Fairways to heaven: A golfer's dream

It's every weekend golfer's dream – a chance to take on the world's top players (and Hugh Grant) over three of Britain's great courses. Simon Kelner relives birdies and bogeys at the Dunhill Links

So there it was. My name, in block capitals, on the leader board. At St Andrews. The home of golf. The holy of holies. We were on the 14th hole on the first day of the Dunhill Links tournament, and my partner had just sunk a 10-foot putt for a birdie to take us to eight under par. Where were you, Bobby Charlton? Eat our dust, Ronan Keating. See you later, Ian Botham.

The Dunhill Links is a unique event in that it pitches professionals with amateurs in a two-man team competition (which runs parallel to the pro tournament for which $800,000 goes to the winner). For the tour players, there's a temptation to think of the event as a three-day pro-am; for the amateur, there's a chance to live the dream. And so, arriving on the 17th tee – the infamous road hole – and now on seven-under, I was dreaming all right. There are 168 teams in the Links, and for the first three days, you play, in turn, three of Britain's great courses – St Andrews, Carnoustie and Kingsbarns – before the field is whittled down to the best 20 for a final, conclusive round at St Andrews on the Sunday. As I stood on the tee, facing The Old Course Hotel, for one of the most daunting drives in the golfing universe, I dared to believe that we could make the cut. Golf, however, is a mistress of formidable cruelty. My tee shot sliced horribly, sailed straight towards the hotel and, as my playing partners suggested, probably ended up in someone's Scotch and dry ginger in the bar.

It was time for my partner to come into his own. Two nights before the event begins, there is a golfing version of speed dating when a draw is made and each amateur is assigned a professional. I had harboured thoughts of being paired up with Harrington, or Westwood, or Clarke. In fact, any old household name. It turned out, however, that I was assigned a young Australian called James Nitties, who wasn't exactly a household name – unless Nitties are, in fact, an Aussie breakfast cereal. I googled him: the USPGA Tour site said that he'd not played enough rounds to be officially ranked, while his biography listed his interests as girls, partying and movies. (He later told me that, when asked for his likes, dislikes and interests, he'd answered: "women, women and women".) Anyway, he had the wraparound shades that are obligatory for every Australian sportsman, and the easy, unruffled manner that seems to be a national characteristic. But could he play golf? When he all but went in the burn at the first hole and took a bogey five, the answer was blowing in the gentle breeze.

Things got much better, however, and by the time we reached the Road Hole, we were in perfect syncopation: I'd weighed in with two birdies (net eagles) and James was putting like a god. He got a par on the 17th – no mean feat – and when he blasted his drive to within 10 feet of the green on the 18th, it looked like a certain birdie and we'd finish the day on eight-under, breathing down the necks of the leaders. However, James ballooned his putt 10 feet past, missed the one coming back and had to settle for a par and an individual score of 67. In the warm glow of the St Andrews twilight, it didn't seem to matter too much to either of us. We were in 31st position, and looking good.

James and his caddie went off for light supper and an early night in preparation for the challenge of Carnoustie, the hardest of the three courses on our itinerary. My training, too, was typical of a world-class athlete – Jocky Wilson for instance. I, in company with my caddie, Disco Dave, and the other amateur in our four-ball, the former England cricket captain Michael Vaughan, hit The Jigger, the pub attached to the Old Course Hotel, for several pints of Guinness. I asked around whether anyone had seen my ball from my drive on the 17th. "It's a Srixon 4," I said to the bemused woman behind the bar. By the time I left the pub, leaving Vaughan, Sir Ian Botham, Shane Warne, Ronan Keating and Lee Westwood behind me, the friendly zephyr which had accompanied us around St Andrews was turning into something altogether more hostile.

Day two dawned with a fierce wind that appeared to come from one of the more inhospitable regions of Siberia. It was, not to put too fine a point on it, bloody freezing. How would James, a man from New South Wales who plays in America, cope with conditions that would make penguins reach for their woolly jumpers? The answer was not long in coming. But let's start with my birdie at the first at Carnoustie, a fairly daunting 401-yard par four. (As far as I could see, the holes at Carnoustie are either fairly daunting, daunting, or almost impossible). Anyway, I hit a perfect drive, a nine-iron within 10 feet and a putt that was never going anywhere but in the hole. We had got back to eight under. Game on.

