Here we are at last – the 149th Open Championship, 24 months after the 148th. I’m sure it won’t disappoint and that it’ll be well worth the wait.
It’s 21 years since I worked at my first Open Championship as a very raw, nervous summariser for Radio 5 Live. I was shepherded around by the inimitable Tony Adamson and learned so much from this master of nuance, teller of tales and expert at engaging an audience. He knew when to provide biographical detail about the players, when to develop a thought or idea, when to clinically report solely on the current score and when to give way to flights of utter fancy. I really didn’t quite appreciate then that I was learning from a golfing black belt. What I did know was that I loved being with Tony, loved listening to him and recognised him as an empathetic golf fan to the very inner fibre of his being. I would have paid to be with him. Instead they paid me.
Later, a decade or so later, in fact, I moved exclusively to a television contract and my new mentor wasn’t too bad either: Peter Alliss, the doyen of TV commentary. Peter was helpful in every way but never shirked from telling you what he really thought. The entire production mattered to him, not just his part in it and if you were willing to learn, he was a willing mentor. He didn’t mind being challenged either – he rather relished it, in fact, and many’s the “spirited discussion” we enjoyed. My last event with him was the 2019 Solheim Cup at Gleneagles. I would have paid for that decade-plus of being with him. Instead they paid me.
I didn’t work at the Open in 2019 – purposely and with great intent. A member of Portrush for more than 50 years, I wanted to return to being a fan at this particular major. I wanted to drink in the experience from the proper side of the ropes, experience the Open “in the raw” for the first time in two decades, unfettered by hours and hours of research and the requirement to present a neutral and unbiased front.
And so it was that I walked every step of that final round with Shane Lowry, in amongst the rest of the Irish population, in the cold, in the strong winds and driving rain right up until that final, triumphant surge up the last fairway to the 18th green, encircled by a giant horseshoe of a 7000-seater stand that was bristling with pride and pulsating with energy. The sounds of the “Fields of Athenry” rang out along with “Shane-O” and “Ole, ole, ole”. An unforgettable experience. And this time I wasn’t being paid for it!
And so to Royal St George’s and my first thoughts turn back to 2011 and that famous windswept links on the Kent coast. I seem to remember that that was the first year that readmittance to the course for spectators was not allowed. In other words, if you returned to your rental house or hotel room or just nipped into the town for a cup of coffee, you were barred from re-entry that day. I never did like that particular edict, smacking as it does of the humble fan getting the thin edge of the wedge yet again.
That year it was another triumphant Irishman on a victory march up the 72nd hole. Darren Clarke had taken his lifetime to harness his mercurial skills, his stubborn temperament and his years of golf and life learning, bringing everything to a climax on that July Sunday afternoon.
I stood at the back of the final green for the closing half hour with Darren’s parents, Godfrey and Hettie, lovely, lovely people. Hettie had on her “lucky” earrings, emerald shamrocks and nervously chatted on about this and that. Finally, when Darren’s ball rested on the last green and he had several putts for the win she allowed herself to breathe, bursting out with an emotional, “I’ve waited 20 years for this.”
By contrast, Darren’s Dad stood silently by, tall and still. I don’t think he’s a man of many words and certainly at that moment when his son become the “Champion Golfer of the Year”, he had none but emotion and pride oozed from every pore. Private, private moments when your offspring achieves incredible things and you are in full public view with no hiding place. It can’t be easy.
This year will be very different for me, and lots of others, as I’ll be watching from my sofa, frankly not too disappointed to avoid pandemic bubbles, rules and regulations and the like. Of course, that’s easy to say when you harbour a treasure trove of Open experiences and memories but I can’t wait for the possibility of a potential life-changing, unforseen drama unfolding on our screens come the weekend.
Perhaps we’ll have a two-horse race a la Mickelson and Stenson at Troon a few years ago; perhaps it’ll be a full-throated roar greeting a home winner again; perhaps Royal St George’s will usher in another complete outsider as champion as it did in 2003 when Ben Curtis took the spoils.
Whatever it may be, the Open has a magic about it, unmatched by any other major and is enjoyably riveting from a whole host of different perspectives.
Yes, even from your sofa.