Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Ah, the open championship is back in bonnie Scotland. The hame of the game, where the skirl of the pipes and the sweet bleat of a nice wee sheep can put a tilt in yer daddy's kilt. Lovely biscuits! Royal Troon was the site of my first and best chance to win the oldest major of them all, and I couldn't have choked harder if I'd been swallowing Donald Trump's hair.

The night before, I had seen my name spelled incorrectly on the giant, piddle-yellow scoreboard at the 18th — me, within striking distance of the lead! — and the shock had settled in for the evening. Believe me, sports fans, I knew I wasn't good enough to win a major. So I had no choice. I had to avoid accidentally getting so close that I'd have to bugger something up spectacularly toward the end and look like a total Van de Velde.

I was a normal tour player, not one of those freaks who live on adrenaline, hammering in three-footers for par all day like they're as relevant as Ricky Martin's girlfriend. Putts that mattered terrified me. On every one, I was so clenched you could have held me by the ankles and used my butt cheeks to cut the wires on the Golden Gate Bridge. And so my wins were in the minors, and after each one I would go deep the other way. A Feherty victory was always followed by months of anticlimactic, postorgasmic mediocrity. Until I needed money again. If my career were a song it would be Tom Waits's "Emotional Weather Report": "High tonight, / Low tomorrow, / and precipitation is expected."

Broke, I would panic and set about eating All-Bran, practicing, running and as a last resort begging the Almighty for forgiveness. (Funny enough, that last trick always worked.)

So there I was at Troon in '89, drawn with Mark Calcavecchia in the last round, and as luck would have it, the idiot's zipper was at half-mast on the 1st tee. As usual, he looked like a human laundry basket. What chance had an ugly American here, at this sacred golfing mecca nestled between the edge of runway zero-niner at the Prestwick airport and a trailer park full of bluish-white people who eat their young? (Why are most of Britain and Ireland's great courses bordered by bluish-white-trash trailer camps?)

I, on the other hand, was magnificent — slim, tanned, tailored and, with four large brandies cunningly concealed in two cups of coffee at lunch, hardly even shaking. I was ready to instigate my cunning plan: I reckoned I would stay in contention until we reached the Postage Stamp, where Sarazen made 13 back in 1426, or Weiskopf went elk-hunting or something, and where I could feasibly take a large number and still look windswept and utterly heroic as I limped heartbroken into the canyon of the last hole. "Had it not been for the dreaded 8th hole," Peter Alliss would say between sips of Bollinger, "the bold Ulsterman might have been Open champion."

Which, as Peter knows better than most, would have been bollocks. Truth is, I thought I wanted to win the Open in '89 and again in '94, but when it came down to it (just like Jean Van de Velde) I didn't want the responsibility. There must have been a pivotal putt or shot, but I don't remember missing it. I do know I wasn't brave or dumb enough to stay in contention and then flop at the 18th. That could ruin a man for life.

Open champions are men like Greg Norman, Nick Price, Ernie Els and Calcavecchia, who played the last six holes that day like a man possessed by the opposite of whatever it was that had me by the throat. He hit a driver from the bony fairway of the par-5 16th to the heart of the green, a shot like nothing I'd ever seen. He hit an 8-iron from the rough at the last that landed by the flagstick like a sack of spuds, making the old farts in the bay window spill their gin and tonics and start squealing about square grooves. He knocked in the putt for three, then went out and won a playoff with Norman and Wayne Grady. I had no business being near that.

If my career were a poem, I'd want it to be Seamus Heaney's "Digging." Heaney told of how his father and grandfather dug potatoes from the ground. "I've no spade to follow men like them," he wrote. "Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests. / I'll dig with it."

I've no clubs to swing with men like the Open champions, but I have these words. So I'll swing away with them and be happy.

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