x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Early birds at British Open give company to Millar's solo show

The Australian plays his third round of British Open without a partner, but that does not put off dedicated fans.

Empty stands and just a handful of followers greeted Australian Matt Millar as he went round the Royal St George’s course on his own yesterday morning.
Empty stands and just a handful of followers greeted Australian Matt Millar as he went round the Royal St George’s course on his own yesterday morning.

As Rory McIlroy, one half of the most showbiz two-ball at the British Open yesterday, waved a mittened hand to acknowledge his heaving first-tee gallery, 50 yards away, Matt Millar snuck down 18 almost unnoticed.

The little-known Australian player had spent the best part of the previous four hours proving it is possible to remain virtually anonymous despite playing on your own in front of a crowd of 40,000 spectators.

So long as you start early enough.

Millar was the first player out in round three. Whether playing by yourself, with just a marker, a caddie, a scorer and someone to rake the bunkers for company, constitutes a game at all is debatable.

The number of players - 71 - who made the halfway cut meant Millar, who was drawn last of the players at three-over after round two, was the odd one out.

Far from being worried about being on his own, however, he embraced it. He was offered the chance to go round the Royal St George's course with a non-competitive player, but declined on account of the increasing inclemency of the weather.

Prophetically, Millar had warmed up for his first appearance at a major championship by playing on his own at his home club in Canberra. Rather than being anti-social, he was all business.

"He got the choice of whether he wanted to play with someone else," his coach said from the other side of the yellow rope.

"They asked him on the practice range, but with the weather coming in it was better for him to get out there and get round as quick as he could."

As the rain lashed the Garden of England, Millar epitomised the loneliness of the linksland one-ball.

But some people prefer the solitude, anyway. "We like to beat the crowds," said Doug Richards, one of the few people without a vested interest in Millar who actually followed him round all 18 holes of his third round.

Along with his brother, Nick, Doug has watched the first match on each of the first three days of the Open. Their presence this morning at the first hole before the first players go off can be taken as given.

Despite being golf obsessives, this is their first Open championship. Nick recently celebrated his 60th birthday, while older brother Doug has just retired, so they thought they would treat themselves this year.

And they are making sure they get their money's worth. On the first day they arrived in Sandwich at 3am, having driven through the night from England's Midlands to get there.

"Talk about lonely," Nick said. "We tried to sleep in the car, but we didn't really get much.

"We came to the course at 5am. There were only four people on the course before us, other than the people working here.

"We still stayed here all day, though."

The halfway cut of players meant the tee times were later yesterday, so the Richards brothers were afforded a lie-in; Millar went off at 8.55am.

On the opening two days they were there to see the 6.30am match of Jerry Kelly, Nathan Green and Danny Willett in round one, and then Peter Whiteford, Spencer Levin and Thomas Aitken - Nick's favourite player - a day later.

"We haven't wanted to miss any of it and have stayed all day every day," Nick said.

"But I must admit I was knackered one day, so I lay down and dropped off. One of the players hit his tee shot right by me and a marshal had to wake me up and said, 'Excuse me, sir, but you'll have to move because someone needs to play their shot here'." The marshals are understandably sympathetic. After all, they probably would not have minded a bit of shut-eye themselves.

Some of those marking the course for Millar, and the two-ball matches that followed, had been up at 1am before starting their duties.

Even when the squall hit, and they discovered the championship waterproofs they had been issued did not do what was promised on the label, they remained commendably cheery.

Their spirit typified the camaraderie of the hardy few early starters.

While the masses began the serious business of following McIlroy, Rickie Fowler and the other stars, the Richards brothers said goodbye to Millar, then began the process of deciding whom to follow next.

"Everyone's so friendly when you follow a small group like this," Doug said. "I just asked [Millar's] coach where he is playing next.

"He said they are having two weeks back at home in Australia. They'll probably need that just to warm up."