The Greatest Golf Show on Earth

BEING THERE; Jim Cusick went to see the Open Championship at Royal Lytham, but he ended up at the circus
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The Independent Online
Just as Phineas Taylor Barnum merged with Bailey to produce the "Greatest Show on Earth", there must have been a Mr Royal who teamed up with a Mr Ancient with another kind of circus in mind. While not actually kitted out in top hat, tails and a whip to tame the badly behaved, the ringmaster of the R&A's annual show, Michael Bonallack, must have mentally stood outside the gates of Royal Lytham and St Annes last week and shouted for all he was worth, "Roll up, roll up. Come inside, for a mere pounds 22, and watch men weep as they perform feats of magic. Roll up, roll up, to our tented shopping mall, where we will make your money disappear." Just like the show with clowns, elephants and a high wire, it's damn difficult to resist.

You needed factor 15 block at Lytham this year as the sun decided to turn its thermostat up full. You needed a wide-brimmed hat. And, above all, you needed to bring imagination. Barnum at least had the vision to put all his acts inside a ring with the audience seated around the show. In his circus tent you never heard people say: "Who is that clown? What ring is he playing? How did he do yesterday? I can't see, did he manage to avoid that custard pie hazard? His partner, where is that other clown from? Was that applause? Did he pull that joke off? I can't see. How much money do you think he gets for using that red nose?"

Mr Barnum, sorry, I mean Mr Bonallack, knows you need imagination to come to his circus. Just to let you know you're going to the "latest, greatest show on earth", the road signs of "Open Golf" directing the audience to Lytham, near Blackpool, seem to start around Watford (and probably Inverness). The car parking system has more castes than Hinduism; the Brahman priests and scholars are directed to car park A; the Kshatriyas, the military and rulers, are also in A. The Vaisyas, the farmers and merchants, are directed to park B. The Sudras, the peasants and labourers, are directed to somewhere near Preston. The untouchables are kept well away from things in a large enclosure known as the press tent.

To help the imagination along, the pounds 4.50 souvenir programme shows a beautiful picture of Royal Lytham's 18th hole and clubhouse. The pilgrims who have been to the show before know they must memorise this scene because they will never see anything that looks like it during the four days of performance. There is also a sepia-toned photograph from the Roaring Twenties of men in sweaters, neck ties, plus fours, bunnets and crucially, no audience. Only the Californian circus fans who have spent a decade in self-actualisation therapy can walk round the golf course show rings and pretend nothing has changed from the days of Louise Brooks, Fred Astaire and Bob Jones. Everyone else? Well, they are still looking for this wide open space called the 18th fairway. And where exactly is this place they call the golf course, anyway? If the real course is a tapestry of genius (which it is), most will soon discover they have spent good money to see the threads hanging out the back. It needs imagination to conjure up the view from the front.

Remember the cute view in the programme? Gone. In its place are grandstands, ropes, steel barriers, giant scoreboards, a gigantic television screen that shows the circus as unpolluted and empty as the closing holes of the Royal Gobi Desert Country Club, and enough food and drink tents, vans and kiosks to solve anything the United Nations High Commission for Refugees could throw at them.

The car park caste system invades the course, too: rank (member or day visitor), restriction, hierarchy, status, tribe (blazer or Blackpool beach vest), Bollinger or bitter tent, all reflect golf's obsession with class. Access, however, is the god to be worshipped. Access to walk on the course, behind players, beyond ropes, is given only to players, officials, selected scribes and the high priests and priestesses, photographers who capture the magic of the circus.

The daily Order of Play is your imagination's guidebook.

"Thursday 18th July. 7.33am. Game Four. Nick Faldo, Robert Allenby, Fuzzy Zoeller.

"Damn, it's . . . well, it must be 12.08pm because isn't that Brett Ogle teeing off?

"So, if it's four and half hours a round, if we run to the 18th we'll see Nick coming in."

These words came from the Open Arms bar. The general who said them had induced frenzy in his troops. They were all armed with plastic milk crates, baseball bats, binoculars, shorts, no socks, sandals and sunstroke. Bad sunstroke, because no one in their right mind runs in 90 degree heat. But this battalion were a rarity. They were fans intent on "seeing" golf. They had been out on the course for hours. The bar was only used to replenish supplies in their assault.

For others, the casuals with the expensive access tag dangling from their Pringle, Lauren or Boss polo shirts, the course and the process of actually seeing golf was a mere passing intrusion as they wined and dined in the corporate hospitality enclosures.

"Where are we again? Is it Lyle Way or Woosnam Way?" said a polo shirt at the Bollinger tent.

"Have you been out there?" asked another pink polo shirt.

"Nah, got as far as that bit where the 3rd green, the 7th tee, and the 6th green are. Couldn't see a bloody thing. Drink, I need drink. Excuse me, over here!"

To be fair, the Bollinger brigade had done rather well in getting to the 7th tee. En route they would have passed through a maze of ropes marshalled by would-be home secretaries intent on enforcing a harsh regime of law and order.

"Have you left your cattle prod at home, then?" asked an irate polo shirt. "Sorry, sir, I have my orders."

In the middle of a heated exchange that made the Bosnia peace deal look simple, another marshall held up a tall, thin sign above the crowd: "The Open Championship. Stand Still. Quiet." People stood still. People were quiet. If only they had had one of those signs in Northern Ireland a fortnight ago. None of that Orange mess need have got out of hand.

At the 7th tee, you could see, well, something. Men putting, men driving, men chipping, men talking to their caddies, men hitting their clubs on the ground, men raising their heads in the air, men swearing. Rarely, however, could you guess what it all meant. Ringside, at the R&A's Greatest Open on Earth, you marvel at the strange and weird, the mighty and the majestic, but you have no bloody clue where the ball is, how many times it has been hit, whether the man with the club is about to chuck it all in and sell sweaters for the rest of his life, or whether that last shot has taken him into a tie for 12th spot with Tiger III, James IV, Colin the Angry, Padraig the Unpronouncable, Jack the Lionheart or King Fred.

Television is the great giver of wisdom. Without it the Modern and Ancient game would still be as popular a spectator sport as Himalayan fell running. Towers, satellites, scanner vans, miles of cables, a royal dinner service of dishes beaming pictures from every acre of every part of the circus. So inside the Famous Grouse beer and whisky tent, inside the fake restaurants of Faldo Way or Lyle Avenue, inside the clubhouse itself and inside the press tent, the jigsaw, the picture, the performances all begin to make sense.

On Thursday, as Lord Nicklaus of St Andrews defied age and stroked his way to a 66, two fanatics applauded behind the steel barriers of the 18th green. They had followed the great man from start to finish. They said they saw everything.

"Ah, but when it was happening, how much did you understand?" I asked.

Looking as though they had just yomped from Goose Green to Blackpool, and with the plastic milk crates they had used to stand on for a better view almost melting, they admitted: "You just felt it, even if you didn't see it. That's why you come, isn't it?"

Indeed, the milk-crated duo had come to Lytham armed with the Open's most crucial ingredient - imagination. William Shakespeare, as far as I can recall, never mentioned "the golfe" in the Scottish play. But he knew about imagination. Next year, above the kiosks where they take the punters' pounds 22 circus entry fee, they should put the words: "Tell me where is fancy bred. Or in the heart or in the head?" Not that they need to be told, of course.