James Lawton: Romance of classic combat redeems King Golf

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The Independent Online

When Todd Hamilton took his last gulp of Scottish air here yesterday morning before flying to his home in Texas, as the sun dappled the water between the place of his supreme triumph, the 18th hole of one of the world's great golf courses, and the "sleeping warrior" of the isle of Arran, and the seagulls wheeled and cried in the sky of washed-out blue, he might just as well have been a nine-iron away from the peak of the world's tallest mountain.

And so, too, might have been the game he and Ernie Els, the great player he battled with for 40 holes of stupendous hand-to-hand combat over two days, had defined so brilliantly.

King Golf may sometimes seem as wrapped up in greed and celebrity as profoundly as all the other high-profile sports, the class-driven Royal and Ancient club may often be as out of sync with so many of the realities of modern life as the fossilised hierarchy of the MCC and its misfiring adjunct, the England and Wales Cricket Board, and no doubt even as self-satisfied as the serially under-achieving administrators of the England football team, but, as we saw again in the 133rd edition of The Open, there is one supreme redemption.

Golf, because of its nature and its tradition and its still ruling ethic, insists on competitive levels which can only be described as relentless.

If you doubt that, ask Els, a man of giant stature and talent and the most impeccable of sporting values. For four days he produced bursts of play which could only be described as heavenly. He played several shots which were good enough to be embalmed and kept for ever. Yet in the Ayrshire dusk he was required to submit to a 38-year-old pro who had travelled the byways of his game in the far corners of the world, who said he couldn't begin to total the hours he had spent sleeping in the economy seats of jetliners, who had risen from one of those God-forsaken corners of North America called reservation land, where one of the distinguishing marks is abandoned, rusted-over, big-finned Chevys and Dodges and where the social life can often stretch no further than a brown bag containing a quart of cheap bourbon because what else, unless you are prepared to fight, is on offer?

Some worry about the Big Easy now. They wonder if the 34-year-old Els, the winner of three majors, two US Opens and an Open, is building up too much scar tissue. Three times this year he has been in place to augment his collection of the golf trophies that matter. At Augusta he was denied his first Green Jacket on the last hole of the US Masters - two years after perishing on the same back nine because, he explained later, of his conviction that he had to push beyond his limits in the belief that the man in front, Tiger Woods, had passed the point of ever making a critical mistake.

In the US Open last month, after brilliantly negotiating an absurdly difficult course for three days, he had a double-bogey at the first and let the mistake fester to the point of scoring an 80. Here at Royal Troon he pulled out every weapon from an awesome armoury, he outlasted Phil Mickelson, the Masters champion who was playing with an almost robotic efficiency, the reigning US Open champion Retief Goosen, who was described by Seve Ballesteros as a man playing alone in his own perfect zone, and the now faltering Woods. But he couldn't see off Todd Hamilton, he couldn't shake off the raw-boned man from the boonies who carried the imprimatur of a true representative of his game's best value... a determination to dig ever deeper within his own resources.

Els, you have to hope if not believe quite totally, will be strong at his broken places, but if it should happen that the wounds of Augusta and Shinnecock Hills and Troon, run as deeply as some fear, it will not exactly cause a precedent.

The fact is - and it is one which separates the sport from almost all its rivals - that nowhere is more unforgiving of competitive lapses than golf.

Consider the fate of some of its most brilliant exponents. Greg Norman, the White Shark, a man some thought the natural successor to the Golden Bear, Jack Nicklaus, was broken by his failure to hold on to a six-shot lead in the 1996 Masters. His conqueror, the generally unsentimental Nick Faldo, admitted to feeling a little of the Australian's pain.

David Duval was the Tiger's principal challenger for a little while, shooting improbable figures, breaking through to win an Open, but now he is off the radar screen, his form so wretched he had to fly away from Troon before a serious shot was fired. Ian Baker-Finch won an Open, then became an embarrassment to himself and most anyone who watched him in his agony. Now it is the once remorseless Woods who fights to regain some of what he had. The millions still flow into his bank account. His brand is still immense. But a spark, for the moment, has gone, and golf - because it is so competitive - looks at him not as a man of the ages but one caught in a critical hour.

These, remember, are men who have climbed to the mountain top. Those who don't, for one reason or another, learn soon enough that there are no excuses, no hiding places.

Colin Montgomerie, weighed down by personal problems, tried a trick here at Troon which had as much chance as a toy balloon landing on a bush of prickly gorse. He elicited the help of the public. He said that if he could build momentum, if he could get the crowd behind him, who knew, he might win his first major after the years of his golfing prime had passed. He should have known that, of all the games we play, golf doesn't work like that. Golf works on the basis that winners are announced by their own will and not that of the galleries, who by and large have the loyalty of some skittish party girl. They are there for the show, not to make it.

Ian Poulter, a talented young player in the foothills of his career, dressed himself in garish clothes and if the R&A was appalled, and pointed out that if he had presented himself like that on an ordinary day in the life of Royal Troon, he would have been shown to the nearest pitch and putt course, there was something more than a sense of outraged propriety. It was maybe the idea that the only way you legitimately attract attention to yourself on a championship golf course is with the splendour of your play.

Poulter was a peacock who didn't hack it. Todd Hamilton looked as if he might have been going down for a beer and a shot at the happy hour of Chuck's cocktail bar. But by the end of the action every ounce of him was a champion.

Lee Westwood, particularly, and his stable partner, Darren Clarke, gave some indication that they have finally listened to the advice of the great Gary Player, who said seven years ago - when the Tiger was emerging like some great burning sunrise - that if their talent was to be properly exploited, they had to step out of their self-indulgences and become seriously involved in the game that had given them wealth beyond their dreams. But, unlike Todd Hamilton, who was still riding in the back of the plane when they were going first class and by limousine, they have to win something major now. Nothing shrinks faster in golf than mere potential - a fact which is now biting into the former certainty for great triumphs, Sergio Garcia.

Like every great golf tournament, Troon had its winners and its losers, and among the former, and highly placed, was the course itself. Royal Troon does not invade the eye like Augusta National. Its appeal shifts like the clouds and the sunlight of west Scotland. But by Sunday afternoon it had displayed all the complexities of a truly beautiful woman - and, beyond every mood, it had been conspicuously fair.

When Todd Hamilton bid his farewell yesterday the great course was quiet in repose. But you knew that he, like King Golf itself, would not forget the thunder that had come just a few hours before.