THE OPEN: Champions fall well below par

Ken Jones on a tournament that proved a nightmare for the game's leading lights
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The Independent Online
Sometimes, when you expect the most you get the least. It was thought to be the strongest field ever assembled for the Open but by the final round only Fred Couples and Tiger Woods of 26 major winners were still in contention for a championship that went to a 40-1 outsider, Justin Leonard.

Allowing for sentimental appearances, nine of them did not survive the cut. Most fell by the wayside, unable to mount a serious challenge. Apart from the first day when a capricious breeze came off the Firth of Clyde, conditions were benign and yet totals in red figures were rare on the leader board.

Woods barely made the week-end and although a 64 on Saturday equalled the course record and set pulses racing he was always too far off the pace. Despite a closing 66, the defending champion, Tom Lehman, a winner at Loch Lomond last week, could only get to level par. "It has been a great experience,'' he said, "and I wish I could have played a little better earlier on. After doing awfully well last week I came here with a lot of confidence but discovered that I didn't have my game. That two stroke penalty on the second day was deflating. Looking at the leaderboard there were 25 guys above me two strokes better, and you can't afford to give up two strokes. The back nine has kicked me in the butt all week.''

Nick Faldo's pre-eminence in links golf was never apparent. At odds with himself, criticised by the 1994 champion, Nick Price, for slow play, he did not once break par and finished at seven over only after completing his final round with back to back birdies. "It all went back to the second day,'' he said. "Things didn't go well and that was it. This week I was seldom in the right place. If you don't keep the ball in play on a tough course like this you are going to pay for it. My game is about 10 per cent off and that makes a big difference. I don't think playing in the United States has made me less of a links player. You know where to aim it. You have to feed the ball through the humps and bumps, especially here because the greens are so small.''

Ian Woosnam, at level, his experiences in a closing round of 71 typical of the inconsistency that so many past champions suffered from. Three under after nine holes, out in 33, the Welshman posted a triple-bogey at the treacherous 11th and a double at the next. Despite two further birdies his round had gone.

Thinking Jose Maria Olazabal's week to be typical of that endured by fellow major winners I took off with the small gallery, made up mostly of friends and business associates, that followed him.

Considering that Olazabal only returned to tournament golf this season after recovering from a career-threatening foot ailment, rounds of 71, 70 and 73 in a major championship indicated progress. It was pretty clear however that the 1994 Masters champion's expectations were set somewhat higher.

Going out some three hours before the leaders made their way to the first tee Olazabal birdied the first and added two more to reach the turn in 33, providing us with a vision of what might have been. The Spaniard did not drop a shot in compiling a round of 67 but the putter was not working to his satisfaction. Olazabal's play from tee to green could rarely be faulted, but the damn ball would not drop for him.

It occurs to me that many people attend the Open today simply because it is prominent on the sporting calendar. I heard one man explaining to another the difference between a birdie and a bogey. Olazabal is one of the big names in golf, but some spectators alongside the 11th fairway did not identify him. "Who's that guy in the yellow shirt?' one asked. "It's whatshisname,'' his companion replied, "that Spaniard with the bad foot.''

As it happens the ailment that caused an interruption of Olazabal's career was never much in evidence. Watching Olazabal at work you were reminded that he possesses a special talent. A round of 67 was excellent and given freedom from pain he should win at least another major. You could say that about others in the field but their play this week did little to excite us.

The US Open champion, Ernie Els, came in at two under. A twice US Open champion, Curtis Strange had a nightmare finish of five successive bogeys. Bernhard Langer came in at four over, Corey Pavin at seven over. You can go on and on like this, reaching what should be an obvious conclusion. It is that while romance in sport is fine it often tells you a great deal about the shortcomings of others.