But that, friends, was as good as it got. I had the sort of luck that made me worry I'd done something really bad in my life, given that I visited nearly every bunker on the course. And James, poor James. He was shivering so much in the Siberian wind that he couldn't keep his hands still on his putter. The result? He carded six successive bogeys and by the halfway mark, we'd slipped to two under and our chance of making the cut was all but over. But at least we had plenty of time to ponder our misfortune: the round took almost six-and-a-half hours. At one point I called out a rules official to warn the group in front of us who, on every hole, seemed to spend at least 10 minutes playing a bizarre game of statues. "I'll put the clock on them," said the official. "You'd be better off with a sundial," I responded. "Or a calendar," said Vaughan.

The former England captain is a curious golfer. He plays off 11, one less than me, has a swing that's poetry in motion, and when he connects with the ball, he can easily outdrive a professional. But who would ever have thought that he let the big occasion get to him? On the first tee at St Andrews, he almost found the road with a prodigious hook and, off the first at Carnoustie, he put two balls way left, and out of bounds. "Is it because you're not used to playing in front of such big crowds?" I asked him. There were at least two dozen people watching us.

Vaughan was great company throughout the three days. I told him he was the only Yorkshireman I'd ever really liked (it must be because he was born in Lancashire), and I was in awe of his exhaustive training for the event in The Jigger. On one of our many pauses at Carnoustie, he mused on the difficulties of being a modern day Test captain, with the panoply of coaches, managers, advisers and sundry back-room staff. You got the real sense of a very intelligent, highly driven sportsman who, in a commendably old-fashioned way, didn't like anything to complicate what he said was a simple game.

Golf, as we were finding out, was anything but a simple game. The back nine at Carnoustie destroyed our spirits. On the 17th, I hit a very nice drive which pulled up inches from the burn. I topped my second shot, it hit the rocks on the other bank and rebounded over my head into the rough. With my third shot, I finally managed to put the ball into the burn. We ended the day on level par and we'd slipped to 141st position. "I'm going out for a drink and a Sheila tonight," said my partner. I feared that we wouldn't improve our position on day three.

James was decidedly bleary-eyed when he turned up at Kingsbarns, a man-made links course (if such a thing is possible) just north of St Andrews. And if the weather was bad at Carnoustie, it was positively tropical compared with the horizontal rain that came blowing in from the sea at Kingsbarns. James, now fully acclimatised to the conditions, sniffed the air. "I can smell a 65," he said. Unfortunately, the aroma was less fragrant. What James could actually smell was an 80, the same score as he achieved at Carnoustie, and not helped by a number of putts that shaved the hole, and a six at the last when he appeared to give up the will to live. I'm not one to complain about my partner, particularly one who's probably still not thawed out, but I'm not sure my score over the back nine at Kingsbarns was that much worse than his. At one stage we had got our team score back to level par, but we limped home on three over, which gave us a share of 145th place, comfortably out of the money. Nevertheless, we were ahead of Miguel Angel Jimenez and Hugh Grant, not to mention Shiv Kapur and Kapil Dev. Our fellow travellers on this three-day odyssey, Michael Vaughan and his partner, the genial Australian Peter Fowler, fared rather better, finishing in joint 98th place.

Ronan Keating, Ian Botham, and the legendary gambler J P McManus were among the notables who made it to the final day. For the rest of us, particularly those – like myself and Mr Vaughan – who had taken it easy during the week, we could let the handbrake off and career downhill at the lavish party organised by Dunhill. The evening started with a lavish firework display and ended with alcoholic pyrotechnics in the bar. One of the world's most famous golfers was spotted still drinking when hotel guests were making their way to the breakfast room at 7am. He, like me, had missed the cut but will have found his week at the Dunhill Links memorable. If only he could remember it.

To a tee How you can play St Andrews

Golfers are often surprised to discover that playing the Old Course is not as difficult as they always thought. The green fee is "only" £130 and the course is a public one held in trust by The St Andrews Links Trust under an act of Parliament. There are a few routes to gaining that precious spot on the first tee, although you will first need to show a valid handicap certificate at the Starter's Hut (minimum handicap: 24 for men, 36 for women).

If there are two or more of you wishing to play, and there are no deals on the Trust's website, www.standrews.org.uk, you will need to enter the names before 2pm into the ballot which is drawn for the next day's play. Chances vary according to the time of year and results are shown by 4pm on the web. Even if you fail and decide you must play anyway, then ditch your friends and go to see the starter as early as possible in the morning. He will try to join you with the first available two- or three-ball.

James Corrigan

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