Seniority no bar to Slammin' Snead's swing

Among the former winners to shine in the Past Champions' Challenge was the 88-year-old American making a belated return

The Open is not complete without at least one American announcing he would not be gracing the Championship with his presence. It was ever thus. When Sam Snead took possession of the claret jug on the Old Course 54 years ago, it had cost him $2,000 to make the journey and he won $600. The Royal and Ancient asked him if he would be returning to defend the title. Snead replied: "You're kidding."

The Open is not complete without at least one American announcing he would not be gracing the Championship with his presence. It was ever thus. When Sam Snead took possession of the claret jug on the Old Course 54 years ago, it had cost him $2,000 to make the journey and he won $600. The Royal and Ancient asked him if he would be returning to defend the title. Snead replied: "You're kidding."

Well, he's back now, at 88 the oldest swinger in town. Yesterday Snead competed in the Past Champions' Challenge, a unique four-hole commemoration of the game at the home of golf. If ever an event was bound to end in cheers it was this one. Snead did not receive $600 but he did get the freedom of the links and a silver plate. Both are invaluable. As he did not defend the title in 1947 it can only be assumed that the claret jug remained in St Andrews.

Snead, who played with Nick Faldo, Ian Baker-Finch and Justin Leonard, alighted from his buggy going down the 18th and posed for photographers on the Swilken Bridge. The huge crowds gave him another round of applause when Slammin' Sam did a little tap dance.

He's a tough old boy. A few years ago he arrived at Augusta National, where he is an honourary starter at the Masters, having survived a serious car smash. He had cuts to his face, blood all over his shirt and a knee the size of a football. When he bumped into Jack Nicklaus, the Golden Bear - who can't see further than his nose - said: "Hi Sam how are you doin'?" "I'm doin' just fine," Sam replied. "You're certainly looking great," Nicklaus said.

There was, inevitably, an omission from the 22 past champions. Arnold Palmer, who made what everybody thought was his valedictory journey down the 18th fairway in 1995, was indeed invited to yesterday's stroll down memory lane but declined. There was a school of thought that suggested that the 70-year-old Palmer would not return because he did not receive an exemption into the Championship proper. The R&A had waived the rules so he could play here five years ago.

Yesterday Peter Dawson, the secretary of the R&A, attempted to explain Arnie's absence. "Unfortunately, Arnold said he was not able to come. This was obviously a considerable blow, given Arnold's history at The Open and his role in developing the Championship into what it is today. I obviously went back to him, both in person and by letter several times, but I was unable to persuade him to come, which I personally regret and I am very sorry he's not here."

The R&A denied that Palmer had suggested he should play in the 129th Open. Dawson produced a letter from Palmer which said: "I appreciate the continued interest in my attendance at The Open and I really would like to be there but I'm afraid I just won't be able to make it. Even though I won't be there this time I'm looking forward to returning to St Andrews in the near future." So why didn't he come? "I think he had personal memory reasons and the death of his wife, and so on, which were affecting him," Dawson added. He said it had crossed their minds to give Palmer a place in the field but went on: "It was considered only very briefly. There is a great competition for places with many young players trying to get in. Our exemption criteria have been in place for a long time. This is not an invitational event. It is a major championship."

The group of Tom Weiskopf, Tom Lehman and Paul Lawrie won the Champions' Challenge at two-under par - they played the first, second, 17th and 18th - finishing a stroke in front of Snead's group.

Baker-Finch, who twice drove out of bounds at the first during The Open here in 1995, did so again yesterday. However, the Australian came home in style. He had a birdie three at the Road Hole, the 17th, and another three at the last where he drove the green.

"That was something special," Snead said. "I've never had applause like that. I appreciate it." Tiger Woods, 64 years Sam's junior, will have to wait... at least until Sunday.

Each competitor was presented with an embossed certificate and a silver bag tag from the St Andrews Links Trust, the body which manages the six courses at St Andrews and who bestowed the freedom of the links, a rare honour. The first recipient was the Reverend Harcourt Just, who received it in the 1940s. The only person to get the freedom of the links for a golfing achievement, prior to yesterday, was Alex Soutar, a St Andrean who was the Scottish Boys' champion in 1962.

The idea for the Past Champions' Challenge came from Lee Trevino. He suggested they should play six holes rather than four but then it was realised that some of the older players might not get round before dusk.

The winning team received £40,000 to present to a charity of their choice. Not that the occasion was taken ultra-seriously. When Faldo found the notorious bunker in front of the green at the 17th, he picked up his ball and threw it towards the flag.

Nicklaus, who played with Tom Watson and Roberto de Vicenzo, had a three at the 17th but then drove out of bounds to the right at the 18th. It was touch and go whether Nicklaus would play. His mother is seriously ill and the Golden Bear himself was not feeling on top form.

There was only one blot on the horizon - a huge crane hovering above the Tom Morris golf shop by the 18th green. The R&A asked the contractors to remove it during The Open but were quoted a sum of £20,000 for doing so. The crane stays.

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