasure from watching him get in and out of trouble than they do from the metronomic perfection of the more successful. Before he left the tournament 24 over par on Friday, Seve might have enjoyed having had all this extra company in the rough and, at least, more of his fellow players will now have a better understanding of his problems.

I can't speak for all the hackers in the crowd but, apart from the occasional nuisance of getting wet, it has been fascinating. No doubt they'd be happier watching golf of a more spectacular nature but seem to be content to adjust their appreciation to what is achievable under the circumstances.

Isn't the struggle against adversity what constitutes good golf, anyway? Sometimes the game seems to be birdie mad. Certainly, most television directors seem mes-mirised by the quest to beat par. We seem to be increasingly conditioned to sit at home watching tournaments in which the screen constantly flits from green to green so that we can see players attempt birdies. There's much more to the game than that and Carnoustie has proved that fact beyond doubt. No-one can say that this has been no more than a putting context.