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Diary from Muirfield


Sunday, 21 July

Soon Muirfield will be back to what it normally is - a stately old clubhouse with its anachronistic old blazers, the Greywalls hotel alongside and a barren, wind-swept piece of coastal land in which the only sound will be the eerie cries of seagulls.

The property will be criss-crossed with areas of down-trodden grass and brown patches where spectators walked, the vast surrounding fields will bear the scars of having been used as car parks and here and there there will be the perfectly rectangular patches where stands and marquees stood.

The crowds will have gone, the players departed and the focus will switch to Hoylake, or Royal Liverpool, where the 143rd Open Championship will be staged next year.

What fun, no, what a privilege, it has been to be here for what is only the second Open I have attended because invariably rugby got in the way. The other was when John Daly won at St Andrews in 1995 – just four weeks after Nelson Mandela had presented the Rugby World Cup to Francois Pienaar on the magical and memorable day at Ellis Park, June 24.

The one thing I’ll be happy about as we leave Gullane is to be shot of the barriers – that feeling of being herded like cattle into pens. This way, that way, you can’t enter here, Sir, stop! – always a steel barrier, a rope barring the way or a warden to block your path or to check your ticket.

Press accreditation provides one with quite a few advantages so it must be even worse for the spectators, but yet they continue to arrive in their thousands – testament to the status of the championship, this after all is THE OPEN.

The hollows, swales, tufty grass, jostling shoulders and moving heads of spectators, often 20 deep, make it difficult to “walk the course” with a pair of players, and most fans make their way from stand to stand or vantage point to vantage point before heading for the tented village for refreshments and to get the big picture by watching the BBC’s unsurpassed coverage on giant screens.

I am struck by how close the spectators can actually get to the players. On the tees they are within touching distance and shout out encouragement, “go G-Mac!”, “get ‘em Tiger!”, “this one’s your’s Lee!”, “come on Phil!”

It must be damned hard to keep focussed, to block out sudden movements just as you are into your backswing but the players seem to have developed a way of looking but not seeing. At the second I’m standing right behind the tee and Ernie Els looks straight at me but there’s not a flicker of recognition in his eyes.

Given the scope of the event and the nature of golf I have to concede the R&A have little choice but to institute strict controls.

After all what they effectively are charged with is transforming the venue into a temporary town with a population of more than 30 000 people.

Among these structures is a marquee the size of a football pitch in which I am writing this - the Media Centre. This year 365 approved written journalists from 190 outlets in 30 countries are based here, along with 97 approved photographers from 60 outlets in 12 countries, and 72 radio broadcasters from 21 stations in five countries.

Applications start arriving at The R&A nine months before The Open begins. No one is automatically accepted. They don’t just let in anyone around here.

“Only professional journalists and photographers who regularly cover professional golf events on Tour are considered,” says Mary Flanagan, Media Accreditation Co-Ordinator is quoted as saying on The Open website. “All applicants from written press have their previous work on golf reviewed before it is decided whether they should be accredited.” Makes me wonder how I got in!

One of the best spots your Press card gets you to is being able to pass in front of the windows of the Honourable Company’s clubhouse. I imagine there must have been quite a bit of apoplectic harrumphing in there this morning when the gentlemen opening their ‘Scotland on Sunday” to see themselves described thus by the newspaper’s respected golf correspondent John Huggan on the subject of their men only policy… “the invariably grey-haired, soup-stained, dandruff-festooned, public school educated and checked-shirt/loud corduroy trouser/brogue shoe/straw hat wearing members.” After that you could have added “puce-faced” I am sure.

One person I am happy to run into is Sherylle Calder the Eye Doctor, but never an “I” Doctor, credited with having affected the rejuvenation that carried Ernie Els to victory last year. Sherylle is taking shelter from the biting wind behind a caravan while she waits for Ernie Els to start his warm-up and run him through the dynamic eye-sight drills that have won her such renown in the world of sport.

