In this special feature, Bill Elliott picks out some of his favourite moments from half a century covering the game.
Bill Elliott – 50 Years In Golf
It’s quiet outside. Too quiet. It’s also blue-sky sunny, but even the birds seem to be unusually quiet as they go about their usual early spring business of finding a mate, a nest, a small mortgage and maybe, if they’re lucky, a nest egg. Welcome to the new world.
Covid-19 sounds like it should be one of those weird techno bands that came out of Berlin as the Wall turned into rubble, but instead it’s the thing that has stopped almost everything except the hard business of trying to dampen it down.
This, of course, includes golf.
For a while there it seemed that as every other sport turned upside down, the playing of golf would continue. But no longer. For how long this lasts no-one knows, and if somebody claims to, the strong advice is to ignore them.
This is not something I ever expected to write in a golf magazine, or indeed any magazine, unless it was a once-a-year job aimed at fans of some cruelly dystopian sci-fi future.
Yet here it is and we’re all trying to digest what is going on while fretting about family, friends and, actually, the rest of humanity. I’d like to throw a gag in here but this isn’t funny.
Here, however, is the thing. Suddenly many of us have got time to think. Probably too much time, but for some years now this space between the hectic rush to be there, get back and do something in between has narrowed to nothingness.
Instead of worrying about tomorrow, we’re now all too busy one way or another in trying to get through a single day without touching someone or something that might make things worse.
Golf, like all sports, has been removed from the agenda. No Open Championship and anyone hoping the Masters, PGA, US Open and possibly even the Ryder Cup, will light things up later in the year has more optimism than I can muster at this point.
Whatever happens, golf, indeed any sport, is the hugely trivial thing that adds the bubbles to the glass of life for many of us. Watching it, playing it, arguing about it and being uplifted or disappointed by it offers a contrast to so much else that is necessary but too often dreary.
It’s maybe not great art but actually it is, because like music, paintings, literature and the rest, it offers a way out of the minefield. We’ve never needed this relief more than we do now and yet, perversely, for now we’ve lost it.
I’ve spent a big chunk of my life watching great sport and especially great golf at close quarters, writing about it, gaining privileged access to the very best, talking to them and even chatting amiably for half an hour to Tiger. Once. It’s been a wonderful ride.
I’ve enjoyed playing the game even more. Never better than average – if average hovers close to mediocre – but some of the very best times have been with pals on a golf course that is pleasing to the eye.
I miss playing more than watching right now, but I do miss watching.
Fact is if Wee Rory never wins a Masters it won’t affect my personal enjoyment of this wonderfully perverse game one tiny, little jot. It won’t bother you either. It will bother him, of course.
For the record, the first Open Championship I attended was the 1969 Open at Royal Lytham – you know, the one Tony Jacklin won to complete a decade that opened with The Beatles and crescendoed with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon and Jacko cradling the Claret Jug in Lancashire. Happy days.
I was a sub-editor on the Daily Express in Manchester at the time but was seconded to join the team covering that Open. I’ve no idea why. Maybe I was rubbish as a sub-editor. There were five of us and it very soon became apparent that I was ranked No.6.
I’d never played golf to that point – unless you count the crazy golf layout in Blackpool – and not watched it much either.
However, Lytham began to change that. Jacklin’s charge to the front was thrilling to witness and when it came to the final round on Saturday – yes, it was a Saturday finish back then – I had the time to watch it all unfold.
There was no need to work that day as the separate gang of Sunday Express boys would take care of events.
Except I almost didn’t see Tony win. Just as I prepared to join him on the 10th hole and follow him in, a proper star journalist asked me if I’d like to join him for a quick drink.
Jack Woods was chief sportswriter for the News of the World at the time and we’d struck up an instant friendship that week when he had been very helpful to this rookie. Jack said he was meeting a friend in the Champagne tent, the first time The R&A had allowed such a place.
