No Open-ing for Els

2008-07-25 00:00

During the Test match at Headingley, Ian Botham revealed the amount of time England have spent in the field compared with the time they have spent batting since Michael Vaughan declared at Lord’s.

It had, he said, amounted to over 27 hours in the field in contrast to just four hours’ batting.

David Lloyd, his fellow commentator, remarked that that was similar to the amount of time Botham had spent watching the golf in the back of the commentary booth compared to the time he had spent watching the cricket.

One could not blame Botham. The cricket was interesting, but it was tame in comparison to the compelling spectacle of the Open Championship, which was everything a major sporting event should be. The course was tough but fair. The weather was brutal, but for some it was worse than others. This is often the case at the Open and this contributes so much to the drama of the first two days, when the difference between missing the cut or being among the leaders comes down to a single rotten lie in the rough.

Ernie Els was one of the unlucky ones who went out on the first morning when the conditions were at their worst. Gale force winds were accompanied by driving rain and low temperatures. Those watching at home did not know whether to feel more sympathy for the golfers whose temperaments were being tested to the full or the sodden spectators who had paid R1 000 to be thoroughly miserable.

Halfway through that first morning, I received a telephone call from my son-in-law, the self-appointed Commander-in-Chief of Ernie’s dwindling army. Ever the optimist, he was encouraged by Ernie’s front nine in the appalling conditions.

“If he can just get through to the par five 15th, he has a chance to limit the damage to manageable proportions.”

The words were not long out of his mouth when Ernie arrived at the 14th, a long par three that had been rendered highly dangerous by a heavy cross wind.

Fifteen minutes later, he had walked off the 14th green with a triple bogey six. In different conditions the Big Easy might have overcome such a setback, but it knocked the stuffing out of a man whose patience and resolve had been stretched to breaking point. He was unable to take advantage of the two par fives, finishing with 80, his worst ever round in an Open championship and looking more like the Big Fed Up than the Big Easy.

The C-in-C was unfazed. Ernie, the boy said, would finish in the top 10. This outrageous prediction demanded a wager. Odds were given and taken. Ernie recovered with a second round 69 to make the cut by the skin of his teeth. His third round 73 was disappointing for anyone foolish enough to have backed him for a top 10 finish.

A final round 69 in near gale force winds catapulted Ernie up the leader board, but still a drive and long iron away from a place in the top 20, let alone the top 10. The boy was exultant, prompting him to predict that Ernie would make the top seven when others succumbed to the conditions.

Further money was wagered against that happening. As the day wore on, the boy’s predictions began to seem ever more prescient.

Over at Headingley, England began their second innings. The boy, convinced that he was on a roll, predicted the loss of two wickets by the close of play. I obliged him with an even £10. Strauss was soon out.

I began to fear the worst. One after another, the golfers fell before the battering wind. Tenth place for Ernie seemed a foregone conclusion, but worse was to come. Ross Fisher carded an eight at the final hole. Ernie rose to eighth. Vaughan was dismissed.

All my hopes rested on KJ Choi, the imperturbable Korean who came to the 18th needing only a double bogey six, for heaven’s sake, to keep Ernie eighth. The wind blew his drive out of bounds.

His third shot finished next to a fence from which he required a penalty drop. He finished with an eight, leaving Ernie, incredibly, in seventh place and the boy giggling like a demented hyena.

In the end, it was Harrington’s week, but the story of the Open was that of Greg Norman, who will remain golf’s nearly man for many generations. So little has age dimmed his looks, thickened his waist or stiffened his swing that it was difficult to believe we were not watching a rerun of one of his many near misses.

What a story it would have been if Norman had won. What material it would have provided for books, a film, a television series with Greg and Chrissie playing themselves and heaven knows what else. The possibilities would have been endless. Norman with his eye for commercial opportunities would have made the most of it. Perhaps it is just as well that Harrington played flawless golf when it mattered most and the claret jug will spend another year on the simple breakfast table of one of golf’s most popular and hard-working professionals.

What an Open it was! Some may say that Tiger was missing, but tell that to someone who cares.

•Ray White, a SA senior golf champion, is curently in England.

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