Sir Alex Ferguson, a self-confessed fair weather golfer, took one look at the leaden skies hanging over the Farmfoods British Par 3 Championship at Nailcote Hall and thought “Manchester weather!”
So he felt right at home.
The Manchester United manager, taking a break from putting the finishing touches to the preparations for the 2009/10 season, then stepped onto the third tee (his first) and drilled his shot straight into a gaggle of spectators gathered around the fourth tee – some 40 yards left of his target!
“See, I told them they weren’t safe,” he said, with the familiar wry smile of a high handicapper who is relieved just to have not killed anyone with his opening shot of a tournament.
Sir Alex was just one – but a significant one – of the invited guests playing in the Celebrity-Amateur Challenge which is the traditional curtain-raiser to the annual par three championship.
Former Ryder Cup captain Tony Jacklin was guest of honour to mark the 40th anniversary of his Open Championship victory at Royal Lytham & St Anne’s.
Despite the new football season being almost upon us – Manchester United play Chelsea in the Community Shield at Wembley on Sunday to launch the season – Sir Alex took time out to test his mettle on the Cromwell Course.
“I’m a 24 handicapper; always have been, always will be,” he said. “I don’t play enough to improve it… perhaps only four or five times a year. If you don’t play consistently, you’re found out!
“This is just my fourth game this year. I don’t like playing in bad weather… winter golf is out of the question for me.”
He says when the good weather comes in April or May he is right in the heart of the hardest part of the football season so he can’t play. When the season ends, he goes on a deserved holiday straight away.
“I don’t play when I’m on holiday, so the whole of June is also out of the question.”
He does host his own annual charity Pro-Am in July and then plays in the odd event such as this.
One would expect that, being a Scot, he would have lived and breathed the game? He says he does love the game but it is well-known that, outside football, he shares his passion between horse racing and golf.
As a young footballer he didn’t really take up the game until he went to Dunfermline in 1964 – “there were a lot of great courses in that area and on the west coast of Scotland so I played a bit then and got my handicap down to around 18.
“I went to Rangers and kept on playing but when I became a manager I played perhaps once a year in a Pro Am at Aberdeen and was useless. I’ve only picked it up again about four or five years ago.”
He names Gleneagles as among his favourite courses “just for the scenery really” and Turnberry, one of those west coast gems is another preferred track.
Ferguson, at 68, was fascinated with the performance of 59-year-old Tom Watson in the Open Championship at Turnberry last month and admits he shared the pain with the majority of spectators who watched the great man suffer in the play-off with Stuart Cink.
“He just got tired for the last shot and the play-off but it was unbelievable. I had backed Lee Westwood to win in on the advice of Sam Torrance… he should have won it!”
If his presence at the British Par 3 Championship was indicative of how relaxed he is going into the new football season his demeanour on the course showed that, despite the odd fluffed shot, he is equally comfortable on a golf course, no matter how challenging the greens.
Fergie was relaxed and convivial, despite the impending Community Shield followed by a home Barclays Premier League fixture with Birmingham City at Old Trafford and his admittance that United will never replace Ronaldo… “No matter what anyone says about the lad, for my money he’s the greatest footballer in the world!”
He even shared a golf joke which went something like this:
“Have you heard about that new ball that’s come out on the market?
“The boy says I’ve got this new ball that, if it goes in the water, it jumps up; if it goes in the bushes, it bleeps. You just can’t lose it! And the man says: ‘where did you get it?’
…and the boy replies: ‘I found it!’”