Thursday, July 8, 2010

The fallen knight at the King's tournament

Celebapalooza 2010 featuring The Limerick Leader continued this week with some maniacal golf, sunburnt colour writers and free chicken casserole at the JP McManus Pro-Am in Adare. The Board's take on it all centred on The Playboy of the Western World, Tiger Woods. From this week's Leader2:

Lines of thousands ran up and down along the contours of the first fairway, waiting. The valley between the tee and the practice green was a sea of bodies, and the current was dragging them all towards one person. Tiger Woods, in Limerick? After all that mess? 40,000 people and the novelty wasn’t lost on any of them.

Early on Monday afternoon, as the JP McManus Pro-Am at Adare Manor gathered steam, John Daly was lit up like a traffic light and Jim Furyk was scooching under the blue ropes that held the crowd back. Ben Curtis, the 2003 Open champion, was beating up the driving range. But none of it seemed to matter.

Over Curtis’ shoulder the most famous sportsman of all time languidly chopped through a bucket of practice balls, the baying local crowd in thrall. Just seven months since all the unpleasantness, Tiger Woods was making good on his commitment to Adare, to Limerick and to JP. Is he a phenomenon? Or a sociopath? Different questions for other places.

Over two days the people of Limerick were drawn to him like a magnet and nobody asked about the morals. They didn’t need to. This week was about how the golfing world, led by its most bankable deity, had gathered for the rarest of chin wags by the River Maigue, and how it had done so at the behest of McManus.

Though quiet and unassuming in person, every five years JP comes to embody a medieval lord drawing the greatest knights in the world to an immense tournament, where he delivers his largesse through great feasts and spectacular games.

Adare Manor may embody modern comfort and luxury, but in truth it could just as easily be a feudal Ressons-sur-Matz or Lagny-sur-Marne, where men jousted and were merry. Foremost among today’s heroes was Woods, who found nothing but adoration from the people of Limerick during his first overseas competition since the scandals of his private life last year.

Back at the driving range, some twenty minutes before he is due to tee off from the first, the crowd are sucked in. Boys hand out programmes and hats indiscriminately for autographs, not seeming to care who does the scribbling. “Who was that?”, “Who is he?”, two wonder aloud to each other. They shoot first and ask questions later.

A short while beforehand Eamon Dunphy, caddying for Liam Brady for the morning, crowed about how he was in fact a “mind coach” who was only on the sauce the night before “so that Liam wouldn’t be”.

Then the word filters up. Stewards and gardai link arms instantly, as if instructed to by a hive mind. The Tiger moves up towards the clubhouse, running a gauntlet of wires and giggles. He is bombarded with questions by a media ruck that only walked as fast as he did. But the man as tough as mineral looked straight past it all with an effortless cool.

He ignores every question bar one, about new AT&T National champion Justin Rose who appears seconds later, as famous people tended to do in Adare this week, to receive a congratulatory smile and handshake.

From the edge of the practice green Tiger sinks a casual putt between chatter with Rory McIlroy, Darren Clarke and Padraig Harrington as someone, somewhere worries that world’s richest ever athlete is cutting it awfully fine.

His fellow pros are immune to his aura, but clearly the local masses are not. His walk from there to the first tee, through the crowded ocean, teaches much about the dictum of Tiger. When he approaches, you clap. When he smiles, you cheer. When he swings, you roar. They are sensory reactions programmed deep into the brain. It is a set of rules all his own.

As he killed time at the first tee, waiting for the gun blast that will signal the start of play at 1.30pm, the playful anxiety of the crowd builds. Photographers and stewards who creep into someone’s line of sight are barracked by spectators for daring to block their view of Him. Mark O’Meara, his old compatriot, ambles up from Tiger’s left and cracks a joke. “Can I have an autograph?” he asks. “No”, comes the reply.

Then, in that calm way of his, JP strolls over in a sharp navy suit and open necked blue shirt. He plucks a bottle of Ballygowan from a nearby drum and joins the talk. There is no grand introduction; the conversation just quietly opens up and lets him in. We’re all friends here. Mark places an arm around their host and leaves it there.

Tiger loosens up with a practice swing, and then another, before launching his tee shot onto the first fairway. A caravan of five gardai, reporters and cameras with lenses so telescopically big that they need to be beaten into the ground on tripods follow him down the fairway. The rest of the world shuffles along behind the barriers.

Tiger is relaxed, chewing fistfuls of crunchy almonds as he chats with his team mates JP Magnier, Bernard Droux and Brendan Mullin. He shanks his tee shot on the second down to the water’s edge along the left of the fairway. As photographers line up 50 yards ahead, directly in front, he remarks that “that’s a bad spot to be in guys”. He’s joking.

The day’s uniquely playful atmosphere is seen throughout the sprawling hive of Adare Manor. Harry Redknapp, who is clearly in a hurry, still doesn’t turn down a single photo or autograph from the crowd that swallows him as he crosses over towards the 10th fairway.

Peter Jones, he of Dragons’ Den fame, and Jamie Redknapp swap gourmet hotdogs from right hand to left as they sign autographs, walk towards the 11th tee and chew respectively.

Samuel L Jackson, probably the coolest man on the planet, does a shimmy and fist-bump with Johnny Murtagh after the jockey drops a ten footer to par the 16th. Two young women, whose house backs onto the 12th hole, almost pass out with excitement as Hugh Grant obliges them with a photo as he winds down on the back nine. Everywhere you turn, someone important is doing their best not to be. It is the theme of the Pro-Am and it is the wish of its host.

On the seventh hole of six-hour opening round, Tiger Woods is chatting with magnate Dermot Desmond when little Ava Mulhall sprints out from behind the ropes, ducks the stewards and runs over to ask for an autograph. The stewards are a little agitated and try to scurry her away, but Tiger bends down and signs her programme. A cheer erupts from the crowd. At the great tournament, the fallen knight could find only praise.

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