MARK HARDING looks ahead to the British Open and ponders how some of the roughies manage to come in out of the rough:
With the possible exception of synchronised swimming, no sport has more fun poked at it than golf. And it’s just not right! The game gets ridiculed because of its dumb rules, its slow play and silly clothes – but only by those who don’t get what A.A. Milne once described as “the charm of golf”.
The creator of Winnie The Pooh wrote an essay which is as true today as it was when he penned it in 1920. His thrust was that “golf is so popular because it is the best game in the world at which to be bad.”
In fact, golf is such a good game at which to be bad that all the very best players in the world are, at some stage, very, very bad at it.
Take Jordan Spieth for example. At 23, and already a dual major winner and dual Australian Open winner, he’s been adding trophies at a rate that puts him in a category occupied only by Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods.
At his first two appearances in the US Masters at Augusta, Spieth finished second in 2014 and then, at the age of just 21 in 2015, led all the way to become the second youngest winner in the tournament’s history.
Now for the bad bit. In 2016, he was leading again in the final round when he hit two consecutive shots into the water on the par-three 12th hole and ran up a quadruple bogey seven. This year in the opening round he ran up a nine – a nine! – on the 15th hole and then in the final round he found the water again on the 12th hole for another double bogey.
This example of a brilliant player momentarily losing his head is the norm not the exception. And it’s no small part of the game’s magnificence because you just never know what’s going to happen.
This weekend, the men’s final at Wimbledon will be the 53rd Grand Slam men’s singles title in a row won by a seeded player. The game’s five leading current players have won 49 of them, indicating that tennis can be a somewhat predictable game.
Golf is never predictable. In the British Open which starts next week, every single player in the field will go into the event believing that if they play well they have a genuine winning chance. In the last major, the US Open, the first 20 players home had never won a single major before.
A golfer’s form can fluctuate like no other sport. Let’s look at the winners on the two biggest tours – the US PGA Tour and the European Tour – over the last three weeks.
JORDAN SPIETH, who we’ve already mentioned, won the Travelers Championship in the US on June 25. But in his previous 10 events he had registered only one top-10 finish and had missed the cut three times. He won the Travelers in a sudden death playoff and yet on the playoff hole his drive was a shocker, smashing into a tree. He then played another poor shot into a bunker and then holed his bunker shot for a birdie to win. Yep, golf’s an unpredictable game.
On the same day in Europe ANDRES ROMERO won the BMW International in Germany. Andres hadn’t won an event since 2008 and had lost his playing rights on all the main tours. He managed to secure a few sponsor invitations and had played just four events in 2017, missing the cut in every one.
At the time of the BMW International he was ranked number 837 in the world and looked to be heading for about a 20th or 25th place when suddenly things started looking up. He birdied seven of the last 11 holes to leapfrog Sergio Garcia and score a win that you just couldn’t script.
A week later KYLE STANLEY won his first tournament for five years in the Quicken Loans National in the US. Big things had been predicted for Stanley when he won his first title in 2012 but he couldn’t putt. His confidence fell away and his world ranking slid to the 500s.
Until this year, Englishman TOMMY FLEETWOOD was best known for having one of the worst mullets on tour. In his mid-20s, he had won just twice – the 2011 Kazakhstan Open on the European secondary tour, and his only main tour win, the 2013 Johnny Walker Championship.
He started to put a few good results together at the end of 2016 to climb into the top 100. Ranked 99th actually. But this year has been a revelation. Eight top-10 finishes, including a fourth in the US Open, and two wins, the latest the French Open on July 2, have seen him rise to number 14 in the world. He’s a chance in the British Open but his standing is one of the surprises of the year.
Not so surprising is the rise to number eight in the world by Spaniard JON RAHM. The 22-year-old spent a record 60 weeks as the world number one ranked amateur before turning pro just before last year’s British Open. He is a rare talent but he possesses the same unpredictability as another Spaniard from years past, Seve Ballesteros.
Rahm won last week’s Irish Open in a canter – and yet his most recent performances in the US before heading to Europe to prepare for the British Open included two missed cuts and a 72nd placing in the Players Championship when he shot a 10-over par 82. Rahm can be as good as the best of them and as bad as the worst of them.
Finally, XANDER SCHAUFFELE, who won the Greenbrier Classic last week at the age of 23, the youngest of this cross-section of players. At the start of 2017, Xander was number 299 in the world, but seven missed cuts in ten tournaments saw him slip to 352.
Then, inexplicably really, he made the US Open field through the qualifying section. At the time, he had just 86 twitter followers, which in this day and age is an indication of how well known you are. Anyway, he managed to finish fifth in the US Open, picked a couple of thousand more twitter followers, and kept his form going to win his first tournament.
Any one of these six recent winners can back it up in the British Open. But there’s just as good a chance that they could all miss the cut.
Honestly, who would know? And that’s the biggest part of golf’s charm.
MARK HARDING is one of the most experienced and versatile sportswriters in Australia. He is a former news columnist for The Herald, sports editor for the Herald Sun, Chief Sportswriter for the Sunday Herald Sun and Chief Sportswriter for Australia's first weekly national sports magazine, Sports Weekly. He currently produces television shows on international sport for overseas markets.