Sunday, 27 July 2008

Opening On The Open

It seems appropriate that the first entry on a blog about Golf should centre on one of the the best Opens in recent memory. It might not have had the nail biting moments of last years closing holes at Carnoustie but I don’t think an Open has held such consistent interest over the four days for a long time. The challenge of Greg Norman kept me glued to the action. I had checked the betting the day before and Norman’s name was smack at the bottom, languishing with David Duval at around 1000-1. It struck me as a mite over-generous at the least but I never expected you would make a return on it. I was tempted more by the high odds given for him making the cut, which seemed a much more realistic prospect but left it alone. I must learn to let my heart rule my head in the future, the bookies can be wrong.

It wasn’t so much the fact that Norman was up there which amazed me but the manner in which he did so. Over the first three rounds Norman made only six birdies to come into the final round at two over, two up on the field. That’s only four dropped strokes in the first 54 holes and can be attributed to the manner he played the course. He was aggressive, taking driver at every opportunity, blasting it past guys thirty years his junior at times. He didn’t find a very high percentage of fairways but then no one else did either, and he was rarely in anything worse than light rough. Being in light rough from 150 yards on a par four is fine, being in light rough from 220 can be punishing, a situation which a lot of guys hitting iron off the tee in an effort to find fairways were winding up in. The wind was that severe.

The next factor was his ability to hit accurate, low, running irons on his second shots, finding the centre of the green, not going pin chasing. This set him up for two putts and par on virtually every par four and this is how he got his two par rounds whilst the field were struggling to avoid making eighty. You really have to wonder at the fact that the majority of the players on show were unable to adapt to the conditions as well as Norman did, there were very few others hitting that low trajectory shot, keeping under the worst of the wind and running the ball up the green. That’s how to play Links golf, especially in gusts of 30mph. The worst offender, as per usual was Big Phil. Why Mickelson hasn’t worked out that he needs to adapt his game to play Links courses is beyond me. One of the BBC commentators noted that only one player had managed to land his ball on the green he had watched all day and spin the ball all the way back off the green again, Mickelson. If he would take a leaf out of Tiger Woods playbook and go play on a links course in preparation rather than persisting with playing the Scottish Open each year, which whilst being a great tournament, does nothing to acclimatise American target Golf players like himself to the hard unreceptive greens on links courses, where the enormous amounts of spin he generates can be a course and the steep flight of his ball just begs the wind to grab it. Enough Phil bashing for now though, there will be plenty of time for that in the future…

The third thing that made Norman’s run so remarkable was his clutch putting. When he need to make an eight footer for Par in the first three days, he made it. Despite the buffeting wind he stayed solid and it was that which made watching him so gripping. Surely, you felt, he couldn’t maintain it but for three days he did and it was sensational. That’s usually the first part of your game to go in an aging golfer, the confidence to stroll up and knock in the twitchy ones, so the fact that it was this which set Norman apart for those three rounds is all the more remarkable. It must be the difference that marrying Chris Evert makes. Wouldn’t it be great if Nick Faldo would find himself a 70’s sports star to marry and make a run next year. Whilst it has chalked up yet another unwanted missed major on his record, the fact that he challenged so strongly for so long is one of the greatest stories there’s been in the sport in recent times.

You have to say though there was almost an inevitability that Padraig Harrington was going to come through in the final round. Not because you felt Norman was sure to drop back but the air of confidence that Harrington exuded on that last day. He had that look on his face, that he was just going to go out there and do the job, striking the ball sweetly, making his putts. Even the little run of three dropped shots halfway through didn’t sway him, he just settled down again an kept his composure. And then that moment came on the 15th, he’s got a two stoke lead, no need for heroics, just lay up nicely, take your birdie and it’s in the bag. But he pulls out a wood, he’s going for the green, some 230 yards or so in the gusting wind. The apprehension in the commentary box was palpable, Wayne Grady didn’t know what to make of it, couldn’t see the need for it and he probably voiced the concern of a nation that he might just be about to let Norman back in with this next shot, for no reason.

Any concerns were wiped away as he struck it, it was on target from the word go and rolled deliciously up the green, winding it’s way round the cambers ever closer to the hole to give a four foot eagle chance, duly dispatched. Definitely the shot of the tournament and probably one of the most decisive strokes you’ll ever see on a golf course. That commitment to the shot is what has defined these two Open victories for Harrington. I’m sure anyone who saw it can remember how he peppered the flags in last years play-off with majestic iron play to hand Sergio Garcia a bruising defeat. And it was the same this year as he came down the stretch. There were no wavers, no doubts, he looked like the champion he was. Hopefully he can push on now and make Phil Mickelson think more now of keeping his second place ranking rather than going after Tigers first.

We should remember Harrington did all that having only played nine practice holes before the tournament due to an injured wrist. Tiger did somewhat likewise in winning the US Open with his injured knee. What is it they say, beware the injured golfer? I’m sure there’s a few players hoping an accident befalls them before the USPGA, it could seriously improve their chances…

Ian Poulter finally lived up to some of his own hype and put in a stonking final round, and in doing so has edged himself ahead in the pecking order of the young English hopefuls such as Luke Donald and Paul Casey. Maybe his performance will help spur them on as it is time they started winning these things too. If only he could cut the shanks out of his game perhaps he would be a serious contender more often. He hit some shots well and truly "off the hosel" in his early rounds and they do add up, in fact it was reminiscent of his Masters were from nudging the leaderboard three shanks in a row dropped him right back. But you can't take it away from him, he talked the talk and then walked the walk in the Open, and but for those few trip ups and the missed eagle putt on seventeen he could have been champ,

Final mention goes to David Duval, it was a gutsy performance he put in off the back of 16 missed cuts, shame he lost it in the third round with an 83 but one cut made and three good rounds is a starting point I guess. Might be a quite a while before he makes world No.1 again mind. He was 1087 before the championship...

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