Open season for suffering on the greens

Sport on TV
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The Independent Online
THE 124th Open Golf Championship at St Andrews (BBC) got off to an inauspicious start when it opened its first broadcast at 10.30 last Thursday morning. I should stress that I'm laying critical faculties aside here and talking through the wallet, because virtually the first shot featured the player burdened with my tenner at odds of 12-1, Bernhard Langer.

The on-screen caption revealed that Langer was already two under par and though I wasn't counting my winnings just yet, it is always gratifying to think that your choice might at least be in contention in the final round of play today. But no sooner had the camera settled on the German than he dropped a shot. A few holes later he dropped another. They say golf is a game of exquisite punishment, but it's nowhere near as gruelling as betting on it.

By Friday afternoon, the scrolling scoreboard which appears on the bottom of the screen every half-hour or so registered Langer at one under, but by this stage the production team, originally burdened by a general obligation to show as many of the 150-odd starters as possible, is able to impose the simple question: "Is he in contention?" as the guideline to its inter- cutting of the action.

Thus Langer was reduced to a background figure while one of his playing partners, Corey Pavin, at four under par, was featured centre stage. The crazed better is then reduced to crawling around on his hands and knees, trying to read the scoreboard in the back of the shot for news of his selection. Then this is the fault of betting, not of golf, nor indeed its coverage.

The narrative of victory is a constant in any sports coverage, but in a mammoth event like the Open, it is probably the only way the directors and the viewers can make sense of the play. Sentiment or "home" interest can also play a part, and the former was very much in evidence on the first day as Arnold Palmer, effectively the founder of modern golf, took part in his last Open at the age of 65.

But when it became apparent that the old stager was in for a major collection of bogeys, the directors plainly decided it was a humane act to get him off the screens. By the time Palmer came back into view at the last two holes, his score was also erased from the top corner as a further act of mercy. No such inhibitions spared that other golf icon, Jack Nicklaus, who was caught in X-certificate action in Hell Bunker, thrashing the sand with a variety of clubs in a vain attempt to get his ball out.

Clips of this later resurfaced on News at Ten, so powerful was its message of suffering. In the end, both Palmer and Nicklaus, like the showmen they are, enjoyed final flourishes on Friday, with Nicklaus bending his body into the shape of a question mark to sink putts with ease, and Arnie walking proudly up the last hole having staunched the flow of bogeys to receive an ovation which melted the heart.

The younger generation of superstars fared less well in terms of respect, with one Ballesteros shot being condemned as "very weak" by the enjoyably waspish Peter Thomson, but then it helps when you've won the Open five times. Nick Faldo also came in for a fair bit of leather from Peter Alliss, enhancing the long-running feud that is supposed to exist between them.

Faldo's first appearance on the screen drew Alliss into a revelation about a new book by a sports psychologist which apparently predicts that Faldo dissects his game so much that he will never win another major again. "A bold statement," Alliss added with just a hint of relish as Faldo continued on a sub- standard round, which later saw him embedding his approach shot to the 13th in a wicked little pot bunker. Faldo's body folded and Alliss remarked that "he really does seem to take an awful lot out of himself".

Faldo's last challenge of the day was to be interviewed by Dougie Donnelly in a ratty corner outside the Royal and Ancient clubhouse. Invited to relive his nightmare, Faldo was understandably tetchy, but his solution said more about the gulf between him and the players of the older generation.

Alliss's chummy, bar-propping manner suggests a damned good drink is the right way to wind down, while Faldo insisted he would just return to the practice ground to iron out his faults. This may help explain why Faldo has three Opens to his name and Alliss none. "I wonder what the weekend holds for Faldo, if he makes the weekend," Alliss said, putting a final boot in. By Friday afternoon, the spiked shoe was on the other foot as Faldo stormed home with a 67 to put himself back in contention, guaranteeing his weekend presence at the tournament. Plainly, commentating on golf is almost as hazardous as betting on it.

A verbal equivalent of Hell Bunker, the football agent Eric Hall turned up twice last week, first on Sport In Question (Carlton) and then on Friday's Newsnight (BBC2). Eric's message was the same - that football isn't being ruined by too much money. Fans complaining about increased ticket prices were told by Hall, "If you can't afford it, don't go", while a smarmy Manchester United official suggested that the poor "could watch the reserves instead". The phrases Marie Antoinette and Public Execution somehow came to mind.