Wednesday 21 August 2019

Paul Kimmage: 'This great game stirs the emotions like no other'

‘It was still a great buzz to follow the three-time major champion up the 18th at the Open and onto the green.’
‘It was still a great buzz to follow the three-time major champion up the 18th at the Open and onto the green.’
Paul Kimmage

Paul Kimmage

Some moments never leave you. It was the 13th stage of my first Tour de France in 1986 and we had been climbing for at least five kilometres when we reached the town of Luz-Saint-Sauveur in the Pyrenees. They posted the race information on banners in those days and this one hit like a bullet from a gun:

Col du Tourmalet

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Sommet

20km

Twenty kilometres is a lot of suffering, and a lot of time to think and reflect, and three years later, when we passed under that banner again, I had retirement on my mind. I abandoned the race two days later - July 13, 1989 - on the 13th stage from Toulouse to Montpelier and when I returned a year later it was as a journalist.

I'm not the first Tour rider to convert to journalism, and I probably won't be the last, but yesterday, when the 14th stage arrived on the Tourmalet, I was the only one in Portrush. Why golf?

Good question.

Well it's . . .

No, it's . . .

I guess it's . . .

Ummm . . .

The back nine

10

I bought my first clubs - a set of Taylor Made Burners - in 1996. The trigger was Nick Faldo. His extraordinary defeat of Greg Norman at the Masters had convinced me about the game and I admired his sense of detachment and demeanour in battle:

Cold.

Calm.

Clinical.

That doesn't really work when you're racing a bike. In cycling, it's rage and anger and fury that pays - see Lance Armstrong - and it was soon pretty obvious that my temperament wasn't ideal for the game. But God loves a trier.

By the autumn of 2003, I was still a bad 18 when invited to a corporate outing at Celtic Manor in Wales. Some of Europe's greatest players - Faldo, Ian Woosnam, Colin Montgomerie - had been signed for the jolly and I was drawn to play with Justin Rose, and Andrew Cotter from the BBC.

I spent 40 minutes on the range and was feeling pretty good when I arrived on the tee. Faldo was playing in the group behind and I had just taken a driver from the bag when I noticed him striding towards us.

I pull on a glove and plant a ball and now Faldo is standing on the mound behind the tee with his arms crossed. I take a wild slash with the driver and almost die as the ball scutters left and into a bush. I can't get out of there quick enough.

"Let's go! I'll hit one from the fairway."

But I look up and Faldo is grinning.

"Been to see the sports psychologist yet?"

11

One of the happiest days of my life was that Tour in '86 and the sight of the Eiffel Tower as we swept into Paris. We raced along the bank of the Seine, swung left in to Place de la Concorde and on to the Champs-Elysees where the roar from the crowd covered me in goose bumps.

There were six or seven laps of the Champs to be completed before we crossed the line where I was embraced by a team-mate - a grizzled French pro called Bernard Vallet. "Now you know what it is to ride the Tour de France," he smiled, but it was the tears that have always stuck with me.

The Tour de France is different when you're French.

I thought of Vallet on Thursday watching Graeme McDowell at the Open. He was 40 years old, had played in 48 Majors and thought he had dealt with the emotion of returning to the place where he had grown and played as a boy. But the emotion almost choked him.

The 148th Open is different when you're Portrush.

12

The Tour was in Pau when McDowell teed off on Thursday, and was in Pau in 2007 when Michael Rasmussen was evicted from the race. The 33-year-old Dane had just won the 16th stage and was set to win in Paris, when he was fired by his team for telling lies about how he had prepared for the race.

GMac.jpg
Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell tees off the 1st during day three of The Open Championship 2019 at Royal Portrush Golf Club. Photo credit: David Davies/PA Wire

Pau has been the epicentre of many a doping quake and it was clever of The Guardian to revisit the story on Thursday. Rasmussen is working for the Danish media on the race and made some interesting observations: "The sport didn't become any cleaner that day," he told Jeremy Whittle. "In fact, it became more dirty. What happened to me was more about brands and marketing and saving reputations."

Perhaps, but it hasn't affected his enthusiasm. "I love cycling," he said, "and, if you love cycling, this is the place to be."

Not me. I love cycling too, but on the Tour I'm still regarded as a pariah.

13

One reason I've never seen an Irishman win a Major? Assholes like Rasmussen. I was on the Tour when Pádraig won at Carnoustie in 2007, and I spent the month writing about the Dane and Alexander Vinokourov's cheating and lies. The year before it was Floyd Landis. The year after it was Riccardo Ricco. But the worst was the return of the great untouchable, Lance Armstrong, in 2009.

