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Brian Viner: Open circus provides stage for the clowns of Merseyside

One could quite easily be forgiven for thinking that the Open Championship is about golf, but in fact the Royal and Ancient game is only the very tip of the iceberg that, were it to appear in the Ribble estuary just north of Southport, would surprise nobody, least of all those Americans in town who appear to be suffering from the delusion that the summer is about sunshine.

One of those Americans is said to be the Hollywood heart-throb George Clooney, which is what I mean about the golf being peripheral. Natives of Southport are called Sandgrounders, and for many females of the species, and not a few males, the question of who is leading the Open at any one time is of slightly less interest than the whereabouts of gorgeous George. I am going with some friends to a restaurant in Birkdale this evening, and we have been tipped off that Clooney will be there, too. Unfortunately, the same rumour applies to every half-decent restaurant in town. Meanwhile, nobody I know has actually set eyes on him. He's probably in Santa Monica, in front of his TV watching baseball. There was also a flurry of excitement at a cocktail party I went to on Thursday when a man mentioned that he'd seen Jack Nicholson, followed by a palpable sense of deflation moments later when it turned out that he'd said Jack Nicklaus. Such is the beguiling glitter of showbiz, even when the world's greatest golfers are knocking around the neighbourhood.

It is 10 years since the Open circus last rolled into town here, and circus is about right; given the amount of flapping canvas in the tented village, and for that matter the presence of so many clowns. Twice in the past three years the Open has been played within 20 miles of Liverpool, affording lots of opportunities for flashes of the Merseyside wit that was never sharper than in a football match at Anfield a few years ago, when an observer on the Kop pleaded with the players to get the ball wide. "Wing! Wing! Wing! Wing!" he screamed. "For fuck's sake, will someone answer that fucking phone," came a weary voice. Such shafts of humour from those watching do a lot to illuminate sporting occasions (although we still wait in vain for something properly amusing from the Centre Court crowd at Wimbledon, where errant pigeons and witless cries of "C'mon Tim!" still have the power to get everyone chortling) and under the relentlessly leaden skies at Birkdale this week we have needed all the illumination we can get. Yesterday I reported an observation made behind the ropes as the Australian Aaron Baddeley, one of the more pedestrian players, went with great deliberation about his business. "He's slower than a bloody tax rebate," a Scouser remarked. "Er, what's one of them?" said his mate.

No matter how seriously Baddeley takes his job, however, he cannot match the single-minded devotion to duty exemplified by some of the crowd marshals at the Open, who do a marvellous job, if in some cases with 20 per cent more officiousness than strictly necessary. On Thursday a couple of press colleagues and I were sternly corralled round the course by a fellow wearing an official armband and a toothbrush moustache. We joked among ourselves that he was probably a regimental sergeant-major on unpaid leave. At the end of five rain-drenched hours, when he shrugged off the biblical soaking we'd all had as though it had been a fleeting spot of drizzle, we realised we might actually be right. So we asked him if perchance he was in the Army. He was. And a sergeant-major, to boot.

Still, the huge army of unpaid volunteers and paid helpers are as vital to the success of the Open Championship as the 156 golfers taking part. More so, perhaps. Many of them are members of Royal Birkdale, thrilled that their venerable club is hosting this great event for the ninth time since it joined the rota in 1954, and keen to play a part, which is how I came across a well-spoken captain of industry yesterday who was wearing a lapel badge reading "Litter Convenor" as proudly as any seven-year-old schoolboy wears his milk monitor's badge. One of the litter collectors in his charge is 15-year-old Florence King, of Greenbank High School, which abuts the tented village. She has just been made head girl for next year, but does not consider herself too illustrious to pick up discarded prawn cocktail crisp packets. It's that kind of attitude that put the Great in Great Britain and also makes the Open the marvellous occasion it is, whether it's Jack Nicklaus wandering around or Jack Nicholson, and whether George Clooney is eating on Liverpool Road in Birkdale this evening, or at Spago in Los Angeles.