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Royal St. George's Tests British Open for Stiff Upper Lip

July 18, 1985|MIKE LITTWIN | Times Staff Writer

SANDWICH, England — They play golf tournaments the world round, just about anywhere 18 holes can be strung together.

For example, they're playing one this week in Coal Valley, Ill., a suburb of Moline, which is one of the Quad Cities; the others are Rock Island, Ill., and Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa.

A lot of golfers will be there for the weekly battle of birdies and bogeys in the never-ending quest for gold, if not glory.

But none of them will fall from the top of a 30-foot bunker, and there, flat on his back, declare his career at an end.

None of them will lose the tournament trying to hit a ball lodged inside a broken beer bottle.

Ian Fleming wouldn't have sent James Bond to Quad Cities to play Goldfinger. He sent him to Royal St. George's.

Come to Britain for golf history. Come to the British Open for golfing glory. Come to Royal St. George's for golfing disasters.

There is glory to be won this week at Royal St. George's, as much as can be won on a golf course. The British Open will start here today, the 114th in a series, all played on the island where the game was invented.

It's special, of course. The Open is wind, sea and history. It's where every hole has a story.

And this year, it's perhaps the only spot in Britain not overrun by Americans, whose sense of history is being challenged again.

Of the 13 leading Americans on the PGA Tour, only five are here. Curtis Strange, who should soon set a record for annual winnings, is not here. He's resting. Andy North, the U.S. Open champion, is not here. Calvin Peete isn't here. Ray Floyd isn't here.

"They should be here," said Tom Watson, the five-time British Open champion.

Said Lee Trevino, the two-time champion: "I'd be here if it meant leaving a month early and swimming across."

The stars are here, the true stars of the game--Watson and Trevino and Nicklaus. They're here in search of history, ready to give chase to Severiano Ballesteros and Bernhard Langer, the two betting favorites--but also to Harry Vardon and Walter Hagen and Ben Hogan and Henry Cotton and the other ghosts.

Why aren't the others here?

Part of it probably has to do with the course, which is not a favorite among American players.

Asked what was missing here, Jack Nicklaus said: "Greens and fairways."

The three-time champion added: "An American might say to himself if he were going to skip an Open, this is is the one to skip. I don't ever think it will be accepted as a traditional course by U.S. players."

Some of the Americans don't like any of the British courses, even St. Andrew's. They don't play like American courses.

On 8 of the first 12 holes at Royal St. George's, the golfer won't be able to see where his ball will land. And depending on the wind, it could land anywhere. When it does land on the undulating fairways, the ball may bounce in any direction but the desired one.

To many, those qualities make the Open peculiarly special.

To others, merely peculiar.

"I didn't like it when I first came over," Watson said. "It's an acquired taste. It wasn't until 1979 that I began to understand it."

He came to love it, of course. Why not, as a five-time winner?

But Watson won't say he's in love with St. George's, set hard by the English Channel, within sight of the white cliffs of Dover. A picture of one of golf's first champions, Old Tom Morris, is in the clubhouse, which is an unremarkable building on a not very remarkable course. It's nobody's favorite course--save the storytellers'.

The first story is courtesy of Dr. Laidlaw Purves, an avid golfer of the late 19th Century who was unhappy because his club, Royal Wimbledon, would not allow golf on Sunday. So he set off to found his own course.

He came here to the southeast corner of England, the same area where Julius Caesar and William the Conqueror first set foot on this island, in search of a suitable site.

Finally, unable to find anything to his liking, Dr. Purves climbed the tower of St. Clement's, an ancient church in Sandwich, looked out upon the sandy dunes and declared: "There I will build my golf course."

That was in 1887, and in 1896 the Open was played here, the first time it was played outside of Scotland.

Yes, in Sandwich. Down the road--really--is a town called Ham. Farther down the road is--the truth--Rye.

And yes, Sandwich, according to a legend often disputed, is where the sandwich began. An 18th-Century Earl of Sandwich, the fourth in what is now a line of 10, a supposed rake and rapscallion, was in a poker game and didn't want to leave the table. So he sent a servant for food, and the servant brought back meat and bread. The rest is culinary history.

The golf history in Sandwich tends more toward disaster.

The course was nearly bombed in World War II--by the British, who were finally persuaded to take their target practice one course over.

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