Golf: Jimenez a breath of fresh air

Miguel Angel Jimenez
Miguel Angel Jimenez, in a pink shirt and sporting a ponytail, in action during the first round of the British Open Golf Championship.

SCOTLAND - If golf ever wants to be cool, it needs to clone Miguel Angel Jimenez. In an obsessive-compulsive sport, he is a renaissance man. One year he broke his putter and then produced a hat-trick of birdies by putting with his lob wedge.

Some players use mind gurus, some hire nerds to break down their statistics in Moneyball style, some meet on tour for Bible studies. Jimenez merely prays he never runs out of red wine.

On Thursday, he wore a pink shirt, two-tone shoes and a belt buckle that looked like a leftover from the hippie era. Well, so is he, a ponytailed 49-year-old who was an early Open hero on Thursday with five birdies in nine holes.

He finished with a three-under 68, lurking near the lead, pretty neat if you consider that just sneaking under par on a course with cement fairways and treacherous slopes was a feat in itself.

The Open began at 6.30am Scottish time with polished clubs, frayed nerves and strange omens.

Lloyd Saltman, in the first group, was still on the first tee when he played his fifth shot. His first two drives had disappeared to parts unknown. Fortunately he was Scottish so no one could say this is an inhospitable country.

It was a day of intermittent early wind but endless colour. Yellow pants, chequered shots and the occasional black morning. Rory McIlroy dribbled short putts wide, had a bunker shot take off at right angles and limped to a eight-over-par 79. A gifted golfing cartographer can no longer find his way.

Muirfield, on a sunny day, was a beguiling case of love at first bite. Drama came fast.

A small sample of the first five groups (15 players) reveals seven had bogey or worse on the first hole itself.

Later Tiger Woods, an afternoon starter, flew his first drive left, collided with a tree, melted into the rough, took an unplayable drop, lashed it into the bunker, hit it to five feet and collected an opening bogey. Woods earns the spotlight even when he does not want to.

But not all news was grim early on. American Zach Johnson led in the afternoon with a five-under 66 while Phil Mickelson, with a 69, suggested he is a medical marvel - his hands own more feel than a man with psoriatic arthritis should legitimately have.

And it is because of such touch - around greens and out of a rough where the grass wraps itself like chains around a club - that golf has a value in a time of widespread doping.

It is not that golf can be certified as a pure enterprise for it is human to cheat. But because it is less reliant on muscle, and so much on feel, it is a delicate skill we can mostly trust.

Fact is, in a time when the Guardian's Data Blog reports that "over half of the 42 top-three finishers in the Tour de France from 1999 to 2012 have been found guilty of doping at some point in their career", artists like Mickelson provide a sporting relief.

Mickelson was no surprise, but there was enough of it, especially the sight of a Japanese gent in a kilt. Evidently he inspired his compatriot Hideki Matsuyama, 21, who played alongside McIlroy for an even-par 71.

Perhaps there was a geographical mix-up in who the prodigy in the group really was.

Day one on a traditional course was flush with talent yet also sentiment. Three old musketeers, with 15 Majors between them, flourished their ancient weapons as they played in one group. Nick Faldo, Tom Watson and Freddie Couples gained more cheers than birdies, but so what if they finished a collective 16 over par.

Only in golf can the past play alongside the present. And it is not always a mismatch. On a day when Justin Rose, 32, the US Open champion, finished with a four-over-par 75, and Todd Hamilton, 47, who won the Open in 2004, finished with a two-under 69.

And, of course, there was Jimenez. With 19 European Tour wins he is no poser and in his eccentric method lies a valuable lesson in individuality: The roads to greatness are many and varied.

As fellow Spaniard Rafael Cabrera- Bello, who had a four-under 67, noted, he admires Jimenez's ability to find his comfort zone. "Whether it is his wines or his cigars, he just gives them to himself, and that way he tees up on every tournament just fully confident on himself."

Jimenez is unusual because he puts life before golf. He may not win the Open, but he is an attraction in himself and all sport needs such athletes.

He is golf at its happiest and it is a forgotten ideal.

After his round he was asked if these were the fastest conditions he had played in at an Open and he guffawed at the challenge to his memory. "I don't know who I played with today."

What he would not forget, at least for a day, was how he played.

rohitb@sph.com.sg

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