|Fortune of the fairways|
|Friday, 01 January 2010|
Luck – good and bad – can play a big part in golf. Colin Strachan reveals his experiences on one course that has seen more than its fair share of the wrong kind of luck
Golf isn’t usually associated with life or death events like the anaphylactic shock described in my last article, but the good fortune which surrounded it earned me a lasting nickname among fellow referees – ‘Lucky’.
This nickname proved popular at one particular venue: Notts Golf Club, Hollinwell, as it was the complete antithesis of what actually happened on an uncomfortably recurring cycle!
"Our hand-held detector flashed to indicate a high-risk situation… Amid deepening gloom and with rumbles all around, we cleared the course in 15 minutes"
Hollinwell is a magical ‘Doone Valley’ nestling out of sight and sound near Junction 27 of the M1. Laid out as the longest course of its day (1900) by Willie Park Jnr of Musselburgh, it is one of ‘the most attractive ecological settings’ (Bill Oddie, BBC Springwatch 2007) and the most difficult inland course with a CSS of 74/75.
I was in charge of the Regional Qualifier there from 2002 to 2007, and difficulties arose on the first morning of my first year, which was the year we first introduced a penalty of one stroke for slow play after a prior warning had been issued in the same round. The time allowed is 50 seconds for the first to play or putt and 40 for the next two in a three-ball. If that group falls behind the group ahead by more than the first tee starting interval and fail to respond, each shot of all three is timed. I was called out to a group two holes behind schedule. I independently timed the slowcoach at one minute and 27 seconds, agreed the timing with a PGA colleague and applied the one-stroke penalty. The player went ballistic but has now the doubtful honour of being the first player to be penalised for slow play in the history of the Open Championship.
The following year was memorable not for the improved speed of play but the absence of players! At 11am, standing at the first tee enjoying the stillness and beauty of the course, I was told that the one-mile driveway was empty because cars were unable to get into the course. Apparently, a Jaguar turning off the A611 into the drive was literally undertaken when a motorbike travelling at 70mph was embedded underneath the car, and police had closed the road. Informed that it would take two hours to re-open, and with no other way in, I counted the players available on the practice ground – no more than eight groups and after that the remainder of the field would be disqualified for being more than five minutes late on the tee (Rule 6-3). I thought this Rule harsh on the players and phoned the Rules Department at St Andrews to ask if the ‘exceptional circumstances’ clause in Decision 6-3a/1.5 could be applied. While the Rules boffins were debating this, I got ‘lucky’ again. The Club Captain was an anaesthetist and hearing the basic ambulance staff were unwilling to move the still live biker, I sent him out with a Motorola to report back. He did the A B C and neck checks, hauled him out and persuaded the police to re-open one lane and, with only a few minutes to spare, we had fresh players on the tee.
The following year on my course inspection visit, the drive again closed when several tall pine trees fell across it just before I drove out – lucky again. In 2006, the Secretary rang me with the customary ‘you are never going to believe it, but…’ This time youths had entered the perimeter forest and their campfire had gone underground in the dry pine needles above the third tee which was engulfed in flames and smoke. The fire engine smashed its way through the gates, and only crack-of-dawn heroics by the greens staff restored access.
That was also the year of the electrical storm which never struck the course but flooded Nottingham and peppered the surrounding area with lightning strikes. At 11am play was suspended when the Met Office man (R&A pay for on-demand service), UK Storms website and our own hand-held detector flashed to indicate a high-risk situation. Air horns were sounded when strikes to earth were recorded within 10 miles and play was suspended immediately. Amid deepening gloom and with rumbles all around, we cleared the course in 15 minutes. After 90 minutes the players were restive as there had been no lightning but the Met man kept reporting a cell of activity with towering cumulus directly above us – a Health and Safety ‘no-no’ for a restart. Ahead of time, I restarted and just managed to complete the playoff for the last man to qualify in darkness, with car headlights and members lining the fairway margins as ball spotters.
Even the finest can get lucky. When Tiger Woods won the US Open at Pebble Beach in 2000 by 10 shots, it was the most impressive performance in modern times – but, he was lucky. On reaching the eighteenth tee in his third round, he faced the scary tee shot across the cliffs with the Pacific below. He was five shots clear and with a cross wind off the sea he asked caddy Steve Williams for his driver. Steve said ‘no’ play a two-iron and they had a bit of an argument before the driver was used and the ball failed to reach the other side (known in USA as a ‘Glen Miller’). Now three ahead, further tense words, and another driver used, the ball made the carry by a few feet and the hole was completed in silence.
After he won they didn’t meet again for two weeks and on the practice ground Tiger asked Steve what the fuss was about on the eighteenth tee at Pebble. Dismissal was threatened till Steve revealed that he had been throwing balls to children, who, as usual, were hollering ‘give us a ball, Tiger’ as they went to the first tee. That was the launch year of the new Nike ball – no one else had them and in a Major you must complete each round with exactly the same make, cover and spin ratio as you had on the first tee – this is called the ‘One Ball Condition’. Steve had thrown the wrong balls to the children and when he got to eighteenth tee he had only two left. Had Tiger put his second drive in the ocean there were no more available and he would have been disqualified. Lucky man.