20 July 2003

Everyone who comes to watch the Open has made a commitment in mind and body to a unique sporting event.

The experience is shared. That’s the privilege, the pleasure, and the pain of being a spectator at The Open. This year, as the whole world will always remember with Tiger Woods’s lost ball at the opening hole, it began at the very first.

Nothing could better symbolise the imposed democracy of golf than that delicious saga: the great man staring out in woeful disbelief as his tee shot sliced off into the deep rough and commentators on television and radio fell over themselves figuratively and literally, as they not only tried to explain what was happening but hacked around in the soaking hay for the ball itself.

Few radio moments will be as sublime as the whispered triumph of the BBC’s Ian Carter: “there’s something beneath my feet. It feels like a ball, [ecstatically] it IS a ball, [despondently] but it’s not Tiger’s ball.” Swiftly followed by an angry “get outta here” voice-off from Woods’s caddie Steve Williams.

In fact the sense of the course and the tournament being bigger than any one individual begins even before a stroke is played. Millionaire former champions step forward on to the first tee to polite applause and then to the polar opposite of those legendary Las Vegas boxing announcements from Michael Buffert which end with “let’s get ready to rumble.” At 12.10 yesterday afternoon, a five-time Open champion stood ready to begin proceedings in the blazing heat. There was warm and respectful applause for the most loved man in the game, then the slightly prim, Scottish voice of silver haired, green-blazered announcer Ivor Robson said: “On tee, from the USA, Tom Watson.”

No one complains about such understatement because everyone who has actually trekked to Sandwich has already made a commitment in mind and body. No one sets out to walk round the bumps and hollows of St George’s unless they have a passion for the game and for those who try to conquer it that is far greater than any celebrity-spotting day out.

This makes for a unique atmosphere of shared enthusiasm quite unlike anything you find in other great sports events. There is none of the tribal aggression that you get at football matches; of the good-natured xenophobia that surrounds rugby internationals; of the betting and drink-fuelled chatter that fills a racecourse; or of the static, once-a-year curiosity that is at the heart of Wimbledon fever. If you come to the Open, particularly if you come to St George’s, you are going to have to walk.

But the reward is a sense of participation which is real. You are slogging over the same slopes and enduring the same scorching sun as Woosnam, Parnevik, Davis Love and Tiger himself. You actually have to avoid bumping into them as they come striding through, deep in concentration, faces flushed by the elements, physiques as varied as skeleton-thin Frederik Jacobson, to the cheeseburger-and-beer jowls of John Daly who now takes to the fourth tee in front of us.

On long holes like that the applause when they drive off is usually of the “Hell’s bells!” ignorance variety, from those impressed just by the power of the swing rather than of accuracy, which you cannot possibly measure if you are gaping from the side. But when it gets to the short par threes the applause actually acts as a messenger from crowd to player, sympathetic silence signifying error, roared acclamation increasing in direct proximity to the closeness to the hole.

On Friday evening Greg Norman came to the short 16th with the golden throwback of his opening round battered on the St George’s wheel. He fiddled and readied in his usual magnificent way before the old swing turned and the ball was fired off uphill to await the answer of the crowd. With just 163 yards to the pin even those at the tee know almost immediately if this is one to put the hands together. On Friday the answer was an almost embarrassed quiet. Earlier in the week Greg had spoken of the respect of a British audience. You could understand what he meant.

Respect can turn to awe when you see a rejuvenated Nick Faldo effortlessly birdie the terrifying 14th with its deep rough on the left and its uncompromising “out of bounds” fence on the right. Then there is the gasp of delight when Sergio Garcia sinks a huge putt and the joy leaps out of his face but maybe it is the sympathy that is most telling.

Hiking out to the 13th with Tom Watson we watch a par-saving putt slither past the hole. We are out near the shoreline, there is a sun in the sky, yachts in the bay, and a round with Tom Watson is always a life-enhancing experience. But the putt missed. Watson’s serene countenance winces with the pain. We wince too, a collective sigh of sympathy. We can only dream of the glories. It is the failure we understand.

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