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Fillip for the game
European golf received a fillip this week with much of it coming from the performances of non-European players. US press coverage of the Open was limited as well as muted, with more column inches given to the 'typical Scotch weather' than was awarded to the outcome of the event.

There was fulsome praise, however, for Els, Elkington, Appleby and Levet, all of whom, it should not be forgotten, experienced the worst of the weather on the Saturday of the Championship.

The rest of the world's press was ebullient about the Open, effusive about Muirfield and the characters involved in one of the most memorable championships of recent times.

Tiger Woods probably gained more credibility and support from the way that he conducted himself throughout the week than he would have from actually winning the event. Certainly, his fan base was considerably broadened with the exposure of his vulnerability in the adverse weather conditions, and even more so from his calm acceptance of his Saturday score as well as the performance that he put in on Sunday when all was already lost. I only wish that Colin Montgomerie had received the same accolades.

But it was Japanese golfers, with whom few were familiar and with whom many were delightfully surprised, who provided the main meat of the fillip. In the Open itself, Shigeki Maruyama merited the applause for the golf he played, but he also merited the hearts that he won with his beaming smile and nonchalant manner. It was certainly refreshing to watch a pro-golfer clearly enjoying the game. For most, actually playing the game would appear to be a hardship to which they have been cruelly exposed through no fault of their own. To Shigeki, however, it was clearly all a great pleasure.

The agony of a missed putt raised a rueful smile while a tramliner across the green resulted in a beam of bliss. Not for Shigeki the clenched fist; he wasn't fighting with anybody and clearly not with himself.

The smile that kindled spirits in East Lothian reappeared in Ireland on the face of Noburu Sugai, a name possibly even more unfamiliar than Maruyama's. Sugai beamed his way to the British Seniors Open title over the links of Newcastle's Royal County Down in Northern Ireland. He was the talk of the place in much the same way that Tommy Nakajima was in St Andrews when he came to Open grief in the Road Hole Bunker - from then and forever more referred to by the locals as the Sands of Nakajima.

But Sugai will be remembered in these parts as a great champion who played superb golf in demanding winds and who had the brains to engage a local caddie to tell him exactly how to do it. In the same way that Tip Anderson guided Tony Lema through the blustering wind on the Old Course in 1964, Fergus MacFarren showed Noburu Sugai the shots and the way through the pitfalls and the winds of County Down. There is a lesson to be learned here.

What is not a fillip to the game is the ongoing wrangle over both the status of a senior player in Europe and the recognition of the British Senior Open as a 'major' in America.

Apparently a tournament is deemed to be a 'Major' by a USPGA committee, which presumably has some working criteria. It boggles the mind.

The European Senior Tour is having to radically rethink its format. Always having struggled for funding, the Tour is rapidly approaching crisis. In the US, no fewer than 16 senior players won over $1 million with Alan Doyle, their leading money winner, pocketing $2.5 million. Ian Stanley, last years Tour leader in Europe grossed only £177,000, hardly surprising then that the USPGA is taking a haughty view of recognising a 'Major' in Europe.

In an attempt to boost sponsorship the European Tour is planning to reduce the senior's qualifying age from 50 to some as yet undetermined age in the 40's. Even although Eduardo Romero at 40-something plus won a regular Tour event this year and both Nicklaus and O'Meara won Majors in their mid-40s, the Tour is concerned about its 43-year-olds no longer winning. I find this argument bewildering.

Andy Stubbs, the managing director of the European Seniors Tour is quoted as saying: The European Tour spends 20 years building up the images and rights of the players, who then get to their early 40s and become ineligible to play on the Tour. We have now reached the stage where a player gets to 43 and has to take seven years out. Why dilute the European Tour brand by having a player who can't play?

What on earth is he talking about?

Having made the money that most journeymen pro-golfers make, most would be happy to take a career break at the age of 43. Indeed, in many cases it should be mandatory if not advisable. It is clear that Colin Montgomerie needs time to learn not to throw his toys out of the pram and even more time to learn to ignore the press as well as realise that he should not expose himself on TV with face pulling exercises and verbal diarrhoea.

Monty's ego should have been polished by the reception he received from the Muirfield crowds and the smartie points that he gained from his quip in response to Woods' jibe on the practise green.

Supposedly, on Sunday morning, the Tiger arrived on the hallowed turf at Muirfield to find Montgomerie hitting balls and, as he passed, presumably reflecting upon his Saturday round of 81 to Monty's 84, he said: I really kicked your ass yesterday. Monty replied: Maybe, but you didn't kick many others.

Now thats the Monty that we know and love.

Oh, yes, things are looking up.

©    29 - JULY 2002

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