Long may the game be a heart-breaker

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DISTRESSED AS they might have been at Carnoustie last weekend, the affronted stars of world golf have moved on to pastures newer, greener, wider and kinder, leaving us with a slightly worrying epitaph to the 128th Open Championship. The bewildering fascinations of the climax have occupied the main inquests - never has a Van been overtaken by a Lawrie in such dramatic fashion - but more profound issues came flying out of the long grass than the result, sensational as it was.

The terrors of links golf have been rarely presented as comprehensively as they were on the windswept banks of the Tay Estuary and, certainly in modern times, no Open venue has been subject to so much criticism by the competitors. The danger is that the carping will leave a legacy that could fester into something more serious than merely the dents made in top-class egos.

We tended to dismiss the complainants as pampered Yanks but the dissenting chorus was of a much wider constituency and, undoubtedly, no major championship has had such a profound effect on those concerned. The impact was not confined to those who played. Perhaps, the proliferation of new courses built in the lush American style during the past 20 years has created a appetite that is less tolerant of the heart- breaking demands of the old-style links where there is a fierce pride in the toughness of the terrain and the evils of the prevailing elements.

I have the honour to be a regular sufferer at Royal Porthcawl on the breezy shores of Swansea Bay where last week members were talking of getting up a petition asking that our fairways be widened to Carnoustie standards. On Tuesday, Porthcawl hosted the regional qualifying round of the Ford national competition which featured close to 100 golfers from South Wales and the West who had won through the preliminary rounds at their clubs.

For most it was a chastening experience. The Porthcawl professional Peter Evans said: "The rough was high, the wind was strong and the fairways narrow. Players not used to those conditions can't keep the ball down and they found it extremely difficult. I saw one 15-handicapper from a local club take 11 at the first. He was contemplating returning to the clubhouse there and then but he decided to soldier on."

We've all had similar experiences and accept them as part of a game we are a long way from conquering. But if the best players in the world start rebelling against such conditions, how tempting it is for lesser mortals to ally themselves to the disenchantment. I know low-handicap golfers who detest playing links golf because it affects their swing and challenges the control they can exercise more easily on park- and heath-land courses.

Golf is played throughout the world and needs to embrace the widest variety of courses and climates but the game would put itself in peril of being sanitised out of recognition if it allows players to dictate the type of golf they want to play.

The set-up at Carnoustie was created by a combination of circumstances that may never occur again at that level but links golf always has the potential to break the hearts of any golfer and long may it continue to do so. We must hope that when they've had time to reflect on the 1999 Open the superstars will announce their anxiety to return with a more positive attitude and a determination to give a more convincing demonstration of the full range of their skills.

The Royal & Ancient, to their credit, have already announced that the Open will return to Carnoustie whose hospitable townspeople certainly deserve the honour. And if the mighty course brings the game's aristocracy to their knees again they should reflect that it is an appropriate position from which to pay due homage to the origins of this great game.

EXPECTED REPORTS of apoplexy among crotchety old colonels in Cheltenham have failed to materialise. By common consent, Channel 4 are making an encouraging debut as televisers of live Test match cricket.

Together with Sky TV, who covered the First Test, they have avoided the disasters predicted when BBC lost their traditional right to cover England's home series and several interesting innovations have been introduced for the furtherance of our knowledge and enjoyment.

Unfortunately, the same old moan applies to the new providers as it did to the old. While appreciating their obsession with all things visual and technical, there are duties far more fundamental to their calling and chief among these is the regular identification of those at the centre of the action. Football and rugby commentators rarely leave us in doubt about who has the ball and those are games we tend to be engrossed in from start to finish.

Since few can spare the seven hours necessary to watch an entire day's Test play, it follows that a new batch of us are switching on every second and need some basic information before we can get into the game. We can usually see which side is batting and the score from the top right-hand corner of the screen but it can take minutes to establish which batsmen are out and which are in.

Over the past three days I have found myself repeatedly having to switch over to BBC and key in to Ceefax to find out the story thus far. And, with all helmeted batsmen looking alike, I then have to wait until some kind commentator decides to tell me which one is in action. Every now and then a caption flashes up over a picture of a batsman which contains a mass of information stopping just short of his inside-leg measurement, but that's usually too much too late. It would require no new scientific breakthrough for the commentator to say as the bowler is about to deliver: "Caddick to Astle" or "Cairns to Hussain".

It is not unfair to ask them to remember the simple, humdrum requirements of their service to viewers before they disappear up their own snickometers.

SUDDENLY, the prospect of the millennium celebrations becomes even more appalling. Apart from all those extra amateur drinkers clogging up the overpriced fun palaces on the eve of the big day, we are now warned that 1 January 2000 is likely to be devoid of sport.

Now, it may be Millennium Day to the revellers but to the sports fan it is a Saturday and as such is too precious to go to waste. I realise that there there are 52,000 Saturdays in every millennium but don't forget that every seven years we lose one to Christmas Day so we can't afford to be profligate with a day already devalued by Sky spreading the football fixtures.

It has already been announced that there will be no football or rugby that day and now we hear that racing has been cancelled because the people who man, or woman, the Tote windows want the day off. The racecourses want races to be held, as do the trainers, the jockeys, the bookmakers and the punters many of whom have already booked up. The horses don't care either way.

You can bet that the bookies are happy to take up the extra business from the Tote - they might even offer some decent each-way betting - but that is not enough, apparently. Sport can't afford to be idle on high- days and holidays. It is not too late to reverse these decisions - why don't they ask the fans how they'd like to spend the first day of the year 2000?

Manchester United could even play an FA Cup tie.