To sign or not to sign. That is the question for many a professional golfer at Hoylake this week. Between tee to green a veritable horde thrust flags, hats, photographs and programmes under the noses of the great and the good of golf. Some sign, some walk, some apologise, and others stare bizarrely as though viewing an alien race.
On a rainy Wednesday it was my turn. I joined the masses trampling down the rough whilst we migrated our way around Royal Liverpool. The British golf fan is a special thing. They come prepared for all weathers, and are able to be controlled by just a thin bit of rope. There's no call for barriers and burly security guards here. A simple flex of yellow and a gentleman's agreement is all that's needed to keep patron and player safely apart. Alcohol is served and consumed by the fairways, and yet there is never a sign of trouble. Even the extortionate price of the food, £9.50 for fish and chips, seems to stir little more than a Northern grumble.
Watching The Open with the naked eye is a strange experience. The rewards are fleeting, when the walking between holes occupies far more time than the actual game. Golf is a sport made for television. Yet, to see a professional hit a ball into the unimaginable distance is an experience all in itself. For the amateur, even those of a low handicap, this is another game entirely. I saw players hit an Iron twice the length of what I'd consider a reasonable drive. Up close and personal the players seem smaller, their swings faster, and they whip through the ball with all the ease of hot knife through even hotter butter.
It is reason why the crowds flock. Ten deep on Competition day, they still manage to pack them in on a practice day when barely a third of the field took to the course. Practice days are sold on the promise of a more relaxed atmosphere. Thinner crowds mean more opportunities to see your golfing heroes in the flesh. That's really what it's all about. Here is where golfers become rockstars and royalty. Some glide down the fairway surrounded by a coterie of support staff. Lost in their own ambitions. Game face on and logos ablaze as they tweet their way around - keeping their sponsors happy.
It's not cheap to watch the Open. Those who go want a momento. An opportunity to say I was there. To the professional it's the brief squiggle of a pen, but to the fan it's a treasured memory. Of course there is always the professional autograph hunters, looking to cash in, but most here are just golf fans wanting to capture in ink the day they met their golfing idol. Some professionals can turn it on just for the camera, but for me the real judge of player is how he treats those who cheer him on from beyond the rope.
Each player has his own belief system when it comes to signing, but on practice day surely most would sign. Some, like Henrik Stenson above, gladly do so. On the 16th the Swede took time to work his way down a corridor of hands all holding out something to be scrawled upon. Others, like Bubba Watson below, do not.
"No autographs during my round. Sorry"
Well, at least he apologised.
You can't help but wonder if the Ryder Cup plays on the mind of some of the Americans. In 2014, a Ryder Cup year, these Open fans are also the enemy. So, maybe more luck was to be had with the Europeans. Miguel Ángel Jiménez, he of the ponytail and the pot belly. Emerged from behind a mobile camera gantry, puffing away on a fat cigar. With his two-tone shoes, and rockng gait it's easy to draw comparisons with the Penguin of Batman fame. He takes a ball, glances at its surface, and casually rolls it to a young lad waiting behind the ropes. Another asks him for his autograph.
"No," comes the gruff response and he ambles off to the next tee.
A character to the last.
Ian Poulter, an icon of the European team, is one for order. "Sorry guys, only signing autographs between tee and green." Fair enough. Then there was Lee Westwood. A nervous glance replaced by a fixed and distant stare as he walks past the gallery. "Good Luck Lee," comes the high-pitched squeak of a junior fan. The briefest of smiles appears on Westy's lips, "Thanks," he says quietly. And then he too is gone.
Not all players are so unforthcoming. Sergio Garcia is truly a fan's player. He comes equipped with his own pen, and scribes his curly moniker for nearly every one of the waiting fans.
A "Gracias" is responded to by a "de nada" No problem.
Perhaps it's because Sergio is loved up - his German girlfriend accompanied him on his round - or perhaps it's just because Sergio knows what it is to be a fan of the game and what it is to have the support of the crowd. I wish him the best of luck.