Els exits from the Greywalls Hotel where he is staying and Sherylle sets off in pursuit as he strides to the practice ground – typically she later tweets an apology for having rushed off. Old-fashioned courtesy unfortunately not shared by many of the golfers. It is not until the end of the round that I finally get to chat to my old mate Ernie and shake his hand. He says Muirfield is the hardest Open course with the fastest greens he can remember. That must tell you something.

I regret not having stayed true to a lesson learnt long ago – that when you are traveling and you spot something that might make a nice gift, buy it. The already disappointing Open Shop is denuded of all of the “tchatchkes” – such as bright yellow and red caps or towels made to look like the pin flags – and the cheaper range of clothing is all but sold out. There’s lots of Ralph Lauren left but at 80 quid a shirt you must be joking.

However it’s nice to run into a familiar face and old friend from South Africa’s Sunshine Tour, rules official Theo Manyama. Theo reveals it is his 18th Open and that he has just ended his duties for the week by having ushered Oliver Fisher and Jason Dufner through rounds of 68 and 67 respectively. I tease that he should have bet the other rules officials he would bring in the best two-ball of the day!

Theo says the only question he had to answer was a query from the American about whether he could move an insect crawling around his ball. The answer was “no”, not a loose impediment. Theo explained that Dufner knew the rule but that the players tend to ask rather than make a mistake.

And then the final round starts to unfold with more humps, hollows, gullies, tussocks and high points than the terrain on which the course has been laid. Two Englishman, an Australian, a Swede, an Argentine and four Americans fighting it out as THE Open yet again produces a finale for the ages.

In the end it is Scotland’s favourite son who produces the dream round. The champion golfer for 2013 is… Phil MacKelson!

Saturday, 20 July

Whoever called the third day of a golf tournament “the moving day” had no idea what he was talking about.

The problem, as I encountered it at Edinburgh’s Waverley station on my way to Muirfield for the third round of The Open Championship, was one of virtually no movement.

Eschewing my comfortable coach ride to take a stroll into the city to find a place at which to buy a top-up voucher for my UK cellphone SIM card – an essential requisite to avoid a massive bill on returning home – my plans to catch public transport to Muirfield quickly went south.

First, there were no shops open and I did not find one until having walked the three kilometres or so to Edinburgh’s main train station but the biggest shock was the realisation that I had forgotten to factor in that it was Saturday of the Open. What followed was reminiscent of the day we voted for the new South African. First there was a long queue to buy my OpenLink return ticket and then the line to get on the train.

It seemed simple enough. Should be there within an hour I thought. But then to my horror the queue that seemed to stop at the beginning of a platform swung to the left and up the road OUT of the station! A loop at the top of the rise and back down, around a sharp bend along a platform and then doubling back on itself, zig-zagging through the portals of the station, up a set of stairs, across a bridge and down again until we finally reached a platform and waited for a train to pull in.

The ride to Drem was quick enough, the transfer to the double decker busses quite smooth, considering the packed train that had pulled up, and then after the four kilometre ride to the course another long walk to the Media Centre.

Three hours and 50 minutes after setting out from my hotel I was late for the early starters but well in time for the business end of the moving round with the two back markers, Henrik Stenson and Miguel Angel Jimenez, not due to tee off until 15.20 (local time).

The most amazing thing was the friendliness, patience and good temper of the crowd. No one rushed, no one pushed, no one displayed irritation. I suppose it’s what you would expect of fans of the only game that defines etiquette in its rule book.

There’s another little thing about attending an Open in Scotland that can throw you. The sun doesn’t set until 11 0’clock at night and it never really gets dark. On the first two days I left for the course before eight in the morning and did not get back to my hotel in Haymarket until just before midnight. Plays havoc with one’s internal clock – especially if you’ve forgotten to close the curtains!

At least, being delayed, I was able to do a good deed. As I was walking down the road a youngster approached me and asked if I could do him a favour.

As always in these situations my immediate thought was “please don’t ask me for money.” However he had tears welling up in his eyes and a look of desperation, so I heard him out.

