Ian Wood: Dark clouds that descend on the great and humble

Standing at some far-flung point of a wind-swept golf course recently, I watched, with some trepidation, as a massive bank of dark cloud advanced relentlessly and realised it was coming my way. That's the thing about dark clouds on golf courses – they always seem to be coming straight at you. Not for the first time, I wondered why I keep doing this to myself.

It's not as if I can play the game to any decent standard and I seem to be able to find abject misery in a flat calm while bathed in sunshine. Wind and rain merely adds a little masochistic spice to the mix. Golf does this sort of thing to people all the time and yet they keep coming back for more.

I suspect that Roland Thatcher, a professional playing in last week's Children's Miracle Network Classic in Florida, must have been musing along similar lines when the smooth progress which had taken him into a four-shot lead with two holes of his second round to go faltered. Out of the blue, he struck a wayward drive and found himself up to his knees in dirty water, squaring up to his ball which lay plugged on a mudflat. Suddenly, where all had been serenity and composure, the man stood there, sinking, and searching desperately for positives to sustain him in his new situation. He obviously didn't find many, for the round finished in a welter of dropped strokes and his lead was badly dented.

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Golfers at every level would sympathise with Thatcher as he entered his little hell, for they've all been through it. It doesn't matter what they're playing for or even how they play, the reaction to sharp setbacks seem to be more or less the same. The professionals might handle the shocks better, or at least appear to do so, but they're human and, in moments of stress, it's a safe bet that, in common with their lesser brethren, their necks have been suffused by a hot, red tide and their hands have become like wet flannels. Mouths will have gone dry and, in extreme cases, spots will swim before the eyes.

Club golfers who don't enjoy the services of caddies, suffer similarly when things go wrong, but are prey to added distractions, such as being unable to find tees, pencils, scorecards and handkerchiefs. There is also the potential irritation which can arise when they realise they've left wedges or putters on the previous tee and have to run back to get them. This does nothing to help golfers collect their thoughts and makes it difficult for them to cope with whatever it was which caused all the confusion in the first place.

The caddie factor certainly gives the professionals an edge in keeping things together when panic threatens, though Jean Van de Velde was hardly bringing cold logic to bear when he went for his ill-fated paddle in the Barry Burn at Carnoustie in the 1999 Open and Gary Player got in a real fankle at Royal Lytham & St Annes in 1974 when, with his third Open title beckoning, he went into a state of red alert on the penultimate hole of the championship where he pulled his second shot into deep rough flanking the green, thus triggering one of the more frantic searches in Open history.

Assisted by his towering caddie, Rabbit Dyer, and sundry other able-bodied volunteers, the little South African plunged into the waving grass and virtually excavated the area by hand. There was a splendid TV moment when the camera zoomed in on the searching hands and caught Player wrenching a watch off the wrist of an adjacent helper in order to keep an eye on the time. At last, the ball was found and Player secured a 5. He then staged a dramatic finale by putting his second shot at the final hole up against the clubhouse and playing left-handed from there to coast home by four shots from Peter Oosterhuis.

It would be hard on the club players to leave the professionals with the last word on grit and resilience in the face of challenge and for that reason I would venture to risk recalling a story previously aired in this column and now hopefully forgotten by one and all. It concerns a player of mid to high handicap – depending on how the haggling on the first tee works out – who plays his golf with power and a degree of dash. One afternoon, in a four-ball of some intensity, he went for a big second shot on the first hole, cut it even more than usual and the ball came to rest within the confines of a thorn tree of substantial proportions and viciously equipped.

The ball was visible, though getting to it looked to be quite another matter. This man, however, didn't flinch. Selecting a club, he backed into the middle of what was effectively a cage of thorns and made a few valiant swishes before deciding the cause was lost. He picked up and left the tree, which wasn't easy. As he staggered clear, bleeding, it seemed, from every pore, he muttered: "I took the wrong club." The company agreed that this was probably the case.