Sport Golf

Sunday 19 November 2017

Dermot Gilleece: Golfing immortality beckons for Spieth if he conquers Old Course

It would be unfair to suggest a devalued triumph because of McIlroy's absence

The very idea of a return to the Auld Grey Toon is enough to stir the blood of players and spectators alike
The very idea of a return to the Auld Grey Toon is enough to stir the blood of players and spectators alike

Dermot Gilleece

In contemplating the pinnacle of golfing rivalry, it is difficult to look beyond famously implacable rivals and their memorable exchange on the 70th tee of the 1977 Open Championship at Turnberry.

"This is what it's all about, isn't it?" urged Tom Watson, to which Jack Nicklaus responded with the emphatic endorsement: "You betcha."

It was the sort of duel we imagined defending champion and world number one Rory McIlroy relishing with this season's pretender, Jordan Spieth, in the climactic moments of the 144th Open at St Andrews next Sunday. And the fact that it can't happen due to McIlroy's damaged left ankle is a tremendous pity.

"It kind of dampens it," said the 21-year-old Texan with typical candour. "You want the defending champion, much less the best player in the world."

But Spieth, who will not arrive at the Old Course until tomorrow having seen it only once before, prior to the 2011 Walker Cup at Royal Aberdeen, added the pledge: "It will still be as challenging for me."

The loss of McIlroy seriously weakens an Irish challenge already modest in number. And of the five survivors - Pádraig Harrington, Darren Clarke, Graeme McDowell, Shane Lowry and amateur Paul Dunne - only the Offalyman seems to be currently equipped to produce a serious challenge.

Yet he warned last week: "This talk about me winning Majors has to stop. St Andrews will be only my 11th Major and my best performances so far have been two ninth-place finishes. So, I'm at an early stage in the process and you know me, I don't get too far ahead of myself. I just go with the flow, though I will obviously try to take advantage of a good run if it happens."

The very idea of a return to the Auld Grey Toon is enough to stir the blood of players and spectators alike. McDowell, who has been re-discovering some decent form in the Scottish Open, is further lifted by thoughts of a venue where he was tied 11th behind Tiger Woods in 2005.

"When I first saw it in the Dunhill Links a few years prior to that it gave me goose bumps," he said. "It's such an amazing place. The whole town gets caught up in the atmosphere around the week. I think it's a venue we players just love to go to; one of the special destinations in world golf. Standing on the first tee, you can immediately sense its unique contribution to the game."

This week's staging has a distinctive ring about it as the 60th anniversary of Peter Thomson's triumph in 1955 and the silver jubilee of Nick Faldo's memorable victory in 1990, when he crushed Greg Norman in the third round. And cherished images remain vivid of the most joyous St Andrews Open of them all, when Seve Ballesteros captured the world with an unforgettable victory celebration on the final green in 1984.

Recalling his experiences of the 1950s, Thomson told me: "It wasn't considered a particularly bright idea at that time to give things away to professional golfers. So it was a bit of a treat when representatives of the ball-makers would stand on the first tee and the guys working for Dunlop or Slazenger or Penfold would actually hand you one ball."

Meanwhile, after three Open triumphs, this will be Faldo's swansong. And Watson will also be bidding farewell to the Old Course, just as distinguished compatriots Arnold Palmer did in 1995 and Nicklaus in 2005. And they, like the rest of us, can still marvel at the very idea of a championship layout of 7,297 yards being possible in an overall area of only 83 acres. As Bobby Locke, winner of his fourth Open at St Andrews in 1957, memorably observed: "Scots consider the Old Course to be the only one made by God; the rest being man-made."

Who else could have arranged seven double-greens in such a manner that each pair adds up to 18, as in the second and 16th, third and 15th, fourth and 14th and so on?

Incidentally, rules buffs may be interested to know that if you happen to pull your approach onto the 16th green while playing the second, for instance, you must play the ball as it lies. But if the actual hole cup of the 16th hole interferes with your line of putt, you are entitled to relief without penalty under Rule 25-1b. The hole cup being a hole made by a greenkeeper which, by definition, is ground under repair.

