Friday 15 December 2017

Dermot Gilleece: Giant tales of triumph, tragedy and friendship

‘We have our own reasons for remembering 1970 on the Old Course’
‘We have our own reasons for remembering 1970 on the Old Course’

Dermot Gilleece

Situated behind the 17th green these last few days, Warren Humphreys has been working for ESPN, the American sports network.

Since graduating to his current role as a golf commentator, it seems absolutely the right place for him to be, surveying one of the most iconic holes on the Old Course at St Andrews.

Even a reminder of the 30th anniversary of his lone European Tour victory in the 1985 Portuguese Open held little significance in the golfing life of the 63-year-old Englishman compared with his love of this timeless terrain.

"For a number of reasons, St Andrews has always been very close to my heart," he said yesterday. "I can remember playing here in the (British) Boys Championship, when I lost in the first round. And being with my father a little while later, when he shot 77 as a 12-handicapper, after reading the instructional book How to play the Old Course."

There was also the joy of winning a singles match as a member of the victorious Walker Cup team with Roddy Car in 1971. And the bitter disappointment in 1984 of sitting in the clubhouse as first reserve in The Open and watching every single player tee-off in the opening round, with no withdrawal.

All of those memories are emphatically outshone, however, by his experience of July 8 and 9, 1970. It started on the practice ground, with the first round of The Open Championship already under way. Only three months past his 18th birthday, Humphreys suddenly became aware of a familiar, blond-haired figure walking towards him. "My name is Jack Nicklaus and I think we're playing together this morning," said his prospective partner.

"With a few deep breaths, I remember being totally relaxed by the time we stood together on the first tee," Humphreys recalled. "But it was about six holes later before I could find the words to actually talk to him. The whole experience was such an education that I still marvel at the memory.

"With the eye and mind of a potential golf-course architect, Jack spent almost the entire time telling me why he liked St Andrews; the course strategy behind certain holes; how the holes came to be put together that particular way and how he tried to play them. All of this while he was attempting, quite successfully as it turned out, to compete in The Open.

"A lot of the times he would tell me what he was going to do before he did it. Like at the long 14th and its dreaded Hell Bunker. He stood on the tee and hit it way out with a big hook to the Elysian Fields, round past the Beardies and out onto the fifth fairway.

"Afterwards, I asked him if he really needed to play it that way, and he explained that it wasn't prudent to approach the 14th green from the 14th fairway, because of the bank protecting the green.

"Whereas from the fifth, he could hit a one-iron into the middle of the green and even it if happened to run over the back, it was a pretty simple chip and putt from there for a birdie."

With two rounds of 73, Humphreys got comfortably through the halfway cut of 149 and went on to compile a 72-hole aggregate of 301, only to be deprived of the leading amateur's medal by Steve Melnyk on 298. Still, a singles win over the American in the Walker Cup 12 months later provided quiet compensation.

Entering the 1990s, when Humphreys had quit the European Tour, an aspiring involvement in golf-course architecture, caused him to ask Nicklaus if he could spend six months on a training course in his design company at Golden Bear. "He instantly remembered 1970 and assured me there would be no problem," said Humphreys. "So, with him emerging as champion, we have since had our own special reasons for remembering 1970 on the Old Course."

The Englishman watched the play-off which came about because of the 30-inch putt which Doug Sanders missed on the 72nd green. And in the way of golf and golfers, Sanders was back last week at the scene of his great torment.

Suitably attired in vivid red slacks and top, the one-time Peacock of the Fairways looked frail ahead of his 82nd birthday this week, betraying the effects of surgery for torticollis, or wry-neck, undergone in May 1996. A year later, on meeting him in Dublin, we talked, inevitably, about 1970.

"Yes, I would like to have that putt again," he had said. "It will be there in history, long after I'm gone. They will still show that putt. But let me tell you something. You can't go back and relive your life. You have to look forward and move into other things."

When we met again last week, I wondered if time had eased the hurt. Ever honest and forthright, he replied: "I would like to think that it had all gone, but memories always stay there," he replied. "That's the way it is." Then, irrepressibly optimistic, he added: "But I'm happy to be here among warm, friendly people. It's so nice, like being in Georgia."

At a time when the BBC are soon to lose The Open, it seemed appropriate to remind him of the immortal words of one of their finest commentators, Henry Longhurst, when that errant putt slipped ruinously past the target. "On dear!" Longhurst famously intoned in his soft baritone. "There but for the grace of God . . . " "He said that?" said Sanders, almost incredulously. "Longhurst! What a man he was!" It had been a time for giants.

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