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FOCUS ON GOLF: British Open | JIM MURRAY

There's Nothing Quite Like It

July 16, 1998|JIM MURRAY

The British Open again. Gotta love it. Golf's World Cup. Golf as it's meant to be played.

Bring the whole bag. The British Open is not a drive and an eight-iron. You use all the clubs in a British Open. This is not your desert course with manicured fairways, pool-table greens, air as still as an operating room. Antiseptic golf.

There's a two-club wind blowing here. The water hazard is not some piped-in pond, it's the North Sea. Go around it, not over it. Tee off with a three-wood here and the ball will blow back in your face. Don't expect that TV staple "He has plenty of green to work with" here. You won't have "plenty" of anything to work with.

This is where they invented the damn game. This is where they respect it and understand it, as they do no place else.

In 1963, Jack Nicklaus was standing on the 18th tee of the final round at Royal Lytham and St. Anne's (pronounced "Lithum and Sintonns") one shot off the lead. He knew the leaders, Bob Charles and Phil Rodgers, were coming up to 17 behind him.

Before teeing off, he waited to hear the crowd reaction from 17. If he heard a roar, he would know one of the competitors had birdied. He would need a birdie too. If he heard no roar, he could play percentage golf. Make the sure par, no risk.

Only silence came from the 17th green. Nicklaus set out to make his nice, safe par.

Later, he found out both Charles and Rodgers had birdied 17.

But their birdies came with strokes of luck attached. A mis-struck ball hit a tree, or rolled right instead of left.

British galleries do not cheer lucky shots. American galleries do. The Brits deadpanned Rodgers and Charles' birdies because they do not applaud shots that miraculously hit the hole on their way to the Irish Sea.

Nicklaus might have joined Charles and Rodgers in the playoff that year if he had understood the British character.

So, not only are the course, the conditions and the weather against you--so is the Empire. Hit it straight, laddie, if you want me to clap and cheer.

Americans used to spare themselves this torment. They not only preferred the pitch-and-putt golf in their own country, but the pay for a British Open hardly covered the transportation. Nicklaus got 800 pounds (about $1,600) for finishing third to Charles and Rodgers in '63. When Sam Snead's sponsor forced him into going over in 1946, first money was a couple of hundred pounds. "A man would have to be 200 years old at that rate before he could retire," Snead complained. The course (St. Andrews, no less), he sniffed, "looked like an old abandoned one."

The British were hurt. They used to brag their courses were "watered by God and mowed by sheep." What did they need with sprinkler-head golf?

Ben Hogan came over in 1953, the first and only time. He'd never won a British Open because he'd never played in one. So he took care of that. He won it. And became the second of only four golfers to win each of the majors.

But the Brits really have Arnold Palmer to thank for rejuvenating the royal and ancient championship. When Palmer came over and won it in 1961 (in a Force 10 gale), he lost money on the trip, winning only a bit more than 1,000 pounds. But he brought the rest of American golf with him.

The Yanks went reluctantly and only because sponsors insisted. For one thing, in those days, you had to qualify on the grounds over there, no matter who you were. Can you imagine Hogan, who only won the U.S. Open and the Masters that year, still had to tee it up with a flock of Scottish amateurs and home pros for the right to play? Today, the Brits write in exemptions for top players. They want the Yanks there. Because they come with ABC attached.

The Yanks were not enamored of the run-up game they had to play on British courses, either. But they sighed and came.

And the Colonists beat back the Redcoats as usual. Before Palmer, the British Open had been won 13 of 14 years by a player from the British Commonwealth. After Palmer, it was won almost annually by a Yank. Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson, Johnny Miller, Tony Lema prevailed--with an occasional sidetrack for a Seve Ballesteros or a Gary Player.

In many ways, it's the most glorious championship. Not glamorous, glorious. The Masters probably qualifies for most glamorous. It has been hyped into it even since the days when all you had to do to win it was beat back the reigning Walker Cup (amateur) team.

A U.S. Open has to be won on a tricked-up sociopath of a golf course with hip-high rough and new-cut sand traps, sometimes even new trees trucked in overnight. The USGA has a horror of someone shooting a (God forbid!) 62 in its hallowed tournament.

The Brits don't care what you shoot. Good-on-you! they say if you score well. They feel their courses can take care of themselves.

They get a solid winner anyway. Watson won five. So did Peter Thomson. Nicklaus won three. But he was second seven times!

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