Speaking with a distinct Irish accent he explained that he and his mates had flown in from Dublin to watch the golf but that he had lost his ticket. Could he please walk in with me and would I vouch that he was under 16 years old?

Apparently under 16s get in free. Fortunately I remembered I had a pass to get to Glenmorangie’s hospitality marquee, which is also good to get through the gate, and he was able to get in without a problem.

Hope you enjoyed the golf Simon – even though Rory McIlroy wasn’t there!

Even though it’s a long day at the Open one’s time can suddenly be inconveniently compressed. An interview with former British and US Open champion Tony Jacklin in the Glenmorangie suite; a chat to Louis Martin (Charl Schwartzel and Louis Oosthuizen’s “minder”) or an interview with Ernie Els at the mixed zone.

Three into one doesn’t go. Ernie finishes his round so the interview wins. Although not having played as well as he had hoped Ernie is upbeat. “I’m not out of it yet. You can be 6 or 7 back and still win. Anything can happen on Sunday, it’s the last day of the Open. I’m hoping for the best.”

Prescient words? I suppose it depends on what happens on the moving day.

Friday, 19 July

The hardest part about covering a British Open, sorry, Open Championship in Scotland is the trip to the golf course.

For me that could either be a 20-minute walk to the station, a 40-minute train journey with one change, followed by a 12-minute ride in a double-decker bus to the course but thanks to my unnecessarily generous hosts I am able to board a luxury coach.

Now you might ask what’s so hard about that and the answer would be “the view.” Glimpses of the Firth of Forth, the far coastline where St Andrews lies, mysterious walled properties belonging to wealthy lairds and… strips of closely-mowed grass punctuated, perhaps punctured, by poles with flags flapping in the breeze.

This is golfing country which even the Scots refer to as “the golf coast.” Now it has been said that most of Scotland’s coastline has been given over to “the gouf” but East Lothian, the name of the region in which Muirfield is situated, is said to top the others because of its close vicinity to Edinburgh and the fact that the courses are so close to each other.

On the drive out one passes Musselburgh (pronounced Musselburra), one of the three original courses which staged the Open before the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers moved to Muirfield, the three courses at Gullane (pronounced Gullin) come into view and there are also the appealing names of Luffness, Longniddry, Monktonhall, Archerfield Links, Craigielaw and some others.

An interesting caption to Musselburgh is that the first hole-cutter was invented by greens keepers of the original course in Edinburgh. That ancient implement is still in existence and is on display in the clubhouse at Royal Musselburgh at the “new” 18-hole course in Prestonpans; its dimensions having been written into the rules as the standard size (4.25 inches) of the target in this infuriating game with a hole in it!

On a Springbok tour I once travelled further up the coast to legendary North Berwick - where one of the hazards is a stone wall that you have to play across and from which you don’t get relief - and because of a challenge from then Springbok coach Nick Mallett, nearly froze to death and loved every minute of it!

And that’s the gripe I have with getting to Muirfield – the gut-wrenching pang of being able to see the courses but not being able to play them.

Another disappointment at this year’s championship has been the Open Shop. Always a must-visit because it served as an exhibition and sales point for a variety of golf-related manufacturers, the R&A have done a deal with Ralph Lauren (Polo) and scaled down the scope of the shop.

The upshot is much less variety (either exclusive Polo or plebeian The Open Collection) and extremely high prices – caps start at £20 (some R300) and shirts and knitwear range from £40 (R600) into the stratosphere; well at least for someone on a reporter’s wage.

I once called a column of mine “Fronting Up.” It was an expression I learnt from former All Black captain Sean Fitzpatrick who used to tell his players to do just that and who told me that reporters could write what they wanted to about him or his players “but not from afar, as long as they look me in the eye and front up.”

With this in mind I took myself off to what is known as the Mixed Zone – a small tent near the 18th where players are asked to attend quick interviews standing up (in front of a barrage of cameras mind) as opposed to the formal ones tournament leaders have to do in the Media Centre – to “front up” to Charl Schwartzel.

