Troon's fanfare for the uncommon fan

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Spectators at the Open Championship at Royal Troon have taken a commanding lead in the race for our British Sporting Crowd of the Year award. Competition is far more intense than in previous years thanks to a wave of new enthusiasm, particularly among tennis and cricket fans who caught a whiff of unexpected success early in the summer and hung on to it gamely.

Marks are given for knowledge (i.e., knowing when to clap), punctuality, stamina, patriotism under pressure, appearance and WFB (willingness to be fussed about). Deductions are imposed for streakers, mindless chanting, not being able to take a drink and displays of the Mexican Wave, which is a puerile abomination on the face of sport and an insult to the intelligence of the average Mexican.

I have to declare an interest in that I have been part of the crowd at Troon over the past few days; a necessary pleasure as part of my judging duties because it is so difficult to keep an eye on them. Whereas those attending other events tend to be concentrated in a small, easily observable space, the Open crowd measures approximately two miles long and half a mile wide and is constantly on the move.

Admittedly, they still have today to negotiate in good order but, already, our premier golf event has been offering an inspirational example of how a sporting audience should deport itself even under conditions that would turn others into a bellowing, belly-aching bunch of malcontents. Golf fans tend to leave all that sort of stuff to the players and go about their often tiring and uncomfortable pleasure with a cheerful stoicism that makes it a joy to be among them.

While the Open crowd are the leaders in the clubhouse - an unfortunate expression since they are not allowed in - they are encountering stiff opposition. It has to be acknowledged that crowds have taken a distinct turn for the better and brighter during this active and entertaining summer.

For instance, the gradual change that has been overtaking the mood and demeanour of our Test cricket aficionados has fully blossomed this year. BBC cameras, always ready to pick out colourful spectators during lulls in play, can scarcely keep pace with the groups dressed up as Elvis Presleys or Princess Dianas. Traditionalists may frown but they add gaiety to the occasion. Besides, transvestites have as much right to enjoy sport as anyone else.

In contrast, the growth of the Barmy Army and their infuriating chorus is having a damaging effect on cricket's appeal. Organised ranks of sporting followers are nothing new, but they have tended to be less aggravating. Thirty or more years ago, Arnie's Army, the devotees of Arnold Palmer, dominated galleries on both sides of the Atlantic. Tiger's Troops are still doing their basic training and were to be seen at Troon with their heads bowed; partly because of despondency and partly through trying to find his ball.

If there was any doubt that Wimbledon will be ready when the day of a British victor arrives, it was noisily dispelled by the excitement created by Tim Henman and Greg Rusedski. Wimbledon has coped with the barren years by creating a haughtily sedate and polite atmosphere. A sudden infusion of hot-blooded support for the lads brought some much-needed zing to the place.

The transformation brought out some boisterous costuming here, too, but only among those who had to queue overnight to get in. I venture that we might get tired of thin voices piping "Come on, Tim" in the future but this crowd has leapt above Mars in the possibility that it might contain life.

When it comes to scoring points for stoicism and optimism, the massive British Grand Prix crowd at Silverstone are in a clear lead. They refuse to recognise the futility of waving and cheering at drivers who can neither see nor hear them and after spending hours watching cars flash past at 200mph are quite content to sit motionless for hours in their own cars waiting for the traffic to clear.

The judges feel that the smell of high-octane petrol must have an effect on the human brain that can only be compared to glue-sniffing and have marked them down accordingly. Supporters of golf need no stimulation other than the sight of the top practitioners. As in most aspects of the game, tradition dictates what behaviour is acceptable and this particular quality has survived some interesting sociological changes.

Faded photographs of scenes from bygone Opens show galleries just as eager, but much smaller, than they are now. But there is a distinct difference in the tone of the onlookers. There were far fewer women and youngsters and many of the men looked as if they had popped in on the way to the club's dinner dance.

Somehow, golf has managed to widen its appeal across the social classes without lowering the tone and in the past few days has conducted a brave experiment that many other sports might care to examine. Youngsters under 18 years of age are being admitted free and their presence has been notable. The stipulation is that they must be accompanied by an adult and watching some of them enter in has sent my mind flashing back many years to when under-16 year olds could not get into a cinema to watch an "A" film unless with a grown-up.

We used to accost people with the plea "Take us in please". I'm delighted to see it still works and, certainly, no harm has been done. The youngsters have behaved well and, fortunately, have not been subjected to the standards found in galleries in the United States where the "you're the man" and "get in the hole" brigade have damaged the image.

It helps that the vast majority of British fans play golf themselves and, thus, no other sport is watched by more knowledgeable and sympathetic onlookers. So much so that players can judge to a foot how successful their shots have been by the strength of the applause they receive.

They must arrive early, equipped to face all weathers and prepared for a tiring day. Some prefer to pick a spot and stay there. Others like to roam and are happy to be coralled here, moved on by marshals there and liable at any time to be shouted at by caddies if they move out of turn.

Their very presence defines the course, inspires the heroic and soothes the plight of the failures. They give the championship its magic and reassure anyone concerned about the zombie-creating effect of television that there is no substitute for being a face in the crowd.

TOM LEHMAN's confession that he had inadvertently transgressed the rules in his second round at The Open was typical of the man and equally typical of the game. On the second green he moved his ball-marker out of Vijay Singh's line and forgot to replace it. There was no advantage to be gained from his mistake and no one else noticed but his admission cost him two strokes and made a severe dent in his chances of retaining the title.

When he discovered his mistake the quiet, God-fearing Minnesotan searched for a word to express his dismay. "Shoot," he said.

The same word echoed through the minds of all of us who had put money on him to win. Well, almost the same word.