Ken Jones on Monday: A game raised to fantasy levels

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The Independent Online
IN THE time it has taken one generation to succeed another, the general standard in professional golf has improved enormously.

When Ernie Els birdied the 450-yard ninth at Wentworth yesterday, the 27th overall, on his way to defeating Colin Montgomerie in the final of the Toyota World Match Play Championship, a spectator standing alongside the green said: 'Some of the shots these people play are phenomenal.'

In an effort to restore a degree of abnormal difficulty to the West Course at Wentworth, historically referred to as the Burma Road, the club's head greenkeeper, Chris Kennedy, has introduced various subtle alterations. 'I've tried a few things,' he said, 'but the trouble is that if you made holes on the M1 these players would still make birdies.'

When defeating David Frost 8 and 7 in the first round, Seve Ballesteros had 13 birdies in 29 holes. He made 14 when defeated by Els in a marvellous quarter- final on Friday. Even when allowing for benign conditions, this is golf beyond the emulation of all but a minority. Dream on, but you are never going to get anywhere near it.

This is equally true of football and cricket and any other sport you care to think about. In golf, the game they are playing out there is not one with which the majority of us are even remotely familiar.

The thought recalls an experience obtained by the American writer, Roger Kahn when, as a rookie baseball reporter, he was sent to cover spring training with the old Brooklyn Dodgers. One morning, Kahn was persauded to take station at the plate as a sighter for one of the Dodger pitchers, not incidentally, one of their fastest. 'Don't move,' he heard the catcher say.

'Just stay perfectly still.' Kahn didn't see the ball. He only heard it. A whirring sound like hornets on the move, then a disturbing thwack as the ball entered the catcher's glove. 'This is not the game I've been playing since a child,' Kahn correctly concluded.

In the clubhouse at Wentworth yesterday, I came across a man, no mean player himself, who readily endorsed the point of view I am advancing. 'I'm not sure that all the spectators here this week realise the quality of golf they were watching,' he said. He had in mind prodigious drives and the fact that leading players today are so accomplished that they confidently regard bunkers as a convenient alternative to flirting with fortune.

Another thought concerns the notion that equipment endorsed by the stars will bring about significant improvement in the handicapper's game. This is a fantasy not worth bothering about.

The standards attained by today's great players are monumental. This was consistently evident at Wentworth while Els was on his way to victory, adding to a reputation as one of the brightest talents to recently emerge in the game.

Even putting, still the game's great mystery, no longer seems to bring about the same measure of frustration. There are more good putters than ever before, is more or less what Peter Allis could be heard saying on television.

Not that this could have been put without peril to Montgomerie, who looked a weary man when Els finally overcame him, 4 and 2. 'When did I last get down with one putt?' the burly Scot could be heard saying when shouldering for the gallery at the back of the 14th green, two down to the South African.

Not since the turn. That more or less did for him. Psychologically, putting is the one trick that continues to elude them.