Exclusive: six simple steps to golf heaven

Those who had always presumed golf was a game of terrifying complexity left bewildered and possibly depressed. What has everyone been doing for the past 50 years?

By Andrew Longmore

By Andrew Longmore

30 July 2000

Did you notice something about that final hole at St Andrews? Look at the video and watch Tiger's last putt again. When it rolls home, he punches his fist, though in an undemonstrative sort of way, in the way he often greets particularly critical putts - and, in the Woods stratosphere, the idea of shooting four rounds in the sixties at the home of golf was critical - and yet no emotion shows on his face at all. Nothing, not a flicker.

So he bends to pick the ball out of the hole and, when he stands upright again, lo and behold, a mighty smile wreathes his handsome face. I swear that so far was he buried in a cocoon of concentration for those four days, Woods was only vaguely aware on that 18th green that he had won The Open.

Celebrations must be difficult for Tiger anyway. When you have been a shoo-in for three days and odds-on for 20 years, it is difficult to summon the same level of spontaneity that prompted Venus Williams to dance a jig around the Centre Court. For Venus, her first major Grand Slam title was a catharsis, a reward for hard work, for sacrifice, for all the ingredients that traditionally go into the make-up of a champion, and her response reflected the return on investment. In the unlikely event that she never wins another title, she can still remember the Millennium Championships.

For Woods, The Open was another tick on the shopping list. Masters? Yep. US PGA? Yep, got that. US Open? Wait a minute, yes, OK. British Open ("The Open" as Woods charmingly corrected himself)? No problem.

Among his support staff, Woods has a key man, part of whose job is to line up the next set of statistics for the checkout. Far down the line, say, about five years at the current strike rate, Woods will be knocking on the door of Jack Nicklaus's Majors record. Unless reality grabs him before then, or some golfing gremlin enters that calculator of a brain, the realm of Woods' dominion has no predictable border. Those who had always presumed that golf was a game of terrifying complexity left St Andrews bewildered and, possibly, a trifle depressed. What has everyone been doing in this game for the past 50 years?

Some years ago, I was covering the US Open tennis. It was a Saturday morning, which, because I worked for a daily newspaper then, was my day off. But the phone rang anyway at 7am with my sports editor on the line. The cogs slipped a gear. Had I missed a big story? Had I been fired? Prom-oted? Had I slept until Sunday? I leapt to attention because, even in distant hotel rooms, you pay common courtesies to sports editors.

"I've been playing golf this morning," came the voice. Pause. "And I was badly beaten." As a junior reporter, I was ready to accept the blame.

"The chap who beat me had a special hickory-shafted, titanium-grafted, composite-welded graphite- based driver." Or something like that. "Which he bought in the States." Pause. A glimmer of understanding. "Can you see if you can get me one? Don't pay more than $300 now, will you?" Bye.

A thousand calls to Golf 'R Us, Big Bob's Golf Discount Store (New Jersey branch) and a long and tortured conversation with the golf pro at a course in Stanford, Connecticut, failed to elicit any information about this special driver and I returned home in abject failure, certain that Hartlepool v Leyton Orient would be my next assignment. To my surprise, my sports editor was unbothered. No, it wasn't the hickory-shafted, graphite-based driver he wanted any more, it was a super-calibrated, electronically throttled, digitally mastered three-iron with extra grooves on the head.

Golf is like that, you see, a multi-billion dollar industry based on whim, on the presumption of impossibility and incompetence, on tantalising glimpses of paradise, on the next gizmo, on the understanding that, at any moment, a magic wand might emerge from the pro's shop which will unlock a Pandora's Box of sporting potential for the club hacker: victory in the monthly medal, a stroll in the family foursomes, above all, a handsome stuffing of that arrogant club captain in the final of thePresident's Putter.

But, now what? What about all those features which sustain the soaring circulations of golf magazines? "Do you want to putt like Ernie Els?" Er, no thanks. Tensimple tips to improve yourshort game, by Freddie Couples. Freddie Who?

"How to draw the ball a fraction taking account of the speed of the prevailing wind, the position of Venus, the Moon and Ursa Major, while at the same time looking impossibly well-balanced, beau-tifully co-ordinated, completely unruffled, and how to land the aforesaid ball with the delicacy of a feather on to the green, noting the hollow at the front of the green, avoiding the bunker at the back and ensuring that if any putt should be necessary, it is uphill and no more than 10 feet." By Tiger Woods. It is not quite the same, is it?

There was a feeling that Tiger's status was not properly recognised at St Andrews. Old Victorian values dictate that total mastery of a game is greeted with deep suspicion, with a sense of injustice, by the English. Give others a chance, old boy.

I think the accusation mistakes the mood. The lack of euphoria was not disrespect for a supreme young champion; it was a tinge of regret that the mystery of a great game has been laid bare, and a genuine fear of what a Tiger-dominated future will hold. Golf is not an easy game, but we only have Tiger's word for it. Viewing the man at work, you would be forgiven for thinking otherwise.

But what consolation is there for the club hacker, who could just occasionally hit a shot like Nick Faldo but has to be just over six feet tall, possess the athletic prowess of Michael Jordan, the mind of a Nasa scientist and the assurance of a Hollywood star, to play like Tiger? The danger for the man himself and his major sponsors is that he will become untouchable, so intergalactic that mere mortals cannot identify him as a fellow human.

In the US, the number of Afro-Americans taking up golf since Tiger turned pro in 1996 has risen from 676,000 to 882,000, which is actually a surprisingly low figure. That might reflect on the exclusive middle-class, white-dominated nature of golf in the US; it might also reflect on Tiger's own image. How many kids in the Los Angeles ghetto will see Tiger and think: "I could be like him." Not that many, probably, because Tiger is impossibly good and impossibly distant.

For the rest of us lining the fairways of life, there is nothing for it now but to wait for the definitive Tiger's Tips, though, as it happens, through a slick piece of investigative journalism, I can exclusively reveal Tiger's six steps to perfection. 1) Place ball on tee; 2) Strike ball on to fairway; 3) Pitch ball on to green; 4) Putt ball into hole; 5) Repeat 18 times, remembering to to leave out stage 2 if hole is par three or, on selected occasions, par four; 6) Become billionaire.

Was that the lapping of the sea on the shore of St Andrews Bay or the sound of a hundred sets of golf clubs being hurled off the jetty?