Brian Viner: When Tiger's on the prowl, golf turns into a contact sport

The Last Word
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The Independent Online

Of the Sunday afternoons I have spent at the Augusta National enjoying the denouement of the US Masters, this year's excitement pipped even that of 1986, when Seve Ballesteros, Greg Norman and Tom Kite all imploded in their various ways, enabling 46-year-old Jack Nicklaus to secure his sixth Green Jacket with a remarkable final round of 65.

Earlier that day I had been walking through the towering Georgia pines to the right of the par five eighth hole when a ball rolled practically to my feet. It was the errant drive of Nicklaus, and there were only about five of us gathered to see what happened next. He arrived at his ball and contemplated the only conceivable escape, a chip sideways back on to the fairway. But Nicklaus, still level par in that final round and four shots behind Norman, knew that only the inconceivable would bag him the tournament. About 20 feet ahead of him there was a narrow gap between two pines. He somehow lasered a three-wood through it and almost made the green, a miraculous blow that represented the start of his winning charge. The few of us watching didn't expect him to win, but we knew we'd seen something out of the ordinary.

Never mind the players, spectators need luck at golf tournaments, the luck of finding themselves in the right place at the right time. On Sunday, in the gallery to the right of the second green, I thought I'd been blessed again when Tiger Woods obligingly carved his second shot to within a yard or two of where I was standing. It actually hit a female spectator, who mercifully wasn't hurt, but when Woods arrived he very graciously sought her out and promised her the ball when he'd completed the hole. He then fineigled a birdie, hitting a fabulous chip to within kissing distance of the flagstick, and I wondered whether, 23 years later, I was again witnessing the start of something momentous. I wasn't, as it turned out, but I did get to touch the ball, which had the all-important word "Tiger" stamped on it, and which the great man duly presented to the middle-aged and by now somewhat weak-kneed woman it had struck. Those of us around her rather wished that we had had the foresight to dive into its path as it plummeted out of the sky towards her, so we could have claimed the prize instead. Imagine what it would command on Ebay.

Not, of course, that a true golf fan would dream of selling a ball given to him, or her, by Tiger Woods. And you do get a sense at the Masters that you are surrounded by true golf fans, with proper respect for the hallowed arena. At most other tournaments, including the Open, marshals (or gallery guards, as they are termed in the States) wield signs saying "silence please" when a player is about to hit a shot. That's except at the St Jude Classic in Memphis, Tennessee, where the signs read "Hush y'all". But the green jackets at the Masters see no need to tell their patrons, as they are quaintly called, to keep quiet. They require no reminders. That said, not even Augusta can quell the handful of morons who bellow "in the hole" the instant a shot has been struck, even the shots with absolutely no chance of getting anywhere near the hole. Maybe I've spent too long in the Deep South, home of the lynch mob, but on Sunday afternoon when a woman next to me at the back of the 16th green suggested that she'd quite like to feed the "in-the-hole" merchants to the alligators, I didn't disagree.

Nice weather for ducks, so Freddie's glad to fly south

The County cricket season is now under way, hence the persistent rain we've had this week. But it's not just bad weather with which county cricket must grapple, it's also the sustained absence of the country's best cricketers.

On the other hand, I recently asked Andrew Flintoff whether he was frustrated to play so relatively little for his beloved Lancashire these days, to which he smiled and said: "I bet they're glad they've not got me. Last year I had four ducks in five innings. The first time I got a nick off the first ball, and there was a polite round of applause as I made my way off. The second time I heard nothing, and the third and fourth times there were a few comments."

Of the "piss off back to the England team" variety? A broad Flintoff grin. "That sort of line, yeah."

How 'Elton on the M4' kept me from being a dozy driver

The late Peter Cook was an insomniac who used to amuse himself in the small hours by calling radio phone-ins, pretending to be a melancholic Norwegian fisherman. Precisely the opposite circumstances prompted my own Cook moment late on Wednesday evening. Alone on a long car journey I found myself fighting sleep, so I phoned BBC Five Live's football phone-in posing as a stammering Scouser called "Elton on the M4", with strong opinions about what Everton need to do to beat Manchester United in this weekend's FA Cup semi-final. Gratifyingly, I got on the air. And better still, my little deception kept me alert at the wheel.