Flawed glory of golf a bigger handicap than the weather

In its former manifestation the Dunhill Cup was blessed with some of the balmiest weather

A generous banker friend of mine called me a couple of weeks ago to ask whether I fancied playing, at his expense, in the inaugural Dunhill Links Championship, as one of the amateurs paired with 156 professionals over three days at Carnoustie, Kingsbarns and St Andrews. Fancy it? I said I would have bungee-jumped naked off the Forth Road Bridge to play, and he said that wouldn't be strictly necessary, which must have come as a huge relief to the good people of South Queensferry, who have a clear view of things dropping off the bridge.

A generous banker friend of mine called me a couple of weeks ago to ask whether I fancied playing, at his expense, in the inaugural Dunhill Links Championship, as one of the amateurs paired with 156 professionals over three days at Carnoustie, Kingsbarns and St Andrews. Fancy it? I said I would have bungee-jumped naked off the Forth Road Bridge to play, and he said that wouldn't be strictly necessary, which must have come as a huge relief to the good people of South Queensferry, who have a clear view of things dropping off the bridge.

As it happened, other commitments meant I had to decline, which I did with a heavy heart, aghast at missing a rare opportunity to play in the same golf competition as some of the game's all-time greats, such as Ernie Els and Jimmy Tarbuck.

However, my sorrow has since been tempered by reports of the appalling weather conditions in Scotland, which prompted one of my journalist colleagues to observe that another competitor, Sir Steven Redgrave, was in greater danger of drowning on the Old Course, St Andrews, than in his entire Olympic rowing career.

St Andrews, incidentally, is said to have been founded by a monk called Regulus, who in ninth-century Constantinople was warned in a dream that heathens were about to desecrate the sacred bones of the apostle Andrew.

Regulus was duly told to leg it with the holy relics to "the uttermost ends of the earth" – and if Kenny Dalglish, Boris Becker and Hugh Grant had been on hand when his boat ran aground on the north-east coast of Fife, they would doubtless have confirmed that he'd made it. They were all up there last week, getting a lashing from the elements. Nonetheless, for the media criticism of the Dunhill Links Championship to focus largely on the weather, as it has done, seems more than a tad unfair to the organisers. They have been flayed for their naivety in organising such an event towards the end of October, but I would counter that in its former manifestation as the Dunhill Cup, the competition was frequently blessed by the balmiest conditions imaginable. Anyone who has lived in north-east Fife, as I have, knows that balmy weather is almost as likely in October as June. Conversely, piddling rain is almost as likely in June as October.

Moreover, Dunhill are generous and committed sponsors of tournament golf (the prize fund last week was £3.5m, making it the richest event in Britain) and one hopes that commitment will not waver before an onslaught of criticism, some of it justified, but a lot of it mealy-mouthed.

That said, any golf competition in which the fortunes of professionals are married to the performances of their amateur partners is bound to be fraught with problems. And so it proved last week, with several instances of amateurs playing suspiciously better than their handicaps, notably the country and western singer Clay Walker, a decidedly dodgy 11, whose new song "Stand By Your Handicap" will doubtless play to a packed Grand Ole Opry before the year is out.

The handicapping system is one of the glories of golf, but it is a flawed glory. Those of us who regularly play in invitation days know that there is always some bandit who carries off the cut-glass tumblers with 46 Stableford points, an "official" handicap of 23. Indeed, the former West Ham manager Harry Redknapp – "a genuine 19" – told me the other day that he was once so embarrassed to have won a golf competition, thanks to a so-called 24-handicapper in his four-ball team who somehow managed to wallop every drive straight down the middle, that he snuck away before the prize-giving. Last week, Dunhill sought to reduce this problem by imposing a maximum handicap of 18, but could not eliminate it.

Still, at least it was an anticipated problem, unlike the refusal of Americans, both amateur and professional, to cross the Atlantic (hence my own late invitation). A few weeks ago I wrote in this space that the Ryder Cup should have gone ahead, and I now believe more than ever that even a muted Ryder Cup would have struck an important blow for what the Americans call normalcy. At the time I received an angry note from a Mr McNickle of St Albans, who wrote: "Some American golfers don't feel that their minds would be on the competition ...it has nothing to do with security concerns...who are you to tell them how to feel?" Well maybe, Mr McNickle, but professional sport had resumed in America by Ryder Cup week, tournament golf is again in full swing over there, and still they decline to come. And if you won't listen to me, then consider the speech made by Michael Douglas in St Andrews last week, in which he accused his compatriots, in effect, of being a bunch of scaredy-cats.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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