Watching the Open needs a plan of military precision

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The Independent Online

This is the first time in 21 years that an Open Championship at St Andrews has unfolded without your columnist treading the hallowed turf either as a spectator or a hack, a matter of some personal regret. However, the regret is mitigated by the awareness that television affords the golf fan an infinitely better perspective on the goings-on at an Open, especially an Open at St Andrews, which is bereft of the towering dunes that provide natural viewing stations at other venues, such as Royal Birkdale and Royal St George's.

Of course, you could say the same of all sports. To watch on the telly is to get a perfect view, the expertise of commentators, the action replay, and moreover the opportunity to sit in comfort within arm's length of a cashew nut and the next beer. To be there in person offers different pleasures; the sun on your face, the wind in your hair, the thrill of being part of a live audience, the satisfaction of saying "I was there". All of which applied merely to the queue for the loo at St Andrews in 1995. When Sean Connery waited to do a seemingly rather urgent wee, I was there.

It occurred to me the other day, however, that the spectating experience differs dramatically from sport to sport, and even, within the same sport, from venue to venue.

I was at The Oval for Tuesday's one-day international between England and Australia, and it struck me, not for the first time, how excitingly dissolute The Oval is compared with Lord's. Clearly that has something to do with postcodes; SE11 is so much more raffish than NW8. But there is also a striking difference between The Oval and the other Test venues. While Edgbaston, Trent Bridge, Old Trafford and to a lesser extent Headingley exude solid provincial respectability, there is something rather dangerously urban about The Oval.

Maybe it's something to do with the old gasometer. Or maybe it's just me; it was the ground at which I first watched a Test match, between England and Australia in 1972, and I remember that day being a huge and at times slightly alarming adventure. Like Proust with his madeleines, I get whisked back to childhood by the first whiff of exhaust fumes on Kennington Park Road.

Ultimately, I suppose, and at risk of stating the bleeding obvious, spectating is fashioned by the spectacle. For example, because a Premiership football match only lasts 90-odd minutes, getting to and from the ground becomes an integral part of the experience. When I take my 10-year-old son to Goodison Park, he is just as excited by the number of Everton shirts we spot at Crewe Station, often inhabited by men of startling corpulence, as he is by the Everton shirts worn by rather leaner specimens as the players run on to the pitch. And the anticipation of his post-match meat and potato pie grips him no less than the anticipation of a home win.

Cricket matches, and golf and tennis tournaments, are different because they take so much longer. With a whole day or days of sport ahead, the thrill is in the arrival, not the journey. Indeed, the journey is often a test of endurance. If there is one snippet of street-wisdom I am happy to have but loath to share, it's that it is far more pleasurable to alight for the All England Club's Lawn Tennis Championships at Wimbledon Park tube station, followed by a pleasant amble across the golf course, rather than confront the Seventh Circle of Hell that is Southfields tube and the main road.

A different endurance test is presented by the journey to the Open, which is held in the more far-flung parts of the kingdom, where Victorian road engineers were not given the brief that 120 years or so hence, 30,000 people would arrive every day for four days at the height of summer.

And in the case of St Andrews especially, things don't become a whole lot more straightforward once you step on to the course, where there ensues the golf spectator's perennial dilemma of whether to watch a particular hole or player. As I write, there are strategies being organised that would do justice to a military campaign.

"OK, we'll follow Ernie as far as the fourth green, then stay until Tiger comes through, then cross to the 15th tee until Vijay arrives, then grab a spot of lunch in the tented village, then double back on ourselves and hit the Boche when they're least expecting it."

The other strategy is to head straight for where you expect the drama to occur. That's what I did at the 1984 Open, but it meant sitting for at least three hours in the stand by the 17th green before play even got there. I would have been far better off watching on telly. But, by God, I'm glad I was there.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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