Friday, May 11, 2007

Characters of the game

Recently, I was doing some research on the British Open for a magazine piece I’ve been asked to write and it stirred some memories of some of the golfers I’ve met through the years.

One of the great characters I’ve met through the years is the legendary Brian Barnes or “Barnsie,” as he’s better known. Barnsie was one of England’s finest players having won nine times on the European Tour. He finished between the fourth and eighth spot on the money list every year from 1971 and 1980. As a senior player, Barnsie won the Senior British Open in 1995 and became the first to successfully defend the title in 1996. He also won once on the U.S. Senior Tour before arthritis knocked him out of competitive golf.

Barnsie also competed in six consecutive Ryder Cups when it was just Great Britain and Ireland versus the U.S. In the format of the day two singles matches were played on one day and in 1975, he beat Jack Nicklaus twice in one day.

Barnsie posted an impressive résumé for sure, but all of it pales in comparison to his last European Tour win at the 1981 Haig Whisky Tournament Players Championship.
On the final day, Barnsie garnered an early tee time with some uninspired play during the first three days. On Sunday, however, all the suns moons and stars were perfectly in a row for the burly Scot. He tore the course apart. It was “around a 64” was his recollection.

Satisfied that he’d at least salvaged some dignity, Barnsie did what he did ritualistically after every round. He headed straight to the bar from the scorer’s tent. For hours, Barnsie regaled the local gentry with his wit and charm that increased with each and every lager he consumed. About three hours, or so later, someone from the tournament committee joined the party and asked Barnsie why he wasn’t practicing.

A stunned Barnsie asked why he would do such a thing. The committee member told him that if the leader didn’t birdie the 18th, Barnsie would be in a playoff for the title. Having already birdied the 19th hole, Barnsie grabbed a couple cans of beer and lurched towards the practice green.

“I wanted to make sure I could stand,” said Barnsie as he recounted the tale. Before he headed to the first tee for the sudden death playoff, he stuck the cans of beer in his bag.

“I knew that I’d need them,” he said. “I’d need one if I won and I’d need one if I lost.”
He hit a pair of great shots on the first hole and reached in his pocket for a coin to mark his ball. He didn’t have one. He asked his caddie for a coin. He didn’t have one either.

“I then did the next best thing,” said Barnsie, “I reached into the bag and marked the ball with a can of beer. When it was my turn to putt, I put the can to the side, made the putt, opened the can of beer, drank it and accepted the check. Thank you very much.”

The European Tour has always been a fertile ground for characters. Barnsie’s mentor and eventually his father-in-law, Max Faulkner was no slouch in this area.
Faulkner won the 1951 British Open at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland. It’s the only time the Open Championship was played outside of mainland England. According to some historians, Faulkner was best known for his flamboyant dress that often included pink plus fours and yellow golf shoes and his quick wit.

The wit was best exemplified when at the prize ceremony at a small local tournament; Faulkner was called forward to be presented with the first prize check. He stepped to the microphone and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, big purse—big speech. Small purse—small speech. Thank you.” And he left the stage.

Personally, I’m also impressed with 19 career wins including the Open Championship.
It’s not just the players on the other side of the pond that are colorful. Stories abound about their golf writers. One such writer is Dai Davies, then with Guardian newspaper in London.
Dai also answered to the nickname “Mr. Grumpy.” In fact, he has reached the pinnacle of being a curmudgeon and proudly wears the crown. He has been my idol in this department for the 25-years I’ve known him.

Dai has always been known to flee the pressroom before an early round has been completed if, in his estimation, the leader has been identified and the story written. Remarkably, it rarely caught up with him.

One year, at the Open Championship Dai had an early dinner date after the first round. Having written and filed his story, he was heading for the car park and an early getaway. As he was walking up the path from the pressroom at Troon, he was stopped by a man who obviously was a golfer.

“Is the pressroom down there?” he asked. Dai said yes and asked why he wanted to know.
“My name is John Schroeder and I just shot 67 and I’m leading the tournament,” was the reply. Unfazed, Dai escorted Schroeder to the pressroom. Schroeder headed to the interview area and Dai to his phone.

When Dai connected with his dictationist, he calmly said, “Go to the top of my story and add this, ‘Unknown, unheralded American John Schroeder, playing the last match, recorded a remarkable 3-under par 67 to take a one-stroke lead. Had Schroeder not done this, here’s what had previously transpired.’ Go to the bottom and add this paragraph, ‘But Schroeder did record such a remarkable score and takes a one-stroke advantage into today’s second round.”
Davies put the phone down and arrived at the restaurant in time for a tall glass of red wine before dinner.

It seems both the golfers and the writers in Old Blighty have a much better time at their jobs than their American counterparts. Maybe there’s an opening at the Irish Independent?
Hey, barkeeper, how about pouring me a red wine and getting me a can of beer as I toast Dai and mark my ball in honor of my friend Barnsie.


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