As a golf journalist it’s sometimes difficult to see the wood for the trees. The great 20th century golf writer Peter Dobereiner once described the group as the, “most underpaid yet over-privileged people in the world.”
It was a fairly accurate description. I’m no stranger to beans on toast, but I’m fortunate to have experienced many unique and exciting opportunities in the sport I love. To the extent that, I must confess to occasionally being a touch blasé about circumstances that should bowl me over.
But it’s tough to split work and fun, no matter what your job. Golf writers attend big tournaments, visit courses and meet star players. It sounds, and is, amazing but, as with anything you’re paid for, there’s a certain level of responsibility: to represent a publication, build relationships and, normally, produce articles people will want to read. It’s a small price to pay but, after a time, it’s possible to forget it was love for the sport that took you down such a risky and unpredictable career path. So an occasional reminder of what’s at the heart of it all is important.
Yesterday I attended a professional golf tournament purely as a spectator, without any press accreditation, for the first time in quite a few years, and it was absolutely brilliant.
I went with my mum and dad to see the first round of the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship at Carnoustie. It’s only an hour’s drive from my house and, many of the top players were teeing it up on the great links there, alongside a few stars from other sports and of the silver screen and stage.
As we approached the town I began looking for signs directing us towards “public parking.” This would be interesting I thought. Normally I have a press badge and can abandon the car on the edge of the first tee in the style of Al Czervik (well not quite.) This time, I was envisaging a park and ride on the outskirts of Dundee with twice-hourly, sweaty bus transfers. But the public parking signs kept directing us towards the course. Surely there would be some last minute diversion back out of town and up some never-ending farm track … but no, amazingly, we were able to park up on the grass just beside the main hotel car park – we were closer than the helipad shuttling the rich and famous back and forth from St Andrews!
This was a good start. With golf shoes on we stepped out into balmy early autumn weather, hardly a breeze and beautifully warm when the sun poked its head out. As we began strolling towards the course I was expecting some strange corralling system, security gates and queues. But we merely sauntered around the edge of the putting green, where Hugh Grant was practising three-footers, and found ourselves right behind the first tee. Together with a clutch of “knowledgeable Scottish fans,” we saw the opening drive of defending champion Branden Grace.
Entry to the course was free and access hugely extensive. At some tournaments I’ve been to it can be harder to find places you’re allowed to go than places you aren’t. But it was totally the opposite at Carnoustie. I think they drew the line at the players’ toilets but I can’t confirm that.
There was a wonderfully relaxed atmosphere amongst both competitors and spectators as they made their way round the links. It was possible to get incredibly close to the action. On the back of the 14th tee, Michael Hoey’s practice swing came inches from knocking my old man’s block off. In between the 11th green and the 12th tee we found ourselves standing with Ernie Els and his dad, Charl Schwartzel and Johann Rupert as they waited for the tee to clear. It was rather surreal and I felt so much a part of it all that I was a little sour when not offered a handful of the biltong being passed around the group by Schwartzel’s caddy.
I actually can’t recommend going to this event highly enough. I’ve never seen so much live golf in such a short space of time. From a vantage point on a mound to the left of the 12th green I watched Darren Clarke firing in his second shot, then looked through my binoculars to watch Padraig Harrington and Martin Kaymer teeing off the par-3 8th, I then scanned over to watch Retief Goosen and Paul Casey driving on the 9th, then back to Darren Clarke and Shaun Micheel finishing on the 12th as Chris Doak and Fredrik Andersson-Hed putted out on the 13th green behind me, before driving off the 14th… Are there any better spectator spots in world golf?
After a few hours out on the links we wandered back across the Burnside course and down the edge of the 18th fairway of the championship course, catching a few more shots en-route. To the side of the 18th green we found a highly satisfying steak sandwich and fine “Americano” coffee (why must they call it that now – it’s just a normal coffee.)
Re-charged, we watched groups finishing on the 18th for another hour or so before strolling back to the car and driving, without any traffic issues, out of town and up the road. By a long way, this was the most pleasant, relaxed and enjoyable golf spectating experience I’ve ever had.
Yes, I do still love the game – seeing some of the world’s best players striping iron shots off tight links turf with, apparently, no effort has made me want to browse manufacturers websites to check out new clubs, to make sure I’m entered for the men’s greensomes tomorrow at Banchory and to write this article about it all. That’s work though isn’t it? Hmm, it’s a grey area.