All sport is a test of character as well as skill. A number of very rich golfers fell down on both counts at Shinniecock Hills in last week’s U.S Open. There were complaints before the tournament that the rough was too brutal. Well, that’s understandable. Most weeks USPGA tournaments are played on courses where there is no real rough and the course is prepared to make low scoring as easy as low scoring can ever be in such a devilish game. Then wind came to make things more difficult and on the afternoon of the third day the sun shone to make the greens horribly fast, especially those where the pin position was already demanding.
So it was all very tough and there were squawks and squeals of protest. Zach Johnson , who won The Open at St Andrews three years ago, said the third round set-up of the course “surpassed” the limits of fairness and playability. Just what these limits are is an open question. Anyone who has played the Old Course at St Andrews when a cold gusty wind is blowing hard off the North Sea knows that the Almighty never intended golf to be fair. The cry “it’s not fair” belongs to young children’s parties; it’s a bit pathetic coming from very rich grown men.
Anyway, only three players broke par last Saturday, which sounds fine to me, because I like to see these millionaire pros having a hard time of it and think they mostly have it too easy too often. As it happens Tony Finau and Daniel Berger each shot a 66, four below par, which is not the sort of thing anyone does on a course which has surpassed the limits of playability. Admittedly they were both out in the morning before the wind had made the greens lightning fast. Perhaps, to be ‘fair’. arrangements should be made to ensure that the weather is the same morning and afternoon. Be that as it may, the authorities buckled under the criticism, admitted their guilt as if they had been in the dock in a Soviet show trial, and provided more sympathetic pin positions for the final round.
Even so, it was still a difficult, even fiendishly difficult course – though you wouldn’t have thought so watching Tommy Fleetwood waltz delightfully round in 63. He was an exception. Others still had it tough, which is as it should be. We all know that these top pros with all the advantages of modern club-making and caddies holding devices stuffed with information, capable, I daresay, of warning that a butterfly is about to flutter its disturbingly noisy wings on the next fairway, can strike the ball with pin-point accuracy. What we want is to see how they react when it’s a test of character, when, for example, their ball takes the wrong bounce and instead of strolling up to within a foot of the flag scuttles away in the wrong direction and nestles in a nasty tussock a couple of yards off the green.
I suppose the proper response to complaints like Zach Johnson’s – and I daresay others may have spoken more indignantly than he did – would simply be to suggest that, if he wants fairness, he should give up golf for billiards. Golf is a crazy game. The craziness starts with the fact that a glorious drive that skips like a young lamb down the middle of the fairway is one stroke and a tap-in after your first putt has lipped the hole and shyly refused to drop is also one stroke.
Golf is a game for the humourist and philosopher, and it’s sad to hear moaning at the golf club bar and complaints from millionaire professionals about the set-up of a course surpassing the limits of fairness. At least there were no sheep on the course at Shinniecock Hills; one of the best of the few good drives I hit in my golfing purgatory was making good progress until it struck a grazing ewe and was diverted into a gorse bush.
Most golfers have enough of a touch of philosophy to take the rough with the smooth and accept that there is little fairness to be expected this side of the grave, and especially not on a links course. Furthermore, they know that their own fortune may be the consequence of another’s misfortune. Most of them, most of the time behave as a good sportsman and gentleman should.
One who belonged in both to these categories died this week, aged 88. Peter Thomson was a great golfer, arguably Australia’s greatest, though fans of Greg Norman might challenge that assertion. In 1954 he became the first Australian to win the Open Championship, and to show this was no fluke, he won it again in 1955 and 1956. He missed out, being only runner-up to Bobby Locke in 1957, but he was back lifting the old Claret Jug in 1958. This was an extraordinary run. His game was based on the smoothest of swings and the calmest of temperaments. My old friend Norman Mair, golf (and rugby) correspondent of The Scotsman, once remarked that, if we entered a dark age in which everything about how to play golf was forgotten, a slow-motion film of Thomson’s swing would be enough to make a renaissance possible.
There were – still are indeed – reservations about Thomson’s Open record in the Fifties. The reason is simple and not without a foundation of good sense. Few of the leading American bothered to cross the Atlantic to play in The Open in the decade and a half after the Hitler War, fewer indeed than had done so between the wars when every Open from 1924 to 1933 had an American winner. Sam Snead came and won at St Andrews in 1946 and Ben Hogan won at Carnoustie in 1953, but these were the only American winners till Arnold Palmer in 1961. Snead didn’t return in 1947 to defend his title, explaining that the Prize Money the previous year hadn’t covered the cost of the trip. It could be argued that Thomson’s wins, like those of the South African Bobby Locke (1949, 50, 52, 57) were like winning the Second Division title – in modern parlance the Championship rather than the Premiership.
Some have supported this argument by pointing out that Peter Thomson had no great success in the USA, unlike Locke who won so many tournaments there that they banned him. (They said the ban was imposed for breaches of contract; perhaps…).
Actually, Peter Thomson didn’t play a lot in America, and there was a simple reason for this. He suffered severely from hay fever and the Bermuda grass on most American courses then, especially in the Southern States, exacerbated his condition and indeed made his hay fever – and consequently golf in America – intolerable.
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Arnold Palmer undoubtedly revived American interest in The Open, and it was very quickly usual for all the top American players to compete. Steadily rising prize money helped, as did faster and more frequent Transatlantic flights. Accordingly, American participation returned to the levels common between the wars. So, when Peter Thomson won his fifth Open title in 1965 at Royal Birkdale, no one could say he hadn’t beaten the best in the world. I would guess that in his form in the mid-Fifties he would have seen off any Americans then too. The simple truth is that he was one of the best players of all time on a links course – of Americans since the 1939-45 war only Tom Watson might be held to be his equal.
Incidentally, so much was golf then still a game for the players and spectators who were golfers themselves, and so restricted were TV coverage and media interest, that this 1965 Open was the last to be played on three days, Wednesday to Friday. Those who had made the cut played two rounds – 36 holes – on the Friday. Some of our millionaire pros today might think this a bit much, even unfair.