23 July 2006

There is  magic in the morning when great events await. Where later crowds will throng and heroes tread can be an almost private place, the feet free to walk, the mind to roam. You should always try it at Cheltenham. You should never miss it at The Open.

A full hour and a half before the scotch flute voice of Ivor Robson intoned “on the tee, from England, Andrew Marshall” a trio of mowers had already returned from their early shift, a queue of package-carrying public had already gathered at the gate and the sun gathered strength in a sweltering sky. Much would happen before it set.

Three days exposed to the world’s finest golfers numbs the brain into blasé acceptance that every dropped shot is some incompetent cock-up, that the par fives should be certain birdies, that the course “is easy”. Setting off down the 454-yard first is a reality check. Off the championship tee many of us hackers would hardly clear the rough to the fairway and by the time we reached the green the ring of bunkers would surely trap their prey.

Looking back down the second rams the point home. There are 387 yards before the first bunker and three more brutal cousins guard the green. A sign on a nearby house reads “train your golf brain”. Training would not be enough. A clutch of scarlet clad marshals complain about being on course an hour early. One is called Bobby Jones. Any relation to the three-times Open legend who won here in 1930? “Direct descendant” comes the instant Scouse reply.

The dog-legged third has been described as “a nightmare” by Tiger’s temporary landlord Michael Owen, even before he knew it ran the gauntlet of the media tent. Black smoke belched behind it, there would be plenty of hot air from that quarter before close of play.

To the right, delivery trucks still stoke up the giant marquees for the masses that will soon descend. To the left, the rather proper villas ringing the course prepare themselves for another day of crazy, crowd-filled view. They can thank their lucky stars that they no longer share the course with the now defunct Hoose Racecourse, which in 1875 had, according to The Liverpool Daily Post, “an immense number of brawling welshers who infested the place and thrust their brazen faces and blatant beer splitting shouts into every nook and corner”.

On the fifth green early yesterday there was but a single Scotsman accompanied by one fit looking Kiwi in shorts. Ken Browne was doing his TV recce together with Phil Shaw from “Virtual Eye” the guy you see on the greens carrying a space-age knapsack which computes the exact positioning of every shot. Ken rolls a ball down the slope of the green and winces. “These pin positions are killers,” he says. “Very, very unforgiving. But look at the flags, not a breath of wind. The course needs defending.”

The position at the seventh is worse, the pin on a slope just behind the facing bunker. Two passers-by ask Ken what they should do. “Take a seven iron and hope,” he says. It is not yet eight o’clock and the course still seems to be slumbering in the heat, a giant TV arm is lowered as if in sleep with a green canvas nightcap covering the camera head. The walk to the eighth green has a thick hawthorn hedge on the left and bunkers on the right. The tight pin positioning might be the sharpening of the course’s claws, but it only needs a decent breeze to make it bite.

Nature itself awaits on the back nine as the course scrambles along the dune line alongside the wide sands of the estuary with the Dee. On the 12th green the still elegant figure of 1991 champion Ian Baker Finch did a turn for ABC. Above the 13th the weatherman held a board saying 25C and 75 per cent humidity, on the 14th greenkeepers Paul Gardner and Richard Walker arrived with that strange giant corkscrew that digs out new holes and fills in the old ones. In a trice the hallowed bucket into which Tiger had bounced that impossible eagle on Friday was just a scar of grassy memory.

Other scars remain. At the 15th the marshall remembers Richard Sterne’s hole-in-one but also the Colin Montgomerie double bogey. By the 16th a bumble bee and three butterflies flitter among the foxgloves and the mallows to remind you of how links golf is by miles the most environmentally friendly of all the major sports Yet the night before the place had been haunted by the ghost of yesterday. Twenty-two years after a first glimpse of his panther-like pomp at St Andrews in 1984, Severiano Ballesteros was back.

His son Baldomero was caddying for him, but the evening wind was blowing cool, the old shoulders would not swing free and the grey hair beneath the cap told the story that age will take even the greatest talents down. But Seve has long since earned his Open immortality to join the others in the Exhibition Hall next to the 16th fairway including the redoubtable first Hoylake winner Harold Hilton, pictured in full drive complete with plus fours, jacket, tie and an oddly flying cap.

On Friday evening the last holes had been a place of pain. Past in the gloom went the stricken Darren Clarke and the much-tipped Padraig Harrington. At the 17th Monty’s shoulders sagged and while John Daly did one last “Big Dog” drive he blew out spectacularly on the 18th.

At 10.30am yesterday the grandstands still stood green and empty on that final hole. But beside it the crowds massed as game 12 came up the first and the senior member was in the rough. Tom Watson hooked forcibly out and across only to enter the long grass right at our feet. He came over with that famous pigeon-toed walk and wry “that’s too bad” grin. He stood over the ball all too briefly, lifted it effortlessly skywards – and into a bunker.

History was beside us and past us. Later other young guns will draw the wondrous clamorous cheers that Watson once made his own. But they too are only passing players in a game in which perfection is ever an aim and never a fact. The Open is where the magic remains.

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