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British Open Review

A meltdown, a veteran winner, unplayable bunkers, putter controversy. No anticlimax here

Posted Jul 25, 2012 by Dermot Gilleece

open jug

It was a very curious Open.  When Adam Scott sank a 15-foot putt to birdie the 14th and return to 10-under-par for the championship, the next hour became a decidedly uninviting prospect.  This was about to go down as one of the least exciting final days of recent years, in the quest of golf’s greatest prize.

What actually transpired was both gripping and somewhat disturbing.  It is always preferable to witness someone make a thrilling march towards victory in a Major, rather than watch the systematic undoing of a fine competitor.  No sport other than golf has the capacity to inflict the sort of public pain that Scott was made to endure over the closing holes at Royal Lytham.

Even his playing partner, Graeme McDowell, was almost lost for words.  “It’s just a tough beat,” said the 2010 US Open champion.  “What can you say that is going to be of any relevance?  He’s going to be heartbroken and disappointed but he’s a great, great great player and that’s what I tried to convey to him on the last green.”

In a way, it seemed as if the fourth Major victory by Ernie Els was being unfairly diluted by all the sympathy towards the hapless Australian.  But competitive sport has always been about winning and losing.  And where there’s gain, there’s also pain.

There was another, crucial element to Sunday’s outcome, however, which went beyond such matters.  It concerned the prospect of Scott venturing into uncharted territory as the first Major winner using the broomhandle putter.  Such an outcome would not have sat comfortably with the game’s legislators from the Royal and Ancient.  Though chief executive, Peter Dawson, recently acknowledged that long-putters don’t contravene any rule of golf, he has also indicated that the matter will come up for serious discussion by themselves and their colleagues in the US Golf Association, probably within the next few months.

As things turned out, they were spared having a broomhandle devotee as their “Champion Golfer of the Year”.  But others among them are probably more concerned about the current dominance of the belly-putter.  After last August’s PGA triumph by Keegan Bradley, the US Open was won last month by Webb Simpson, another disciple of the belly-putter.  Now comes Els, to make it three out of the last four Majors.  

Even if they were to agree to ban such putters, the difficulty officials face, apparently, is in finding an appropriate wording for the necessary change of rule.  For instance, reducing the length of the shaft could be circumvented by players choosing simply to crouch lower over the ball.  Then there are the various ways the shaft can be anchored to the body, as in below the armpit, quite apart from the belly and the chest.

It is 25 years since Sam Torrance, one of the earlier advocates of the broomhandle, chose to hold it under his chin.  Since then, the method has never been far from controversy.  Though aesthetically, the belly-putter may look less offensive, traditionalists see it as even more repugnant than the broomhandle, for the fact than the top of the shaft is actually anchored into the belly.

Meanwhile, Lytham’s famous bunkers, all 206 of them, clearly served their purpose, not least in inflicting on Tiger Woods his first triple-bogey in 24 Majors since the 2003 Open at Royal St George’s.  It came at the forbidding sixth, where his first attempt bounced off the revetted face into a lie only slightly less difficult.    

Indeed the extent of the bunker grief on the game’s elite would have prompted some wry smiles among Royal Lytham members who are acutely aware of what it’s like to suffer in sand. Indeed one of their community, an 11-handicapper who shall remain nameless, recently set a club record by taking no fewer than 31 strokes to complete the par-three ninth.

Most of the shots were played in four of the nine bunkers which encircle the green. And I’m informed that the unkindest cut was, having escaped successfully with his 17th stroke, his ball landed on a bare, sandy lie from where he proceeded to thin it back into the sand from whence it came. He eventually signed a card for 135.

Bunkers were always a vital element of Lytham’s defence, to the extent that it’s believed there were once no fewer than 365 of them, one for every day of the year.

As Woods learned to his cost, the straightness of the revetted faces, sometimes more than six feet high, is the source of most problems.  Depending on how close the ball finishes to this sheer rise,  the only options may be to smash it against the face - as Woods did unintentionally - in the hope it will bounce back into a playable position in the sand, or to escape sideways, possibly into heavy rough.

So the sceptics among us should have known, that with so much danger around, the climax simply couldn’t be boring.

- Dermot Gilleece

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