Depending on the weather, gifted challengers are capable of ripping it apart, just as Curtis Strange did with a sizzling 62 when representing the US in the 1987 Dunhill Cup. In this context, its most vulnerable stretch is from the par four seventh to the par four 12th which, with the inclusion of the short eighth and 11th, can be covered in six successive threes - four-under par.

Stay clear of the 110 bunkers, as Woods did in his victory surge in 2000, and a low score is clearly possible. Mind you, some time after Woods had wrought apparent magic while restricting himself to a one-iron off the tee, he conceded that avoiding the bunkers was more by good fortune than design.

In the event of players burning up the course, they should be aware that it had already been done, some years prior to Strange's arrival on the scene. Back in 1943, a member of the greens staff, Tam 'Celtic' Melville, was cleaning the two 20-inch mowers which were kept in a hut on the New Course. Given that he happened to be a chain smoker and that the cleaning involved petrol, you will gather that the procedure was not entirely without risk.

Melville, whose sobriquet stemmed from a fanatical affection for Glasgow Celtic, normally let the cigarette burn between his lips until it began to hurt, at which stage he used it to light another. On this occasion, however, an unplanned slip twixt fag and lip, culminated in a pall of smoke from the hut.

By the time fellow links workers rushed to the scene, the damage was already done. The dropped cigarette caused a conflagration which destroyed both mowers, plus the shed. And as a consequence, 'Celtic' had to make do without eyebrows and other quantities of hair for quite a while afterwards, though in the pubs around the town, he could claim to have burnt up St Andrews, albeit without golf clubs.

Irish challengers made their first serious impact on the Old Course when Portmarnock's Willie Nolan, who had a road named after him in Baldoyle, shot a record 67 there in qualifying for the 1933 Open. That particular year was also notable for a large American contingent descending on the Home of Golf, where one of their number, Denny Shute, beat another, Craig Wood, in a play-off for the title.

The return of the championship in 1939 then brought a remarkable performance from 19-year-old amateur, Jimmy Bruen, who had become something of a golfing pin-up during the Walker Cup at the same venue the previous year. In the event, Bruen stunned the golfing world by shooting 69 on the Old Course and another 69 on the New Course in qualifying for the Open.

Though his scoring slipped somewhat in the championship proper, he still managed to finish in a tie for 13th place behind the winner, Richard Burton. And the really interesting part was that over six rounds - two qualifying and four in the championship proper - Bruen's aggregate of 436 was actually eight strokes better than the winner's.

Spieth, who entered this weekend's John Deere Classic with a season scoring average of 68.922, possesses some of the key Bruen characteristics, not least of which are his precocious skills and remarkable competitive equanimity. And if he were to capture the title in the absence of McIlroy, it would be wrong and utterly unfair to suggest a devalued triumph.

This was equally true when the absence of Woods from the latter half of the 2008 season prompted certain American observers to refer to so-called 'asterisk' Major victories by Harrington. As it happened, Woods wasn't up to the task when finishing 12th behind the Dubliner at Carnoustie in 2007 and who is to say the same wouldn't have happened at Royal Birkdale and Oakland Hills (PGA Championship) the following year?

Either way, Spieth will have to contend with some serious challengers from this side of the Atlantic, headed by Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson. There is no doubt but that Europeans have a distinct advantage on the Old Course, some from their experience of it as amateurs (Rose won the St Andrews Links Trophy in 1997) and others through annual appearances in the Dunhill Links.

In this context, it is remarkable that a player with the shot-making skills of Bubba Watson has such a poor record in the Open. From six successive appearances starting in 2009, he has missed three cuts and has a highest-place finish of tied 23rd behind Ernie Els at Royal Lytham in 2012.

When Sam Snead won the 1946 title after his first and only challenge over the Old Course, he spoke to assembled scribes before boarding the Pan Am Clipper from London four days later. "Now, every time I play in an American tournament, it will be worth $500 to me as British champion," he said, while dismissing the winner's cheque of £150 as derisory. Yet he never returned, no more than Ben Hogan after he won at Carnoustie in 1953.

The rewards beckoning Spieth are significantly greater. In short, he is attempting the third step of a Grand Slam which would guarantee him golfing immortality.

Even when Woods was at the peak of his powers, such a landmark hardly seemed possible. But then, who could have imagined McIlroy jeopardising his season in an innocent, soccer kick-about with friends?

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