I wish I wasn’t there

2008-07-18 00:00

Max Boyce is a Welshman with a wonderful gift. Perhaps more than any other individual, this smiling, permed comedian and balladeer has for many years been able to make his compatriots feel good about their rugby team and also about themselves.

He sings; Wales smiles.

“The great thing about sport,” Boyce used to tell adoring audiences, “is being able to say ‘I was there’. Sitting at home and watching sport on TV is just not the same. You make the effort and then, for the rest of your life, you can tell everybody you remember when Wales won the Grand Slam or Tiger won the Open or whatever, and you can say ‘I was there’.” Then, with a grin, he would add: “In fact, sometimes I say it when I wasn’t there!”

His maxim may usually hold good, but even this relentlessly upbeat troubadour would have had trouble convincing any of the thousands who have made the effort and attended either of the first two days of the 2008 Open Championship at the Royal Birkdale golf club, on the north-west coast of England, that “being there” has been anything less than an entirely miserable experience.

Yes, the weather has been wet and blustery — and, as Sandy Lyle groaned when, with his score at 11-over-par after nine holes, he decided he’d had enough and walked off the course, “either rain or wind is okay, but the combination is intolerable”. However, the failure of this championship has extended beyond the vagaries of the British summer.

The officials of the Royal and Ancient, custodians of golf’s annual showpiece, have worked with the locals and turned a silk purse into a pig’s ear. In the process, they have offered an instructive lesson in how not to organise a major sports event.

From the perspective of an ordinary spectator, paying R750 for one day’s entrance, security arrangements have managed to be both overbearing and ineffective; signage has been inadequate; crowd flow planning has been insane and on-site catering has been inedible.

Arriving in Southport, the punters are shepherded to a park-and-ride facility that feels as though it is in a different county. They are then ushered to join a queue outside a security search where even an innocent set of car keys must be placed in a small plastic bag.

It is at this point where security officials have been instructed to confiscate cellphones. These essential tools of communication have been banned from the event ever since the day, last year at Carnoustie, when Tiger Woods stepped back from a putt four times during his final round because someone used his cellphone to take a photo. Poor Tiger. As a result of this over-zealous nannying, spectators are now unable to let each other know where to meet, where they are sitting and what they are doing — their day has been disrupted and spoiled.

After a 20-minute bus ride, the “customers” arrive at the course to be confronted by another security check and finally reach the links, where legions of well-meaning stewards prod them this way and that. Herded like condemned cattle between endless ropes, people are pushed into bottle-neck after bottle-neck. No one seems to know where they are going because signs are rare and ambiguous.

When they finally arrive at a green and, if they are lucky, find a seat in one of the scaffolding stands, they look towards one of the leader boards to see what is happening in the tournament or to discover which group are playing their approach shots, and they find blank spaces and sporadic numbers.

If they happen to feel hungry, they forego their seat and queue at a tent pretentiously called a “pantry” where they can order a R30 cup of tepid coffee, a R70 hotdog masquerading as a ‘sausage dressed in tomato and red onion comfit’ or a R100 burger that tastes like polystyrene.

Sports fans are not hard to please. All they require is reasonable security, visible signage, up-to-date scoreboards and edible food.

Then, as Max Boyce suggests, everyone would be happy to say ‘I was there’. These past two days at Birkdale, most of us would rather have been watching television.

•Edward Griffiths is a journalist, author and ex CEO of SA Rugby. www.onesmallvoice.co.za

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