Search for perfection leaves little room for the game's true eccentrics

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The worst trouble a man can be in, I think, is to have one hope left, and that a hope of something so inherently improbable that he knows deep in his heart it won't happen. It has been said in favour of lotteries that they prevent a great many people from committing suicide. I think that is one of the cheap arguments against them. But even more painful than a lottery ticket is a talent that comes and goes as though influenced by the moon.

As much in his private life as in his golf, nobody represents this better than John Daly. Daly is a model of inconsistency. In the Scottish Open at Loch Lomond last week, he followed up a round of 74 with a blistering 66, then a miserable 77 to drop out of contention. It is unlikely that Daly's name will figure conspicuously on the leader board at Sandwich this week, but only Tiger Woods and Ernie Els will attract larger galleries.

The reason is simple. In an era of automated golf, concentrated coaching, sports psychologists, fitness trainers and a nutritionist, Daly is his own man. Golf fans are drawn to his boldness. If Daly reaches for his driver they murmur in anticipation. If club selection indicates a conservative move they groan in disappointment. Most golfers' swings are about 380 degrees; Daly's is at least 580. It starts somewhere between his knees and his navel on the back swing and goes around three or four times before it hits the ball. Sometimes Daly seems to spin around twice, like a propeller. When he makes perfect contact, the ball goes screaming out of there almost into orbit and comes down glowing. When Daly miscues, a frequent occurrence, you need a pack of hounds to find his ball. He throws bar-room hooks at the course, never clinches.

Greg Norman, who put together one of the great final rounds in Open Championship history when he won here 10 years ago, probably had Daly's name in mind earlier this week when bemoaning the disappearance of charismatic golfers. "Young players today look much the same," he said. "They are so concerned about projecting a professional image that they fail to show their personalities. You don't see a Craig Stadler out there any more, hardly any characters. Seve Ballesteros was great to watch because you never knew what to expect. We played with a bit of flair, and I think that's missing today. There are some outstanding players but how many of them capture the public's attention?'' It is part of the mystique of modern tournament golf that no player can hope to succeed without giving the game total concentration.

Walter Hagen's advice "Stop and smell the roses" is not recommended. When Els, the defending champion, first came to prominence he was determined to enjoy himself, to take a broader view. "I wanted to win majors, to be the best," he said, "but I wasn't going to let golf dominate me. I make time to relax and for my family. If you can't do that, what's the point?"

Many of today's tournament players convey the impression that they are stumbling about in a fog because their 20-20 vision is focused sharply on a single problem in life, the golf swing. Thus, in technique, one player looks very much like another. Idiosyncratic movement is rare.

Golf is a game in which the worst thing that can happen to you is a ball out of bounds. In which hardly anyone needs crutches and the bleeding is internal. A golfer's idea of trauma is a bare lie or a ball plugged in sand. You don't have to run fast, tackle hard or knock anybody down. It's hard to fracture your thumb on a put. Leading tournament players go through life with a suntan. Cosseted by agents, they spend a great deal of time in the sort of sylvan retreats favoured by multi-millionaires. They are not burnt out at 35. An exceptional gift for golf is like finding money.

Whether this remains the case depends on the younger generation of tournament players. Norman's belief that golf has lost some of the momentum brought by Woods is a warning. Lighten up, take more chances or run the risk of recession: that appears to be what the Australian is saying.

Daly doesn't have to make a case for himself. If the idea appeals he'll call for his driver and let fly. There are more sensible ways of negotiating the perils of this course but in this over-coached sporting world there is a lot to be said for it.

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