I had been critical of his hurling down of a club, causing the shaft to snap, and as the Tours these days tend not to broadcast whether disciplinary action has been taken, I was interested to know what the incident had led to. I still don’t know whether he was fined or not but Schwartzel, who had just walked off the course having shot an excellent 68, could not have been more contrite.

“I didn’t think what I was doing. Sometimes you just get so angry and frustrated it’s a reflex reaction. I’m not proud of it, definitely not proud of it. I’ve done it before but never broken a shaft – it goes to show how hard the ground is,” he quipped. As SuperSport’s golf producer Louis Hattingh remarked the throwing of that club might just have been the release Schwartzel needed from Muirfield’s pressure cooker.

Schwartzel revealed he had changed to a slightly longer putter equipped with “one of those long grips Justin Rose uses.” He explained that the new club felt more balanced and that he liked the feeling of a little more weight at the butt end of the shaft.

How the mighty hath fallen: A scruffy-looking but familiar reporter with headphones and a microphone waited patiently to interview Henrik Stenson in Swedish. Then penny dropped. None other than former top player Per-Ulrik Johansson who like former Ryder Cup man, Scotsman Andrew Coltart who has often done TV microphone duty at the Nedbank Challenge, has switched from the wiles of golf to the wireless.

Another familiar face in the Media Centre this week has been Frenchman Thomas Levet – the last time he was here he was part of the four-way play-off with Ernie Els, Stuart Appleby and Steve Elkington that ended with Ernie taking his first Open championship.

The unnecessarily well-played shot of the day? There were quite a few but none better than the response by Miguel Angel Jimenez when asked by a writer whether the course favoured him because he is not the longest of hitters: “I’m not a long driver anymore,” he reflected “and not before either.”

Thursday, 18 July

What’s in a letter? What’s in a name? What’s in age? What’s in perhaps not knowing?

Those might well have been the questions as Muirfield’s links tempted, taunted, thrilled and, in some cases, terrified the world’s best golfers in the first round of The Open Championship on Thursday.

First the letter. The opening day threw up one of the game’s most teasing quiz questions – one with a strong South African connection.

How many players with ‘Z’ in their name have won Major championships? The answer is 11, or 10 – depending on how you look at it.

But this is not a “vasvra” so here’s the answer: Gene Sarazen, Vic Ghezzi, Roberto de Vicenzo, Larry Mize, Fuzzy Zoeller (the ultimate Zee), Lee Janzen, Paul Azinger, Jose Maria Olazabal, Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel.

But of course there’s also Zach Johnson, winner of the Masters in 2007, and the man who put the last letter of the alphabet first on the leaderboard after round one.

So if there’s something in the 'Z' he will certainly take it as an omen – as will Miguel Angel Jimenez, back from having broken a leg while skiing to once again lead the Spanish armada.

Then again there might be something in a name. Johnson and Johnson, Zach and Dustin, two characters who could not be more different, in temperament, attitude and method, helped to make it a good day for the Stars and Stripes.

Rafael Cabrera-Bello took full advantage of an early start to claim a spot on the grid and fellow Spanish speaker and namesake, Argentina’s double Major champion Angel Cabrera, was also right up there.

It’s been 25 years since Seve Ballesteros triumphed at Lytham in 1988 so it might well be time for another Spaniard. And age? Well Mark O’Meara, 56, the Open champion at Royal Birkdale in 1998, matched 49-year-old Jimenez’s five-under first nine of 31 en route to carding a 67 while the name of another former champion, Todd Hamilton, snuck quietly onto the board.

Hamilton, now 47, was the man who wielded his hybrids with such deadly effect around the greens when he beat Ernie Els in a play-off to snatch the Claret Jug at Royal Troon in 2004 and late afternoon Tom Lehman (champion at Lytham in 1996 and 54) joined him.

So could it be that experience, that canny knack of working the ball through the hollows, swales and switching winds of a links, will prove to be the telling factor?

And not knowing? Or perhaps just giving it a twirl? Shiv Kapur, the son of a stockbroker in New Delhi, who is currently 210th on the World Ranking list, went out late, in supposedly the toughest conditions, and took the lead by carding six birdies in his first seven holes.

