Monday 23 October 2017

All assistance accepted in Open pursuit

In the days before television coverage, golfers at the Open could get away with a lot more

Dermot Gilleece

A mean wind, brushing the wild, wispy grasses of Hoylake from the east-south-east, made its arrival on Friday morning as fair warning of a tough assignment ahead. From Thursday's gentle pipe-opener, challengers were now summoned to dig deep in pursuit of a coveted prize, through a weekend guaranteed to test every competitive emotion.

The difficulty of shaping approach shots in gusting cross-winds prompted a mixture of irritation and indecision. Which brought to mind the revered Irish golf course architect Eddie Hackett and how he responded to players who complained of being unable to feel comfortable on the 16th tee at Waterville. "You're not meant to feel comfortable there," he explained.

This was where last-minute preparation came into play. Like visits earlier in the week to equipment trailers beside the practice area where competitors chose implements best-suited to the upcoming battle.

Rory McIlroy had already made the necessary adjustment through the inclusion of a two-iron in his bag for last week's Scottish Open. But a number of challengers from the US and other parts were to be found making similar adjustments. In the TaylorMade trailer, this generally entailed the discarding of hybrids in favour of driving irons in the form of the Adams DHY Tour and TaylorMade's UDI (ultimate driving iron).

The latter model comes in one-, two-, three- and four-iron lofts and a technician informed me that up to 50 of these clubs had been produced to order in the run-up to the championship. He further explained the objective was to achieve a lower peak-height of trajectory, facing the wind into par fives and the longer par fours, than would be possible with a hybrid. And despite their broad sole, it was emphasised that these clubs are strictly for elite players; higher handicappers need not apply.

An interesting customer was Todd Hamilton, winner of the 2004 Open at Troon, where he was the first player to chip effectively with a rescue/hybrid club whose original 17-degree loft was modified to 13 degrees as a three-wood. He has since discarded it in favour of a two-iron. "I've always liked the playability of an iron which allows you to hit the greater variety of shots you're going to need here," he said.

"But if you could guarantee me there'd be no wind, I think the hybrid would be the club."

Assessing the special challenge of links terrain, 1995 Open champion John Daly said: "It's on the borderline of being unfair, but it's not." Bryden Macpherson manfully acknowledged as much after the horrendous experience of covering 36 holes in 170 strokes - 26-over par.

And it's not as if he was a duffer who slipped through the qualifying net. The 23-year-old Australian professional won the British Amateur three years ago and has had some creditable recent finishes in the PGA China Tour Series.

Maintaining a philosophical view of his torment, he said: "A fellow Australian Ian Baker-Finch did a similar thing, in the first round in '97. And that triggered his retirement. Now, he'd already won the British Open (1991), so he had a little more grandstanding than me. It would be a little weird for me to retire, I think." Indeed.

Depending on a player's luck, the first two days at the Open can involve very early rising as Robert Karlsson discovered on being drawn in the first three-ball at 6.25am on Thursday. After rising at 4.0am, he arrived at the course with the prospect of a quiet round, only to experience two surprises.

One was the fact that the grandstand at the first hole was already packed with spectators. And the other was the noise of television sets from hospitality units along the second, causing the Swede to remark caustically: "Then the R&A turned the TVs off so we could get peace and quiet on the course. Which was great." Apparently, they had been left on all night.

Either way, Karlsson did considerably better than Alf Padgham at Hoylake in 1936, when he left his clubs in the golf shop overnight ready for an early start. On his arrival the following morning, however, he discovered the door locked and not a sinner in sight. Apparently the young man assigned to open the doors had overslept. So there was nothing for it but to break the door down. He went on to capture the title by beating the local professional Jimmy Adams by a stroke.

Meanwhile, there was much to admire about Tiger Woods and the typical resolve with which he sank a five-foot birdie putt on the 18th to survive into the weekend. He arrived at Hoylake after playing only one tournament since surgery on his back last March. This is, in fact, his sixth tournament of the year, which happens to be precisely the same number of 72-hole events Ben Hogan had played in 1953 by the time he captured the Open at Carnoustie.

One very significant difference, however, is Hogan won five of them and was tied third in the other. And those victories happened to include the Masters, US Open and the Open in which his lone appearance was in response to the urgings of American colleagues Walter Hagen and Tommy Armour, among others.

But what of Tiger's surgery? Expert observers here expressed the view that the quality of his ball-striking is nowhere near what it was at the peak of his powers. Still, by his own admission, Woods feels 100 per cent right now, compared with the constant pain from heavily-bandaged legs which Hogan had to endure as a legacy of a near-fatal car crash in 1949.

For those of a statistical bent, Hogan's performances were: April 12, US Masters 1st 70,69,66,69 for 274 ($4,000); May 3, Pan American Open 1st 72,72,68,74 for 286 ($2,604); May 10, Greenbrier Invitational T3rd; May 24, Colonial 1st 73,71,71,67 for 282 ($5,000); June 13, US Open 1st 67,72,73,71 for 283 ($5,000); July 11, Open Championship 1st 73,71,70,68 for 282 (£500).

Shane Lowry also displayed admirable tenacity after the misfortune of carding successive double-bogeys on the seventh and eighth holes of what became a second-round 75. He could well have used the good fortune Padgham enjoyed later in that triumphant effort in '36.

In the third round, his tee-shot was cut into heavy rough where two elderly women happened to be enjoying the warm sunshine beside Hoylake's 15th tee (the present 17th). Whereupon one of them was observed by the Daily Telegraph's Leonard Crawley picking up Padgham's ball and setting it upon a nice tuft of grass. Approaching her, Crawley remonstrated: "You must not do that sort of thing."

Unruffled, she reacted with her warmest smile and told him: "Oh, but Mr Padgham's ball was in such a horrid place."

From that creative kindness, the prospective winner rifled a three-wood onto the green and holed a lengthy putt for a most improbable birdie three. Which demonstrates what could be done before the arrival of intrusive TV cameras.

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