Young players pay for lack of finesse

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Lee Westwood didn't break stride. "Brief word?'' somebody asked. "Better be brief,'' Westwood replied, as he marched off contemplating exit from the Open Championship after a run of seven dropped shots over the last five holes left him wondering whether he would be around for the weekend.

It has been a miserable two years for Westwood; a struggle to recapture the form that made him one of the world's leading players, free-fall in the world rankings, confidence shot. Recently there have been signs of improvement, but the wind-assisted perils of this course were too much.

Two under at the turn of his second round after three successive birdies, Westwood couldn't keep it together: bogey at 11, birdie at 13, then a disastrous run that saw him tumble to nine over. The worse it got, the more disgruntled he became, frustration gnawing at his concentration.

In common with the majority of golfers, Westwood is in the habit of issuing instructions to his ball. "Get down, bite,'' he shouted after aiming his second shot into the 15th green. The ball disobeyed. Another bogey. At the next, he let go of his club in disgust when a tee shot ended up in a deep greenside bunker, costing him another shot. "Keep at it, Lee,'' came the cry, but Westwood was beyond encouragement. He double-bogeyed the last and ran for cover.

Justin Rose was another who departed without comment. After rounds of 79 and 80, he headed out of the tournament carrying the misplaced optimism of television pundits and public alike.

You could scan the field and reach the same conclusion. The effects of being locked into target golf for which modern equipment is designed were everywhere, recalling remarks passed by Ian Woosnam early in the year after shooting a blistering 66 in Dubai. "The whole game is changing,'' the veteran Welshman said. "It's just hit it as far as you can - no finesse, no shaping of shots, cutting or hooking one against the wind, hitting the ball low. It's hit it as hard as you can, even if going in with a seven iron from 170 yards.''

Shot-making isn't a lost art, but it resides mostly with players of Woosnam's generation. Nick Price, who compiled an outstanding round of 72, carefully working his way around the course, dealing with the gusts and the wicked undulations to stand at four over for the tournament, well in contention.

Price relishes the possibility of a windy weekend. "Let it blow,'' he said, a man who has registered his own complaints about the modern emphasis on a power game. "The wind gives us older guys a chance,'' the 1994 Open champion added. "I'm more than happy with the way I'm playing, comfortable with my game and the conditions. Links golf brings a challenge that a lot of the players have seldom experienced and it shows. The course is longer than in 1993, and you need a lot of patience out there. The way things are set up now, you can find yourself almost playing blind, looking into the distance over high dunes, seeing only the top of the pin, not sure whether it is front or back, left or right.''

One of Westwood's playing partners, Chris DiMarco, performed as though he would have benefited from a few hours in Price's wise company. DiMarco never looked like improving on his previous best Open finish, tied for 47th place. Finishing with a two-round total of 154, 12 over, his most pressing task was to book a flight home.

With red figures rare on the leaderboard, it was a case of trying to avoid disasters and stay comfortably within the projected cut. Opening at 3-1 in the betting, his longest price for a major championship since victory in the 1997 Masters, Tiger Woods drifted out 17 points when going four over midway through his back nine on Thursday, then eight shots adrift of Greg Norman. The price was only briefly available, Woods picking up two birdies for a 72. Normal service appeared to have resumed yesterday when the world's No 1 got himself to even par on the front nine.

Significantly, however, some of the older guys were able to keep their heads above water. At six over, Tom Watson, now in his 50s, was guaranteed to stay around with one of his playing partners Fred Couples, who is two shots better off.

Before the start of the championship, casting around for some inspiration in betting, I settled on David Toms to finish in the top five on the basis of his solid game and even temperament. This turned out to be a foolish move on my part. Nine over for his opening round, Toms considerably improved yesterday with a 73, but 12 over wasn't taking either of us anywhere.

Doubtless there are many similar tales of busted bets, but it comes down to one thing. Conditions aren't all that bad. It's just that even the best men around are struggling to get the ball close to the hole.