Turned out Jack’s pal was Johnny Speight, a genius scriptwriter who created Alf Garnett and built the hit comedy show Till Death Us Do Part to showcase TV’s most infamous bigot.
After half an hour or so in the tent, Jack withdrew to contemplate his day’s work. Mr Speight, however, wanted to party on and I was happy to continue listening to his unique take on life.
In the end, I managed to catch Jacklin as he played the 18th, sashaying his way to a famous victory while thousands roared their approval. If this is golf then I’m in, I thought. And I was. Not always, mind you, in the Champagne tent.
Football was – is – my personal priority but gradually I was seduced by this wonderfully exasperating and joyous game.
Here we are many Opens and Champagne tents later. I was thinking about this and other times I’ve enjoyed over these past 51 years in between washing my hands and considering cutting the grass yet again – I now think grass actually doesn’t grow fast enough – during this vexed period of social distancing and relative isolation.
I’ve thought, too, about the questions I’ve been asked by some of you readers.
So I thought I’d answer the most common questions for you all. In no particular order they are…
Q What’s the best Ryder Cup you’ve been at?
There are several contenders, obviously, but Europe’s trailblazing win at The Belfry in 1985 after decades of American domination was the tops for emotion, for Sam Torrance’s celebration of his winning putt and Sam’s later celebrations in the hotel – partly in the bar but mostly in the swimming pool, which actually became the bar.
Throw in a Concorde fly-by, a military band playing Land of Hope and Glory – much to Seve’s bemusement – and it beats everything. The Ryder Cup back then was a thing of complete beauty.
Now it’s still great, but not quite the same wonderful jamboree. Put simply, you had to be there. And it wasn’t about the money. If you know what I mean.
Q The best Masters and Open Championship?
No-one ever asks about the US Open or the USPGA, by the way. The most significant Masters was Tiger’s first victory, a seminal moment for both Augusta and the game generally. Jack Nicklaus’s resurrection in 1986 comes close, as does Sandy Lyle’s victory because it is truly joyful to watch a friend achieve something like that.
Best Open Championship? There have been a lot, but Seve’s St Andrews victory caps them all. He was such a hero, such a good guy, such a passionate man. If he had achieved nothing else but that Old Course win then I really believe that would have been enough.
That’s how much it meant to him and that’s how much it meant to those of us who cheered him on.
Q Better golfer: Nicklaus or Tiger?
At his best, Tiger would prevail. Jack, however, is the better man, and I know he would cherish that compliment more.
Q Thoughts on Patrick Reed?
He is a super golfer and I’ll leave it at that.
Q Toughest course you’ve ever played; course you most like to play; if you only had one more round left, where would you play it?
Pine Valley in southern New Jersey is without peer when it comes to a challenge and yet it remains hugely enjoyable, a bit like being beaten up by Jennifer Lawrence or, if you prefer, George Clooney.
Q Favourite links?
There’s a few tied at the top. In Ireland, Ballybunion Old’s majesty is beyond comparison; Castlerock in the north of Ireland is terrific, like playing through a vivid, green moonscape; Muirfield is as aristocratic as its membership; and, of course, St Andrews for what it means to those of us who like to bathe in the game’s fascinating history. In England it’s Royal Birkdale.
Q How long are you going to continue writing this nonsense?
For as long as you people continue reading it. Thank you for that.
Q What would you like to drink?
My favourite question. Usually, immediately after a round, the answer is a pot of tea. Sometimes I suspect I’m not a real man, but there you are.
There are others, of course, but I hope you found this wee selection enjoyable. All things must pass and so will this bad time, but it will never be forgotten.
I look forward to better times for us all, more writing, more reading, being able to travel again, playing and watching the game we love and making the speech at Royal Jersey Golf Club’s annual men’s dinner, a speech I should have made at the start of May.
My best wishes to them and to all of you as we go through this pandemic. Stay safe and wash each other’s hands – it’s more fun than washing your own.
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