The man with a name that sounds like a dish one might order at one of the many Indian restaurants dotted around Edinburgh turned out to have a South African connection.

Kapur is coached by Jamie Gough, whose reputation as a coach is growing ever stronger, and came close to a maiden European Tour victory in 2010 when he lost out in a play-off with Richie Ramsay for the South African Open championship. After a stellar amateur career the 31-year-old has struggled as a pro, but he got into the Open by shooting 69-64 to finish tied second in a qualifying event at Dunbar and made the most of the opportunity.

In one previous Open, at Hoylake in 2006, he missed the cut.

It could, of course, also turn on luck. A ball catching one side of a slope and bouncing onto the green or ricocheting off the other side and scurrying into a bunker. A ball ending up on a down-slope in a trap, as happened to Ernie Els when he tried to be too delicate on his first shot and ended up requiring three shots to extricate himself at the 16th, or finding a matted lie in the rough rather than the ball sitting up. The margins are maddeningly minute.

Then there’s the weather. The field is seeded, early on the first day, late on the second, and you never know what fickle surprises might blow in from the Firth of Forth.

What can’t be denied is that in spite of all the smart technology now available the old course that first staged an Open in 1892 still possesses plenty of wicked wiles to torment the players.

Interestingly the Johnsons put a different spin on it.

Zach Johnson, who played near the back of the field with Ernie Els at Royal Lytham & St Anne’s last year, didn't arrive at Muirfield until Monday morning after playing in the John Deere Classic, where he made bogey on the 72nd hole and wound up losing in a three-man playoff (to 19-year-old Jordan Spieth, the youngest winner on the PGA Tour since 1931, who carded a 69 in his first round in an Open).

Instead of being negative about missing out Johnson said, “what I’ve embraced is that I’m playing great.”

He added that the course was not getting easier and called for officials to water the greens overnight. “They were starting to bake and, with the traffic around the hole, were becoming dicey. You really had to pay attention out there,” he said in predicting that it was unlikely that a better round than his 66 would come from the afternoon field.

Interestingly Johnson, a short hitter off the tee but deadly with his old faithful, black-tipped SeeMore putter, said he felt the fact he could use his driver more often than the rest of the field would be an advantage, “but in the end it’s going to be about the short game, being able to lag the ball near the hole, being patient.”

Dustin Johnson, who emerged with the best score in a three-ball of bombers including Bubba Watson and Nicolas Colsaerts, on the other hand felt the key would be to control the distance the ball was going on the sun-baked, wind-blown fairways. “The ball’s going so far once it hits the ground I’ve been hitting a lot of 3-irons off the tee. The key is to stay out of the bunkers,” he said.

“You can’t fake it out there but the good thing is that the course will still favour those who are playing well,” he added.

That it was a bad day for the South African contingent was underscored at five o’clock when Louis Oosthuizen, such an impressive winner at St Andrews in 2010 and drawn with Tiger Woods and Graeme McDowell, succumbed to an apparent bad back, called for an “ambulance” and withdrew.

An hour later Charl Schwartzel became so angry at the outcome of a shot from the rough at the 15th that he threw his iron into the ground so hard he broke the shaft. Golf’s capricious twists were to the fore a few minutes later when he holed his bunker shot at the 18th for a closing birdie but that did not alter the fact that he’d let himself and his home tour down.

By the time I had to rush to catch the bus and train back to Edinburgh there had been no word on disciplinary measures being instituted but knowing the code of the European Tour there is no doubt he will be made to pay a fine but the biggest hurt will be having his moment of rage endlessly re-run on television.

Wednesday, 17 July

Heathrow is a blind rush through customs and security checks as I try to make my flight to Edinburgh on time, but for once the inevitable delay works out as I join the throng at Gate 4 in Terminal 5.

The nagging concern that I might have been headed in the wrong direction soon evaporates as the shuffling group becomes familiar; not that I recognise anyone mind, it’s just that the assortment of golf caps, hats, shirts and carry-on bags bearing the logos of courses and tournaments all around tell me I am in the right queue – we’re all heading for Muirfield.

