Allan Massie: Get rid of caddies - or ban confabs with players

World No 1 Dustin Johnson was defeated by Carnoustie. Picture: Harry How/Getty Images
World No 1 Dustin Johnson was defeated by Carnoustie. Picture: Harry How/Getty Images
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Golf may have its problems, but they don’t loom large when an enthralling Open is underway. Writing this perforce while the second round is not even half-completed, it’s satisfying that – so far – despite the absence of any real wind Carnoustie has held its own. It has been testing not only the players’ skill and character, but their intelligence. The course is a golfer’s first challenge, and at Carnoustie, when the links are set up for an Open, the best players may reasonably hope for is a sort of armed neutrality.

There will be tears as well as cheers before nightfall, but one who seems to have come to an accommodation with the course is Paul Lawrie’s young protégé, Sam Locke, rounds of 72 and 73 leaving him three over par, which not only beat the cut but will win him the silver medal as leading amateur. Let’s not in “wha’s like us?” style go overboard. That’s just two good rounds on the toughest of courses, and if he has two more good ones, that’s grand. Too often , however,over the last twenty years, we’ve seen young stars burn brightly for a little and then fade away, sometimes perhaps because too much has been demanded and expected of them too soon. So, for the moment, let’s just say “well done” to the young man.

Just for the moment, too, and bearing in mind the general state of gloom about the game, I’ve been looking back. One of the most common complaints is the time it takes to play a round, a complaint that certainly isn’t restricted to tournament golf. Readers of Wodehouse’s golfing stories will remember the Wrecking Crew, four elderly and objectionable golfers who pottered about the course, zig-zagging from side to side of the fairway, holding up play and never waving those behind them through.

Slow play is something that George Duncan, the Open champion of 1920, was never guilty of. It was reckoned that, if not delayed by others, he took little more than two hours to get round. Two hours would be between six and seven minutes a hole. So I guess it was a bit more than that. Still, it’s recorded he just walked up to his ball and hit it, presumably having thought of the shape of his shot as he approached the ball. He never took a practice swing, partly because he thought this unnecessary, partly because he thought it tantamount to cheating, since there’s a rule –in tournament golf anyway – prohibiting practice on the course. You could certainly speed up the professional game if you made practice swings illegal. I would guess that a pro going round in 72 probably indulges in more than 500 practice swings (including practice putts a few inches wide of the ball). This would certainly cut out delays.

A still more drastic, but nevertheless interesting, experiment would be to get rid of caddies. This is perhaps a heretical suggestion, for caddies are as old as the game, or almost as old anyway. Caddies were originally the golf-wise locals who instructed their amateur employers for the day about the mysteries of the course. Now the pro golfer and the caddie describe themselves as a team, and scarcely a shot is played without a previous and often long-lasting confabulation. These proceed with the solemn and intense deliberation of a Summit Conference, argument as to what sort of shot to play with which club evidently as weighty a matter as questions of war and peace. It might seem harsh to get rid of caddies and require even the likes of Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth to pull their own trolley or shoulder their own bag – and having to do that might even retard their progress round the course. So it might be sufficient to impose a law of silence on caddies, any infringement being punished by a two-stroke penalty.

Meanwhile Carnoustie is still holding its own, though I see that Tommy Fleetwood has just finished his second round in 65. That’s six under par, which is just acceptable even to those who, like me, are pleased to see the course winning most of the battles. It’s when you find several golfers scoring eight or nine under par for a round that you think the balance wrong. (At least I do). In any case Fleetwood is one of these exciting players who can have a magical streak, such as his last round 63 in the US Open last month on a course that defeated almost everybody and had some crying “it’s not fair” as if they were spoiled children.

Finally I see that Carnoustie has won a significant battle. The World No 1, Dustin Johnson, has completed 36 holes and is six over par, meaning he misses the cut and has a free weekend.

On the other hand his namesake Zach is for the moment in the lead.

Since he has already won one Open – at St Andrews – we can happily recognise him as a player comfortable with links golf.