The biggest golf competition on St Andrews – besides the Open Championship – tees off tomorrow, but the Media Centre has been up and running for the past two days. After a quick look around yesterday, it was down to work today. That’s if you count rolling out of bed, walking down the Scores, entering the fabulously-furnished tent/small aircraft hangar that is the Media Centre and immediately sitting opposite Lee Westwood in a press conference as work.
Westwood gave an honest appraisal of his year so far (strong on tee to green, then “putting crap” – his idea of putting well is perhaps slightly different to the everyday player) and felt his form was good going into the tournament, as his work on improving his rhythm with his new coach has produced visible results. He still believes the 2011 Race to Dubai (the year-long series of European Tour competition), currently led by compatriot Luke Donald, is not out of sight.
As for the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship itself, he was full of praise. He said it is a big tournament that everyone looks forward to as “it’s always good fun and a chance to meet interesting people”. Well that’s why I’m here, so I’m glad I can agree with you on that one, Lee.
This year’s Open Champion, Darren Clarke, was next to take to the stage. He was delighted to be back in St Andrews playing links golf, the format that he had grown up playing and enjoys most. Asked why the Championships has such an enduring value, he said simply that it features three of the best courses in the world – St Andrews Old Course, Carnoustie and Kingsbarns – and many of the top players in the world. Those golfers were taking it seriously, as it is hugely significant within the European Tour schedule, as there was a hell of a lot of money and rankings points to be won.
The Open was the competition he always wanted to win, and having done so he felt the need to reassess his goals – a future Ryder Cup captain maybe? As for the Claret Jug (Open Championship trophy), he admitted to carrying it around with him pretty much everywhere and also getting it repaired more than once – though he did not disclose the identity of whoever’s butterfingers made it a necessity.
Lunch was a highlight. The journalists here are treated magnificently well; it’s not too often the hospitality is up to the pork, veg and treacle tart standard, whether you’re covering an event for the BBC or The Saint.
That was followed by the small matter of Rory McIlroy’s press conference. Golf’s new superstar commented on never having seen St Andrews quite like this in September. He was right: Scots are just not programmed to cope with searing heat. He’d shot a four-under in that morning’s practice round, although that was beaten by his dad (who had an eight-shot head-start, but that seems hardly relevant…). He was hoping to go one better than his previous close-finishes at St Andrews by actually winning the thing; to do that he aims to focus on each stroke, visualising exactly where he wants each shot to go.
The Old Course is “one of my favourite courses in the world,” he said, as he’s become so comfortable here. As for St Andrews itself, he said that “the town has a great atmosphere and a great buzz”, although he won’t be popping into the pubs this week – as much as he likes people speaking to him and taking photos, he’s looking to keep it low key for the week.
Ending the day – besides a walk around the splendidly sunny Old Course (“I can’t believe we live here!” gasps Hillevi) and the Media Dinner to come – was Luke Donald, current world number one and leader in the Race to Dubai. He said it’s always a fun week here, more relaxed than other events and the weather was simply unbelievable. He was looking to make it a memorable week, preserving his comfortable lead in the European Tour standings, though his highlight of the year would probably remain his win at Wentworth in May, which saw him overtake Lee Westwood to become the best player in the world.
Tomorrow sees the tournament kick off for real, with the team competition taking place across all three courses. We’ll be there right through till Sunday. Here’s hoping the weather stays like it has been today: perfect.