Scott Van Pelt is a tall sportscaster for who can be recognized by those who watch golf from his voice as much as his stature. During the morning arrival at Royal Lytham & St. Anne’s for the Friday round of the Open championship, Van Pelt appeared to be the most pert of anyone in attendance, including the players. The announcer’s camera-ready smile and friendly chatter with passing officials greeted me as I exited the long dirt path that separates the golf course from a row of cozy homes. It was a brisk morning in Northern England and the sight of an American personality that I had only seen before on television was warming. For me the spotting marked the initial moment of reality that sets in every time you walk into a live sporting event.
This was my first trip to a golf tournament of any kind. I have been watching the PGA, specifically the major championships, for my whole life. But the experience of watching golf on television is vastly different from witnessing it in person. The difference is not as pronounced with other sports in the high definition era, with the exception of maybe American football. From the couch you can watch a golf tournament in full as you are taken around the course seamlessly from player to player, shot to shot. In person you have to make choices about what you want to take in. There are the grandstands that wait on the greens, the comfy accommodations for patrons and media, the clubhouse on the 18th hole for members and the crowded gallery for all the rest.
I began my day sitting near the 1st tee where each grouping was announced to equal applause. Equal support until Rory McIlroy stepped up for his first shot. The Irishman, ranked second in the world heading into the Open, represented the British hope for glory. His trio was filled out by Keegan Bradley, a lanky American with a slight resemblance to Johnny Knoxville, and Louis Oosthuizen, a South African jostling with McIlroy for a position in the PGA rankings. McIlroy was the last to strut to the tee and was showered with yells of “Come on Rory!” Andy Murray received his share of that cheer when he finished second at Wimbledon a few weeks prior. Once McIlroy had teed off, I quickly decided that I would spend the morning trailing him to the 18th green.
It is taxing to pursue one playing group, especially at Lytham where heavy rain had rendered the hilly course a mud field. I sacrificed my boots to watch the Irishman’s round. McIlroy, unobstructed by sloppy ground and crowds, walked with swagger befitting a prodigy of his kind. His head was high and his arms swung with purposeful looseness. By comparison, Bradley’s walk was stiff and Oosthuizen carried himself with a calm that bordered on indifference. The aura that McIlroy projected on the early holes, with every spectator behind him, called to mind the same country club confidence that defines Tiger Woods.
The sky was split in half between clouds and blue. Depending on the direction of the hole, players were shooting either into darkness or optimism. A myriad of accents from all over the isles filled the spaces between the courteous silence for a shot. Occasionally, a marshal would call out a member of the gallery for taking photos or using their cell phones. Some spectators were smoking rolled cigarettes. A chip truck serving gravy and mince pies was parked steps away from the balcony where club members sipped champagne.
McIlroy’s round was uneven. He would rectify inaccurate tee shots with brilliant approaches out of the imprisoning brown bunkers but then his putter would fail him at the last. He contained his frustration in a professional manner that seemed unfit for his boyish looks and initial bravado. As each two-putt was recorded on his score card, his relaxed parade up the fairways tightened. On the final green, with members peering out the windows of the old clubhouse, McIlroy missed a putt for birdie. He exhaled all the air that had inflated his chest and stared up the brim of his cap to the cracked sky. McIlroy removed his cap and revealed a mess of sweaty curls. His caddy patted him on the back. With his round finished, he disappeared behind the 18th gallery. He would finish the tournament 8 strokes over par and the British glory would have to wait. Those damned slow greens.
The afternoon was owned by Tiger. When Woods is playing there is the sense that no other pros are on the course, that he is the only attraction. I moved along with the overflow that had emptied from the grandstands and trudged from all over the course for a glimpse of Tiger. The crowd for Woods was different than Rory’s support. Few of the masses came to cheer or hope, they gathered to witness an event, like gazing at a meteor shower through a telescope or watching the OJ car chase from an overlooking freeway. The noise from Rory’s gallery was encouragement, for Woods it was gasps and roars.
I navigated between the crevasses of a stampede towards the second hole. The ground offered only patches of flattened long grass between puddles. I kept jumping to watch Tiger’s walk; proud and angry – an imperial gait. He was wearing black and a goatee. Woods had no fear of revealing his rage when he screwed up a shot or left a putt just short of the cup. He would carry the frustration to the next hole, where he would drive the golf ball out of sight or use an iron to hit a stinger that hung low enough for the gallery to follow with their eyes.
Children had joined the movement, and the crowd became less monochromatic. We all marched together with Tiger. ”This must be Tiger’s army,” an older gentleman remarked. There was such a furor over coming close to Woods’ celebrity that a golf ball, which had bounced into the thick rough, caused a rush to encircle the tiny, white sphere. A kid, no older than 12, laughed as he turned his eyes back to the fairway. “That isn’t anybody’s ball,” he said, “somebody just threw it to clear out the gallery. I can’t wait to see these idiots realize that it’s nothing.” Tiger inspires rabid fanaticism.
But to watch Tiger sink a putt of some difficulty is a great sight in sport. How he bends down and scans the plain with a predator’s eyes, how he slickly steps around his opponents while they line up their stroke. Then, he coolly sets into place and the whole show stops in complete silence; no clicks, no whispers. He lets that suspense sit for just an extra moment, then softly delivers the ball to the tin. The other two players (in this case Sergio Garcia and Justin Rose) watch the expected, like they’re playing the computer. The crowd pops up in applause. Tiger gives a gentle Jordanian fist-pump, retrieves the ball and raises his hand to the crowd. He can do it without us. We’re as ancillary as the trees.
Ernie “The Big Easy” Els won the tournament because the Australian Adam Scott collapsed. Scott bogeyed the final four holes to give the Claret Jug to Els, who had not won a major championship since 2002′s Open in Scotland. Woods finished third. On the last hole, Scott stuck his ball behind the fortress wall of a brown bunker and could not recover. It was another one of those tragic failures in the final act that go in hand with golf’s great victories. Men lose their nerves over the flight of a tiny, white ball and their competitors capitalize. The sport is not meant to be played in a crowd, but professionals play through, whether they kiss the trophy on the stage of the clubhouse or stand broken and alone in front of hordes of strangers. It is an anomalous sport. Consistency is the pursued rarity. Most are at the mercy of the bounces that separate Els’ two Open championships. Few walk with Tiger and McIlroy, with a strong chance at conquering every course laid before them. As a boy Rory followed Woods, now he threatens his idol. There was a cold breeze from the coast at Lytham and the sky changed from divine to dismal as it pleased. A crowd gathered to watch men be tested by the landscape. They left by rail when it was dark.
Photo courtesy of Getty Images.