To see golf on TV, with air-conditioning and chilled beer, or get out in the sultry heat and follow golfers on foot. Mukund Padmanabhan opts for the latter at the Barclays Singapore Open.
Walking into the media room at the Sentosa Golf Club, to watch my first ever golf tournament, I find myself locked on the horns of a reporting dilemma. It dawns on me that there are two ways to cover golf. And that neither of them is ideal.
The first is to sit back in the roomy media enclosure and follow, as the other sports reporters are already doing, the game on television. Yes of course, the slick baize of the 9th and 18th greens is clearly visible through the wide glass frontage. But the ‘live’ action before us at the Barclays Singapore Open — made up of groups arriving irregularly to chip and putt — represents less than two per cent of the game.
The second is to do what a number of spectators do: follow a group along the course on foot in the sultry Singapore heat.
Option one has its advantages. The spaces earmarked for the media are crisply air-conditioned and there is a food hall that serves chilled beer. You can comfort yourself by saying that television is the only way to observe the game in its entirety, but the niggling thought keeps popping up: couldn’t I be doing this at home and just as well? As for option two, it does give you the opportunity to get close to golfers you have always wanted to see in real life. But being a golf groupie is not much good if your purpose is to track the game.
In short, the choice is between covering the entire game in a mediated way and engaging directly with a small part of it.
Most games — cricket, tennis, soccer, basketball — are played out in front of you. To spectators of these sports, as well as journalists who cover them, the television is but a supplement (albeit an increasingly important one). Television reveals things the naked eye can never catch — an awful umpiring decision, a ball that kisses the outer edge of the tramline, a clandestine kick that brings an opposing player down. Close ups, slowmos, different angles, repeats lend a different dimension to the game and our understanding of it. But if sport has an inner dynamic, a beating heart if you like, then this is revealed to only those who will go to it rather than having it come to them on screen.
The same is true of golf, but the choice is harder given the very limited view you can have from any position. I suspect the experience is similar to watching motor racing from one bend in the track or the marathon from a street corner, but what do I know? After looking at a succession of chips and putts on the 9th and 18th from my air-conditioned perch, I do what seems like the fun and sensible thing. Locate a three-ball group that would be interesting to watch and head off on foot in that direction.
Selecting the group is a no-brainer. On the penultimate day of the Open, Padraig Harrington, Adam Scott and Phil Mickelson are paired together. The first — the Irishman with three Majors — has come to Singapore after tinkering with his elegant swing as well as his face, which sports a Movember moustache. As for Scott, his prodigious talent is not reflected in his achievements (notwithstanding three wins at the Singapore Open). Finally, there is Mickelson; another man of whom one might say the same thing, except that his list of achievements — with four Majors and some 40 PGA events — is considerably greater.
It is the left-handed genius, with his audaciously aggressive driving and his soft and seductive magic around the green, that I — recipient of an unexpected and extremely well-organised junket conferred by an indulgent Sports Editor as acknowledgment of my amateurish passion for golf — have particularly come to see. Mickelson is an example of why assessment of sportsmen should never be based, either overwhelmingly or alone, on statistics.
Genius doesn’t weigh up in numbers and it is this arid reductionism that has led to skewed evaluations time and again. In the media room, I argue, and I suspect without much persuasive effect, with my old colleague Rohit Brijnath (now well-known tennis expert and sports columnist) that John McEnroe with his soft deft hands was a far greater tennis player than Bjorn Borg. The truth is that I also believe, very controversially, that he was greater than Pete Sampras. This is something that an informal survey of ATP players conducted about over a decade ago concurred with but I am too fearful of a withering response to risk saying this.
It’s isn’t until the five par 18th that Mickelson reveals why we love him so much. He has a good tee shot and then, with his typical blustery aggressiveness, cracks a big three wood to find the ball snaking wildly to the left, where it lands on a thick grassy bank near the ninth green. It is an awful shot, but it sets up a typical Micklesonian moment. He draws a wedge out and sneaks the ball between two palm trees, landing ever so softly on the green and running up to a birdie-able distance from the hole. I make a mental note that it’s worth coming all the way to Singapore to see just this.
Free from the rigours of daily deadlines and match reports, golf reporting combines the pleasure of being a spectator with the perks of being a journalist (yes, I mean air-conditioning and beer). I am driven around the course by buggy when the players, in this rain-blighted tournament, are just finishing round two and the staff is busy preparing the course for round three. There is a kindliness about the afternoon light and the course is fresh from rain.
There is a dramatic beauty to the Serapong Golf Course, marked by narrow fairways and the overwhelming presence of the sea. We buggy past the 3rd, which plummets dramatically downhill from its tee box by a patch of forest. Further on, there is a sequence of holes that flanks the South China Sea where a line of squat pugnacious coast guard vessels forefronts the city’s skyline. On my left, I see a patch of mangrove and the remains of World War II gun fortifications that the greenery is slowly reclaiming.
Hunched before television sets, we tend to forget that sport, like theatre, is performance. Context, setting, mood, audience are critical to both outcome and appreciation. As young Matteo Manassero, having pipped Louis Oosthuizen in the third extra hole playoff, lifts the $1 million trophy to a battery of photographers and quote-hungry journalists, I can’t help thinking that I’ve made the right choice. Forsake covering the golf tournament day-to-day for the pleasures of a lazy and rambling feature like this.
(The writer was at the Singapore Golf Open at the invitation of the World Sports Group.)