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The Greatest Show on Earth
Since its foundation at Prestwick in 1860, or rather since it became truly open in 1862, its objective has been to find and honour the greatest player in the game.

Although there have been arguable anomalies, Baker-Finch and Calcavecchia spring to mind in recent years, the Open has in the main produced truly great champions. From a starting cast of thousands who played for regional qualifying places, 384 have lined up on the first tees this weekend at Luffness, Gullane, Dunbar and North Berwick to compete for one of the 25 or so slots into the great event itself at Muirfield on Thursday.

The Open is truly that; an open event that anyone with respectable golfing credentials can enter and challenge the world. Until you have contested the Open you can never consider yourself an absolutely top class golfer and until you have your name engraved on the Claret Jug, you can never be considered a great champion.

Of all of the Open venues, Muirfield probably presents the greatest challenge and the fairest test. It is a great old links course that has hosted the Open 14 times since Harold Hilton took its inaugural honours in 1892. Every Open winner at Muirfield since has indisputably been a worthy champion. Harry Vardon took the Jug at Muirfield in 1896, James Braid in 1901 and again in 1906: Ted Ray did it in 1912, Walter Hagen flamboyantly in 1929, and in 1935 Alf Perry won with Lawson Little the only serious US contender in the field. There was also a dearth of US stars in 1948 when Henry Cotton won and again in 1959 when Gary Player emerged as the new force in the game. But the field that Jack Nicklaus beat in 1966 was as strong as they come and by the time Lee Trevino pipped Nicklaus and Jacklin in 1972 the Open had regained its status as the principal event in world golf. Concurrently, Muirfield became, after the Old Course, the centre of the golfing universe. Nicklaus named his development and his home in Columbus in honour of it and Muirfield Village, Ohio, became the venue of the celebrated and much respected Memorial Tournament. Tom Watson took the honours by circumventing Muirfield's notorious bunkers in 1980 and in 1987 and again in 1992, Faldo made Muirfield his own and established himself as the greatest British golfer of modern times - and globally, the best of his generation.

Muirfield has the capacity to test and find the best and one can be all but absolutely certain that Tiger Woods will be ready and waiting. At Bethpage, Woods showed that he is incomparable in the game and is unchallenged in his supremacy in it. He can only beat himself at Muirfield and it is just the place to seek out any hitherto unseen weakness in him.

The Tiger won at St Andrews in 2000 through sheer concentration on course management. He neither encountered a bunker nor did he have to have to approach a pin from an adverse angle or find himself with an impossible putt. Should his concentration fail him, he will find Muirfields' bunkers both numerous and penalising. With his determination, however, I can't see his concentration letting him down. This lad has a Grand Slam in his sights and Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major titles in view. Four days of hard graft at Muirfield is not likely to trouble him.

I am certainly not troubled by any doubts of the lad's destiny as a golfing immortal. I am, however, troubled by how the world at large is coming to perceive of the game with Woods' domination of it and how it is portrayed on TV. Of the Tiger's supremacy nothing can apparently be done; but surely something can be done about the TV service.

The R&A in its infinite wisdom has kept faith with the BBC and we should be thankful that this great event will continue to be accessible to every home in virtually every country where golf is played. But, although we are spared the haverings of Sky's resident golfing pundits who are collectively as interesting as a bowl of cold porridge, the world will nevertheless be subjected to the only marginally less mundane duo of Peter Alliss and Alex Hay.

There was a time when Henry Longhurst contributed more in a pause so pregnant with meaning that it spoke volumes. Now, a pause is a welcome respite from a continuous stream of inane dribble. With every shot played into our living-rooms with the best technology available, we are subjected to Peter Alliss conveying his fraternal greetings to his tweedy buddies in the shires with his best wishes for their recovery from hip and haemorrhoid operations, while Alex Hay maintains a background babble like a bagpipe that has lost every musical inflection other than the drone. It is all not only uninforming, it is also tedious and boring. Both are adored, apparently, in clubhouses throughout the country and doubtless by my editor as well [don't drag me into this, you can deal with all the complaints on your own - Ed]. Personally, I'd settle for the picture with captions rather than listen to more insider trivia from God, otherwise known to the blubbering duo as Butch Harmon. But even Butch is better than the average of the dreary crew that the BBC manages to wheel out to annually spoil the great celebration that is the Open Golf Championship.

Surely there must be a Tiger Woods of the soundbite out there capable of complementing the marvellous pictures to convey the drama of this wonderful event.

©    19 - JULY 2002

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