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 Passing Comment

Up close to the best in the game

I think we all love the Masters. While professional tournament golf is now a full-on 12 month deal, the Augusta spectacular effectively heralds the start of the new season, especially for those of us from the Northern Hemisphere.

I was privileged to play in three US Masters (in 1978, ’79 and ’80) and, I’m rather pleased to say, to this day remain the only British amateur to have made the cut. I do not recall this fact to idly boast but to highlight this rather strange fact. It was in 1978, my first appearance, that my two-round total of 148 was just good enough to avoid the halfway cut. There have been close things by other home-grown Amateur Champions. I remember Michael Hoey missing from no more than six feet on the last green in 2001 to miss by one. It was probably a bit unseemly, whilst watching it on TV, that I jumped in the air punching vigorously as it lipped out, especially as I was to be his Walker Cup captain that year!

To this day, the annual event in Georgia does bring back wonderful memories. The late 1970’s and 80’s were different, somehow.

As an amateur golfer I genuinely had not played any competitive golf for about six months prior to making the spine-tingling entrance down Magnolia Lane. Alan Dunbar, the 2012 Amateur Champion, will not have gone so unprepared (I’m writing this two weeks before the tournament gets underway). And I have to say, fine player that he is, I’m more than a little worried that my 35 year-old record is on the line!

The modern Amateur Champion – indeed the modern top-rank amateur player – is now a globe trotter every bit as much as the leading pro’s. He is used to travelling and competing full time and year-round in all conditions, and inevitably much better prepared for the challenge of teeing it up alongside the stars.

It was not so when I played, but at least I knew it. Keen to shake off the rust at the start of the season, I would travel to Augusta 10 days before the off, as I did in 1978, and hook up with other amateur invitees for a blissful week of practice. The US Amateur Champion Fred Ridley (who would go on to become President of the USGA) and another great American amateur golfer, Dick Siderowf, who twice won our Amateur Championship (1973 & ’76), were regular practice partners.

That first week was simply glorious. We would play twice a day, eat and drink and stay in the Crow’s Nest in the Clubhouse and make out like we were preparing to challenge for the Green Jacket itself! Easy pin positions allowed for pretty good scoring and the whole experience was just a joy. Then the pro’s turned up on the Monday and spoiled everything! Well, not quite everything. I played practice rounds alongside such greats as Sam Snead and Tom Weiskopf – but it was not as relaxed as the times Fred and Dick and I had enjoyed.

The event itself was too intense to call ‘fun’; actually, it is better on reflection than it was at the time. Amateurs are given great privileges at the Masters in recognition of the role played by Bobby Jones in it’s creation. Special draws are made. For example, I played with both Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson in singles pairings in two of my first rounds. An extraordinary privilege, when you stop and think about it. And just another example of the way they like to do things at Augusta – long may it continue.

So, Tiger is back to No.1 in the World Golf Rankings. It always surprises me how absolute these figures have become. It is the same with tennis – and even a team game like cricket, where ranking systems are taken as gospel when, of course, they are not. I do not mean to criticise the World Golf Rankings as such. I am just pointing out that they are the best efforts of well informed people who give relative weight to performances all over the world. They assess players competing in different conditions in different time zones against different opposition. In other words, it’s a system that can never be perfect, and yet we all treat the results of these computerised musings as though they are sacrosanct.

In fact, it is even more complex than this. Take tennis, for example. Djokovic is World No.1, but he is not the best player on clay. Rafael Nadal is, by a street. A similar situation arises in golf. Woods is No.1, and yet if he plays on a course where only driving accuracy will yield results he is certainly not the best. At the time of writing he is 127th in Driving Accuracy on the PGA Tour and 59th in Greens in Regulation.

I do worry about this a bit. Those pioneers of the game playing Scottish linksland hundreds of years ago would, I am sure, have seen two elements of their new found game critical – driving and putting. Of course everything else matters too – i.e. iron play, course management, chipping, putting, etc. – but who hits it far and straight and who holes out best are at the core of what it takes to succeed at golf. And yet we have an all-time great who, let’s face it, has never been much good with his driver. Long, but never accurate. How has it come to this? Well, watching him in earlier events this year it is hard not to observe that the courses are very tolerant of inaccurate players off the tee. Too tolerant, in my view.

As Chairman of Selectors for R & A Boys Golf, a new season gives additional stimulation in a first sighting of the next generation of the game’s stars. When one talks about Boys Golf one automatically thinks of youngsters in shorts playing a slightly underpowered game that would be eclipsed by their grown up counterparts. To anyone holding that view I recommend seeking out a high quality event or an International match to attend. You will see 18 year olds who hit the ball as far as any tour player, often further, and amongst them will be the high fliers of the future.

It is great to be in a position where I get to see these players first. And I urge you to look through the fixtures and come along and have a look at the Boys’ Championship or Carris Trophy if it is in your area. Back to the rankings. In many ways it was more fun to argue the toss, perhaps in the bar, as to who was the best player or driver or putter when there was less information generally available. Before the World Rankings punters could express their views or prejudices in their own way without being shot down by “facts” or statistics.

If I drag myself back to those days and allow myself to just express an opinion, I do feel Justin Rose does not get the credit he deserves. Since the Ryder Cup, with the possible/probable exception of Tiger, has anyone played better golf than Justin? Yet how often do you hear him being touted as a contender for the No.1 spot? Given a neutral venue in some imaginary event in an imaginary country with a test of golf that would have met the approval of the old Scottish founders of the game (i.e. one that tests driving the ball as thoroughly as I believe it should), and I would fancy Justin to win as much as anyone in the world.

Of course, on clay, I still stick with Nadal.

May 2013


Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine


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