Peter Corrigan at The Open: Return of a hallowed stamping ground proves that relics can last the course
Sunday 23 July 2006
There's not much point in arguing about golf courses if their only purpose is to provide grass carpets for Tiger to do his business on. Nevertheless, the performance of Hoylake's arid acres over the past three days has sent ripples of satisfaction far wider than the proud parishes of Merseyside.
Among the most satisfied will be those happy to be described as crusty traditionalists. For this tournament was a throwback to the days when golf's problems couldn't be solved by graphite shafts, titanium faces or self-propelled balls. The course needed thought not torque; guile and gumption not power and passion. And while the figure of Tiger Woods was awesomely dominant, the rheumy-eyed could still visualise the long grey beard and top-buttoned tweed jacket of Old Tom Morris, the ghost of Opens past.
It is a mark of the history of Hoylake that Old Tom didn't have anything to do with the birth of the course. It was his older brother, George, who first laid out 18 holes in 1869 on ground already occupied by a racecourse.
But all the Morrises - George, Old Tom and Young Tom - were back in 1872 when a group of Liverpool merchants staged England's first professional tournament and attracted the Scottish stars by offering a purse of £55, which was over four times the prize-money available in The Open, which had started in 1860 at Prestwick. Young Tom Morris won it, as he did most events before his tragically early death, and since then Hoylake has staged more Championships than any other England course.
But the home of Royal Liverpool fell off the Open rota in 1967, and the restoration of these sacred old stamping grounds this year was not universally popular. Apart from those who felt that the links were not formidable enough to withstand the scientifically boosted skills of the modern pro - even club members were fearful about what happen if the wind didn't blow hard - there were more fundamental objections.
The most controversial was contained in the leading American magazine Golf Digest. Ron Whitten's contention that Royal OB, as he called it, was not only "a blast from the past, it's a thing of the past... a distant memory... a grand relic". Whitten's comments were indignantly condemned on this side of the Atlantic, but he did possess some entitlement to offer his opinion.
I spoke the other day to Golf Digest's esteemed editor, Jerry Tarde, who doesn't necessarily agree with the views of his contributors but pointed out that Whitten is regarded as the world's foremost expert on golf architecture. That probably makes his words even more depressing, because if he is an example of golf's modern visionaries, the old-fashioned fraternity must fear for the future.
After rubbishing Hoylake he went on to predict that "sooner or later, every Open course will become obsolete, the Old Course at St Andrews included".
What! Every links course around these shores? The very foundations of the game to become museum pieces? He neglects to say what sort of courses will supersede them for eminence.
I have a feeling they might resemble some of the works of art we see hosting tournaments in America. Vividly green, with featherbed fairways and duvet greens, obligingly shallow bun-kers, water features, island greens and all neatly framed by caddie-car paths - and ever-lengthening yardages to cope with the money-fuelled development of clubs and balls.
Golf has never so urgently needed a tournament to combat that way of thinking, and Hoylake has provided a most timely reminder of the game's true nature. When these four days end tonight, even friend Whitten might think that some of his descriptions such as "visually disappointing", "the monotony of its bowling-green fairways" might need a little rewording.
As might his advice to players - "play boldly, men, for Royal OB punishes only the weak and the meek". That's not quite how it worked out. Neither did his forecast "there's no telling how disrespectful today's well-equipped professionals might be to this Royal subject".
On the contrary. Instead of the greats imposing themselves on it, the course has imposed itself on them, including the aforementioned Tiger, who completely adapted his playing strategy to suit its unique demands. And all this without high winds or thick rough. Hoylake will deservedly take genuine pride in what has been achieved, and Whitten's final words will cause a smile back at HQ, too. "Someday the R & A will quit clinging to that which its name evokes and finally move on. Looking backward is no way to move forward," he concluded.
After this weekend the R & A would be entitled to bark out a slightly different message to the world of golf. About turn, quick march.
Demeaning? Never. Just the sight of Seve is an inspiration
Tiger Woods and Ernie Els apart, the most rewarding sight at Hoylake over the first two days was that of Seve Ballesteros, who performed with distinction on a course that proved too much for players half his age and with none of his ailments.
Yet when he began his comeback round on Thursday afternoon he seemed in some eyes to be committing a crime - not against the law but against the sensitivities of those who believe that the sporting greats should not be allowed to risk looking ordinary in public.
It was time, he was urged, to walk away from the action and not to make us pity him. How very dare they.
The galleries that faithfully and noisily followed him might have been sympathetic for the decade in which he has suffered from a loss of form and an arthritic back, but the emotion that welcomed his arrival at the turn in level par was certainly not fuelled by pity.
Ballesteros is only 49. His contemporaries are preparing to start new careers on the Seniors' Tour at 50. Rather than listen to the sporting euthanasia fanatics he might even feel like joining them.
Golf is not an easy game to relinquish, and there are plenty of precedents of careers enjoying a lingering sunset while continuing to entertain their fans.
To have the courage to risk embarrassment or humiliation in prolonging your career is a compliment to the game.
Those who go out when they are on top take their glory with them. Those who stay and are prepared to perform at a lower level are acknowledging that, eventually, the game they commanded will overwhelm them, and they are not ashamed to experience it.
A stubborn old Spaniard Seve may be, but just the sight of him is still an inspiration and he is not the slightest demeaned.
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