Monday 23 April 2018

Off-key Fab Four more like Charlatans as weather takes its toll

Jason Day all alone with his thoughts at Royal Troon yesterday. Photo: Danny Lawson/PA Wire
Jason Day all alone with his thoughts at Royal Troon yesterday. Photo: Danny Lawson/PA Wire

Jonathan Liew

Jason Day hit the shank to end all shanks. Dustin Johnson ended up in the gorse and made a triple. Jordan Spieth played a sand escape that ended up rolling into the front of the same bunker he was standing in. Rory McIlroy ended his third round with 13 clubs.

They came to Troon this week hoping to watch the Fab Four, and ended up seeing The Charlatans.

Okay, maybe that is a bit harsh. And besides, it is rarely a good idea to draw too many hard and fast conclusions from an Open Championship.

The vagaries and relative scarcity of elite links golf means that this is a tournament that tends to throw up more than its fair share of outliers, and which has now gone a full decade since seeing its last top-four winner, in Tiger Woods.

Six of the last seven champions have not won another Major since.

Even so, there has been a certain macabre satisfaction in seeing the world's best tamed.

To be a top golfer these days is to live in a kind of permanent summer, from Hawaii in January to Dubai in November.

The greens are uniformly fast, the rough is delightfully manicured and the sun is invariably shining.

This is what makes the British Open, and this Open in particular, so quirkily refreshing: even the very finest players have occasion-ally looked as though they are playing a sport with which they are not entirely familiar.

As they came shivering off the 18th green, you could see a warm relish in their eyes: a reverie of hot towels, bright skies and business-class flights home.

"I'm pumped to get back to some 90F weather," Day said after a round of 71 that left him in a tie for 21st. "Don't have to wear three or four layers every day."

For golf, still reeling from the loss of Woods and the unprecedented television ratings that came with him, the idea of the Fab Four is less a statement of sporting fact and more of an incantation: a clever marketing exercise by a sport that longs for an age of golden rivalries to match that of men's tennis over the last decade.

But golf is not tennis, and Spieth v McIlroy will never match the sustained intensity of Federer v Nadal.

Golf is a more mercurial pursuit, one more susceptible to the short squall of brilliance than the long reign of excellence. This is also a product of the remarkable depth of men's golf.

None of the Fab Four really threatened to launch a bid, although after a stirring final round of 67, McIlroy (a resident of Palm Beach Gardens, Florida) came closest.

After the storm of Saturday, when he snapped his three-wood in frustration, this was a calmer McIlroy, freed from the strain of a Sunday challenge and able simply to play.

"I sort of forgot about the Claret Jug and just tried to focus on finishing as high as I can," he said.

Spieth (Dallas, Texas) also left in decent spirits. After lashing out at his treatment in the media on Saturday, the pressure was on, and his 68 was his first under-par score in 11 Major rounds.

Even if it was not flawless - that bunker shot at the Postage Stamp had to be seen to be believed - there was a certain perverse comfort in the fact that he could play some ordinary golf and still notch a top-30 finish.

Any golden era requires big personalities. Here, you feel, Johnson (Palm Beach Gardens, Florida) may just fall short.

The new US Open champion is - how to put this delicately? - a man who prefers to let his golf do the talking.

Here, though, it was struggling to produce anything but grunts.

Still, he sneaked into the top 10 despite feeling, as he put it, "like I couldn't make any putts".

He, too, bemoaned the conditions. "Looking forward to getting back to some warm weather, playing on some fast greens," he said.

And last but not least Day (Westerville, Ohio), who lest we forget is still the world No 1, but was probably the least memorable of the lot.

Mentally, you get the sense Day checked out of Troon at least 48 hours ago, as he prepares for the short turnaround to the USPGA at Baltusrol, where he will make his first Major championship defence.

"I think I'm just used to 12, 13, 14 on the Stimp (meter), and then we get here and it's nine," he said.

"It just feels like I'm hitting it with a sledgehammer and it's going nowhere."

These gym-bound supermen, cowering in our cold, grimacing their way around our tender greens. . . As many of those watching on yesterday might say, 'makes you proud to be British'. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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