At Edinburgh I’m met by David Riddell, kindly sent by Glenmorangie to meet me, bearing a sign saying “Chrisdan Retief” – the concocted name (from Daniel and Christoffel) I was given at birth and which was only ever used by my late mother - mostly when she was cross with me.

My accommodation is in the Bonham Hotel situated in a grey stone terrace in the city but there’s no time for checking in… so I store my suitcase, get some directions and set off on foot to the Haymarket Station which, for those familiar with the city, is roughly the halfway mark between Murrayfield and the city centre with its landmark castle rock-steady on the crag that rises above Prince’s Street.

Scottish railway officials are most friendly although difficult to understand! I am guided to buy a day return GolfLink ticket from Scotrail and the route is via Edinburgh Waverley, the main station situated literally underneath the city centre, and from there a service that passes the station of Drem – in my case it means taking the Dundee line.

Golf magazines are to the fore in book stores and I’m amazed that betting shops have Tiger Woods as an overwhelming favourite – I’m not so sure. All that lush hay, getting over an elbow injury? To me Tiger seems short of a run.

The train (especially in Europe) is such marvellous transport; humming along at incredible speed passed hedgerows and patchwork fields of hay, cabbages and potatoes. Occasionally the Firth of Forth shimmers into view, a famous golfing name flashes by, Musselburgh, and then at Drem more friendly railway officials and Bobbies wearing bright yellow tunics direct us to double-decker busses for the four-mile trip to the venue.

“This way, this way, lads,” calls a friendly lady warden, “for drink, drink and more drink – apparently there’s also some golf!” Apparently the Scots like to get into the spirit of their championship.

A short journey later and we’re there. “Welcome to The Open Championship” says the big sign over the entrance as flags flap in the breeze above the massive stands and marquees. My first sight of the Muirfield course turns out to be the first hole; tee to the right, fairway to the left and long grass everywhere else. I can see why Ernie Els told me the sight of it would frighten those of a delicate disposition.

I head into the milling crowd between the smart hospitality pavilions (in one of which I’ll be joining Glenmorangie later in the week to interview Tony Jacklin) and stands and find the crossing short of the 18th green. And there it is… Muirfield in all its glory, a place of worship for us disciples of the royal and ancient game and which in 1959 and 2002 looked just as it does now when Gary Player and Ernie Els claimed the Claret Jug on that closely-mown surface.

I stop to take a picture and one of the marshals offers to take a photo with me in it. Turns out he is a Muirfield member and he explains that golfers from all the courses around the Open venue volunteer to do the marshalling for the week. As a member of the home course he gets to be on duty on the 18th.

I thank him, shake his hand and he introduces himself as, wait for it, Robert Burns!

“Rabbie” tells me they’ve been experiencing the best spell of weather in many a year and that the course is dry and fast, “just as it should be.” In fact, it is so dry that signs all over and on the internal television network warn spectators to beware of fire.

The first task of a reporter is to get connected so I find the Media Centre and am again struck by the friendly helpfulness of all who have a job to do. I am told that my Press Pass works as a free credit card for refreshments, given a bag containing glossy and beautifully produced brochures – the Official Programme, a Players’ Guide and a Media Guide – and also an Open Championship tie; okay I am… embarrassed to call this work.

The one down-side is that there is no blanket WiFi in the media centre and 3G doesn’t work so I was compelled to buy a “fixed wire internet connection” for £66 – that’s about R1 000 – but file one must.

Arriving after midday and needing to do the necessary admin I did not see many of the top-flight players. Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood were driving off the 10th tee when I passed, Tim Clark greeted them as he was making his way to the practice tee and Rickie Fowler was chatting to his crew outside the player’s lounge.

In terms of famous names that’s about it, although my old friend and fellow scribbler Grant Winter tells me Ernie Els had a long session on the practice putting green with Sherylle Calder.