Five months earlier, I'd written a piece for The Sunday Times after an exchange we'd had at the Tour of California.

It was pulled by the editor on legal advice.

In July, I wrote a piece on his return to the Tour from Monaco.

It was butchered by the paper's lawyers.

A week later, I sent another piece on Armstrong from the Tour.

It was pulled again.

The Open was starting in Turnberry five days later. I quit the race and caught a flight to Glasgow, and have never forgotten the feeling when I crossed from the car park and stepped onto the course.

It was absolute joy.

14

I'm following Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods in the first round of the Genesis Open at Riviera in February. Matt Kuchar is playing in the group ahead and has been getting flack all week for being stingy to his caddie after a recent win in Mexico.

Kuchar trousered a cheque for $1.3m at the Mayokoba Golf Classic and had been defending his decision to pay $5,000 to a local caddie, David Ortiz, who had stepped in for his regular caddie John Wood. Caddies normally get 10 per cent for a win, depending on their arrangement with the player, and Ortiz, justifiably, was feeling short-changed.

The sixth hole at Riviera is a 199-yard par 3. Kuchar finds the green and has just marched from the tee when a man in the gallery offers some advice: "GO LOW KUCH . . . BUT NOT ON THE GRATUITY!"

There's a rain delay later and play is suspended by darkness. A fleet of vans are sent to collect the players but Rory's not far from the clubhouse and we've dipped under the rope and are walking up the hill on 18.

mattttt.jpg
Matt Kuchar with Ortiz

"Did you hear what that spectator roared at Kuchur on the sixth?" I ask.

"No," he replies.

"Go low Kuch . . . But not on the gratuity!"

"Really?"

"Yeah."

His playing partner has joined us and Rory is still chuckling.

"Hey Tiger," he says. "Did you hear that?'

15

The Pro-Am at Riviera. Rory is playing with Mark Wahlberg and we're talking about Micky Ward, the former world light welterweight champion played by Wahlberg in The Fighter.

In March 2011, a month after the film had won two Oscars, I had interviewed Ward at a casino in Vancouver.

"His speech seemed a little slurred," I observed.

"Yeah," Wahlberg replied. "He's taken a lot of hits."

"Wasn't there supposed to be a sequel?"

"Yeah, we're still talking about it - the Gatto fights. But I'm not getting any younger," he laughed.

16

The thing about doping is that you can set your watch by it. The dopers are as quick in the last week of the Tour as they are in the first. They're always fresh, rarely sick. There are no jours san (bad days).

I thought about that watching Rory on Thursday as he hit his tee shot out of bounds and started the Open with a quadruple-bogey eight. That would never have happened to Lance. It would never happen in most sports. There's a pill you can take for that.

I was absolutely gutted, but walked out of the media centre that night feeling strangely elated as well. This is the greatest game in the world.

17

For three days now, there has been an underlying theme to Shane Lowry's dealings with the media in Portrush: "Been to see the sports psychologist yet?'

In August 2016, he had gone out in the final round of the US Open at Oakmont hoping to become the sixth Irishman in history to win a Major. He was leading by four and playing the golf of his life but endured a meltdown that would send his career into a tailspin.

Last February, at the AT&T Pro-Am at Pebble Beach we revisited Oakmont and I reminded him of the word - the awful word - attributed to golfers who endure something like that.

"Choke?" he said.

"Yeah."

"I don't think I choked."

"You don't?"

There was a long pause

"But it felt like it?" I said.

"It probably looked like it."

"Did it feel like it?"

"I don't know. What are you supposed to feel? Did I play the last ten holes in four over? Yes. But it's one of the toughest golf courses in the world, and one of the toughest scenarios you can face. I was hitting the ball well but my putter left me for nine holes - that's where I lost it. I don't think I choked, I just didn't go out and win."

Last night, after three extraordinary days at Portrush, he was leading by four again and when we walked off the 18th green, it was the first thing he said to his caddie, Brian Martin.

"Well, at least I won't have to answer questions about Oakmont again."

He's ready

18

Wednesday afternoon. I'm standing on the 18th tee with Pádraig and his caddie, Ronan Flood, is working on some yardages and trying to take notes.

"Will you take the bag down for me?" he asks.

"Sure," I reply. "I've done this before."

That was January 2005, when I caddied for Faldo at the Heineken Classic in Melbourne and spent two days having my arse chawed - still, undoubtedly, my greatest thrill in journalism.

Why? Because it was pure and authentic and as close as I'll ever get to what goes on inside the ropes.

Wednesday wasn't pure, or authentic, but it was still a great buzz to follow the three-time Major champion up the 18th at the Open and onto the green.

That's golf.

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