Golf: The Open - Links to the past face a real threat

Bruce Critchley views Carnoustie as a turning point for the old game
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The Independent Online
LINKS GOLF may have been the real loser in this week's dust-up between the Royal & Ancient and competitors over playing conditions at Carnoustie.

Catch a tournament professional in an unguarded moment and he will probably admit that deep down he is not really a fan of this original and rather arcane form of the game. All the elements that make seaside golf fun for the enthusiastic amateur run contrary to the creed of those who make their living at the game.

All but the truly gifted spend countless hours in pursuit of a repeating swing, a swing that even at moments of supreme stress will deliver a shot straight at the intended target. With their in-depth knowledge of just how far they hit the ball with every club, and the lengths they go to to know the exact distance of any shot to the green, golf for today's top practitioners is a matter of arithmetic plus a bit of geometry. With the tours being little more than trade associations for the players it is no coincidence that tournament venues, particularly in America, have become ever more tailored to reward the best exponents of this particular art.

Go to the seaside, though, and even the very way you strike a golf ball is different. On the sparse, firm fairways of a links you learn to hit down and through the ball, squeezing it between club face and turf until it flies off true and low. On the lusher, softer fairways of parkland courses more of a sweep shot is required.

The big difference, though, is the presence of the wind and you don't need much of it for all the yardage charts and practice shots to go straight out of the window.

One of the secrets of playing into a stiff breeze is to take plenty of club and hit it softly; the harder you hit the more the ball will climb and the shorter the distance it will go. Good players quite like a breeze in their face; they can use it to control the ball and it lands with little forward momentum - a point that was borne out on the first two days at Carnoustie when scoring was generally better into the wind going out than downwind coming home.

Sadly, even the aficionados of links golf agree that this time the R & A have got it wrong. The fairways are too narrow, the rough too deep and in nothing more than modest airs we have seen many of the world's best golfers shipwrecked around Carnoustie's shores. We always knew it would be Gotterdamerung rather than La Boheme, but we didn't expect the cast to be decimated.

The long-term risk is that Americans will decide in future to stay in their own lush pastures. Fortunately, next year's Open is at St Andrews which cannot be toughened up like Carnoustie, and no golfer worth his salt will pass up the chance to be millennium champion at the home of golf. After that memories of Carnoustie 1999 will fade.

More importantly, Tiger Woods appears to have enjoyed the experience. Like Arnold Palmer he believes that to be a true champion you must triumph in all conditions and circumstances. And like Palmer he should be the Pied Piper that leads the next generation of Americans to the Open.

Unfortunately, the R & A have become a bit like Wimbledon and, with grass courts, the last keepers of an old faith. The use of our great seaside courses for professional events has fallen out of favour. Sponsors tend to want locations close to cities to attract clients to their corporate hospitality and crowds to create atmosphere.

Those running the European Tour are understandably attracted to new courses that are prepared to pay to host a big event, rather than having to shell out for going to an old private club by the sea.

The hope is that there is still a sponsor out there who sees the value of product association with a classy old links venue. For many, links golf remains the essence of the game, and it would be a pity to see it squeezed completely out of the professional repertoire.

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