Most of the talk is about who might win – I overheard an elderly Scotsman telling his friend, “tha’ Mickelson, e’ can hit those lob-wedges but e’ canna bump and run” – but the bookies seem to think that Tiger Woods will break his five-year drought when it comes to the Majors.

Perhaps Ernie Els put it best when doing his champion's interview (transcripts of which, like all the other interviews with players, are speedily made available to us poor laptop tappers) with the media on Monday.

“Getting used to the bounces, that’s the big thing. You’ve got to envision that a 3-iron could go 280 yards downwind and into the wind it’s probably going to go 180. It’s about how you adapt to Links golf,” said Ernie, emphasising the value of experience.

As he did in 2002 (when he won his first Open) Els, in a nod to superstition, is again, like many other Muirfield champions including Nick Faldo and Tom Watson before him, staying at the famous Greywalls Hotel which, I discovered to my surprise, is right next to the Muirfuild clubhouse.

That’s it for day one. The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers have bid us welcome and at 6.32 on Thursday morning Ivor Robson, who has been performing the role of official starter for a staggering 40 years, will announce, in that inimitable falsetto of his, Australia’s Peter Senior on the first tee to strike the first shot of the 142nd Open Championship.

More surprising is that the green-jacketed Robson will still be there at 13 minutes past four in the afternoon to send off Stephen Dartnall of Australia, Daisuke Maruyama of Japan and South African qualifier Darren Lloyd – 10 hours without a pee? Now that takes some doing.

Which reminds me… I have a function to attend; to get into the spirit of The Open with a wee dram of unnecessarily well-made single malt whiskey…

Slàinte mhath!

Tuesday, 16 July

Gary Player… the name of South Africa’s greatest sportsman is the perfect way to start a diary on a trip to the British Open for had it not been for him I might not even have been aware of what during the next few days will have to be called The Open Championship.

Player’s first victory in arguably the world’s oldest continual sporting contest came in 1959 at Muirfield, the place where I’m now headed as I write this at OR Tambo. This is now a teeming airport indistinguishable from any other international air terminus, but unrecognisable when compared to the old Jan Smuts from which I departed on my first trip overseas in 1979.

Player won again in 1968 and 1974 and it was these victories that attracted me to the game he played. Golf, challenging, infuriating and perhaps impossible to perfect but perfectly suited to that part of me that needed to operate in blissful isolation and perhaps a little self-flaggelation!

In time I entered the world of sports journalism and got to know Player. I reported on many of his exploits, but never overseas, and that is my dream for this voyage to Scotland – to be able to report on a victory by a South African, preferably my good friend Ernie Els.

So just before boarding the plane I think of Player and wonder how many times he has made his way through the labyrinth pathways of an airport. He is often parodied for saying it, but there can be no doubt that Gary Player has covered more kilometres in pursuit of his passion than any other sportsman. In fact he still does.

There is something about flying long distances that never changes – that excitement tinged with nervousness that you might have forgotten something. I suffer from it and wonder whether Gary does to. Does he pat his pockets, check his bags, start at the thought that when he checked his passport he left it on the sideboard?

An interesting thing he once told me is that one of the reasons he was able to traverse the globe and be so successful is that he sleeps easily. In the old days, Gary said, he was allowed to stretch out on the floor of the aircraft but when this was stopped he found he was able to curl up in his seat and fall dead asleep.

Which reminds me. Did I pack the melatonin to help me through the long night that lies ahead? The British adaptor plugs, for cellphone, computer and camera. Did I remember to put in the connector cords?

Over the years you learn though. If you’ve got your passport, your wallet and your plastic you can travel.

So Heathrow, Edinburgh and Muirfield here I come.

I look forward to letting you know how it goes.

Each week Dan Retief, in association with Glenmorangie, brought you an Open Championship column as we built up to the Muirfield event that starts on Thursday, July 18 (see links below).

Now the legendary sports journalist is at Muirfield and will bring you a daily diary as he follows the 10 South Africans who will be part of the field for the 142nd Open, so come back each day for Dan's take on the grandest of sporting occasions.


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