ST ANDREWS, SCOTLAND | Question: Which was the greatest performance in east Scotland last week? Simon Dyson and Luke Donald going round the Old Course in 63, equalling the course record? Michael Douglas playing golf after recovering from throat cancer? Or three men from Northern Ireland finishing first, second and third in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, a festival of golf for amateurs and professionals.
Michael Hoey, the winner, Rory McIlroy, the runner-up, and Graeme McDowell continued the extraordinary recent run of success by golfers from that part of the United Kingdom. It had begun with McDowell’s success in the 2010 U.S. Open, continued with McIlroy’s runaway win in the U.S. Open last June just before Darren Clarke’s emotional triumph in the Open at Royal St. George’s. And let’s not forget the contributions of Paul Cutler and Alan Dunbar to Great Britain and Ireland’s victory over the U.S. in the Walker Cup last month.
Answer: none of the above. Nothing in the east Neuk of Fife nor at famously fierce Carnoustie across the Firth of Tay came close to matching a virtuoso performance by John Daly singing Bob Dylan’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” at the sponsor’s party on Saturday night. Normally, Daly plays the acoustic guitar and sings but he hadn’t brought his instrument with him and so he sang instead. You had to be there to believe the size of the smiles on the faces of men such as Sir Michael Bonallack, Johann Rupert, Michael Douglas and Colin Montgomerie. To say that Daly lit the place up would be an understatement. He’d have got a standing ovation were it not for the fact that everyone was standing anyway, crowding around the stage on which he was singing.
But if you stick to matters on the course rather than adjoining it, then the performance by Hoey, McIlroy and McDowell was remarkable enough. What is it with these Ulstermen?
“It’s unfathomable enough to think that we’ve won three majors in two seasons” McDowell said. “There is nothing special in the water over there. I think the only way to explain it is to say it is the belief. Padraig Harrington’s three major (championships) had a subconscious effect on us all and from there it’s just gone on and on. Having Rory come through and win would have been good enough in itself but this is incredible.”
Winning at the Old Course is not like winning in Abu Dhabi, say, where even though there is enough money for a sheikh to shake a stick at there is little golfing heritage. It is not much like winning at Wentworth either, amidst the pine, birch and larch trees and in front of some of the most expensive houses in England. Win at St. Andrews and you win on fairways and greens that were there at the time of the American Civil War. Many of the bunkers on the Old Course have names such as Strath, Hell, Boase’s and Hill. So do some mounds. Those on the fifth are known as Mrs. Grainger’s Bosoms.
There is heritage in golf and then there is heritage at St. Andrews where the Open has been played on 29 occasions. Heritage at the Auld Grey Toon means not last week, last month or last year but the last century or possibly the one before that. It is the scene of Scotland’s oldest university, and immortalised by an American writer “as a city given over to golf.”
The first tee of the Old Course is where the captain of the R&A has driven in every year since the middle of the 19th century, the moment his clubface hits the ball being marked by the firing of a cannon a few feet away. Tradition requires the new captain to give a gold sovereign to the caddie who recovers his ball. The value of a sovereign, in case you have momentarily forgotten, is about $180. And then that same ball is coated in silver and attached to an old golf club and hung in the clubhouse.
The golf was played last week in beautiful sunshine, which was more than a touch ironic for Montgomerie who was reminded regularly how foul the weather had been exactly one year earlier when he was captaining Europe to victory in the first Ryder Cup to be extended from three days to four.
Monty’s role as senior statesman on the European Tour was underlined by his being given as a playing partner Douglas, perhaps the most famous of the film stars present. It was a partnership of a professional golfer working out his time as captain of the 2010 Ryder Cup and a film star working his way back to golf after an illness.
“I’m a cancer survivor recovering, and just trying to get back, to regain my strength,” Douglas said, looking and sounding happy. “During my recovery from the illness I was able to practise my short game a little bit more than usual as a help to building my strength up.”
Hoey, 32, was one man who matched Douglas for happiness. The 2001 British Amateur champion has been overshadowed by the emergence of first McDowell and then McIlroy. But now, as the latest in the production line of winners from Northern Ireland, he won’t be any longer.