Anyone who has read this blog at all knows how much I hate to fly. I find the entire experience exhausting, demeaning and, at times, frightening. Even taking drugs I feel every bump.
Since I made the decision after 9-11 to only fly when there was absolutely no choice in the matter, I haven’t really regretted it very often. I really don’t mind the long drives, in fact I almost look forward to them because I enjoy the solitude. Sure, the phone rings at times, but it is my option to answer it or not. And when I think ahead to a trip and realize I don’t have to deal with all the hassles of flying because I’m going to drive I sleep a lot better at night.
Twice a year I wish I didn’t have a flying phobia. The first comes when I watch Wimbledon. The second comes when I watch The British Open—or, as real golf geeks call it, The Open Championship. That feeling multiplies by about 10 when The Open is at St. Andrews.
The other Open venues are all terrific in their own way. There’s nothing more spectacular than Turnberry; Muirfield is a wonderful golf course and Royal Lytham and St. Anne’s, even though it lacks the romance of being in Scotland is in a lovely seaside town and is a superb test of golf. Carnoustie is, quite simply, the hardest golf course I’ve ever played. The first time I played there one of the guys in my group turned to his caddy on the 13th hole and said, “when do we get to the easy holes?”
The caddy never missed a beat: “When ya get to St. Andrews,” he answered.
He wasn’t kidding.
Without wind, as we saw early last Thursday, St. Andrews isn’t that difficult. Of course that can be said to one degree or another about all links courses. Look at what Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus did at Turnberry in 1977 or what Greg Norman did in the final round at Troon in 1989 when he played 20 holes (unfortunately for him he needed to play 22 if he was going to win the four-hole playoff) in ten-under-par.
The first and 18th fairways at St. Andrews are 100 yards wide and the 18th has become little more than a long par three for most of the pros. And yet, I DID see Ian Baker-Finch hit his tee shot off of No. 1 across the 18th fairway and out-of-bounds in 1995. The ninth is also driveable—as Louis Oosthuizen proved so emphatically on Sunday—and the 12th can be too.
But St. Andrews is St. Andrews. Playing the golf course or just walking it is an experience like no other if you care about golf. You don’t have to be Tom Watson to get tears in your eyes crossing The Swilcan Bridge, you can be a hacker like me. You can get your scorecard framed from the first time you played there with a big circle around the 4 you made on The Road Hole.
The town of St. Andrews is just as historic as the golf course and would be a joy to visit if you had never played golf in your life. But if you are a golfer, when you start back in the direction of the clubhouse on The Old Course the feeling that comes over you is almost indescribable. And the feeling comes back, even when you are just watching on TV, memories washing over you.
I’ve been lucky enough to play The Old Course on several occasions. The first time I played there my caddy told me on the first tee he’d been there 26 years and he’d help me out of any situation I might get myself into. On the third tee, I aimed, as I always did, well right to play for my hook and the wind and proceeded to hit a push-slice across the road onto The New Course. There was no out-of-bounds so I walked to the ball, turned to my caddy and said, ‘what have I got from here?’
The caddy looked at me as if I was from Mars and said, “I dunno, I’ve never been HERE before.”
And you thought only Tiger Woods made history at. St. Andrews.
Actually Woods made no history this weekend. In fact, he barely made any noise at all except for his usual litany of muttered profanities and his now familiar refrain: “I’m hitting it great, just can’t putt.” (Jeez, he IS starting to sound like a lot of people I know).
But history WAS made and it was made by Oosthuizen. When I saw his name pop onto the leaderboard after his 65 on Thursday I barely paid attention. This is what I knew about him: he was South African, had won recently in Europe and had a name I wasn’t sure how to pronounce. Then he led by five on Friday. Here was my thought: The real lead in the golf tournament is six-under-par, because I didn’t think 50-year-old Mark Calcavecchia, who was in second place at seven-under, was going to hang around to contend on Sunday either.
Here’s what I thought when he led by four on Saturday and I watched him hit every shot (note to the R+A: I don’t care how much money ESPN is paying you, a 4:40 tee time for the lead group on Saturday is outrageous. I know they play far later in other sports and you’ve got light until 10:30 but give some consideration to the players who just sit around waiting and waiting to play) in the third round: this guy can play. I also thought all the ESPN comedians needed to give up the shtick about how to pronounce his name. It might have been funny ONCE.
On Sunday I knew I was witnessing something special. My guess is the TV ratings were lousy because it was a runaway and Phil Mickelson (again) was nowhere near contention and neither was Woods, whose new putter lasted three days. That whole episode was strange, Woods claiming pre-tournament he had never putted well on slow greens. He’s won the British Open THREE times, how poorly could he have putted on slow greens?
Those who didn’t watch missed an historic performance. If Oosthuizen goes on to become a star in golf, great. He’s clearly a very nice man with a wonderful golf swing who dealt with the pressure of contending in a major for the first time—heck, he’d made ONE cut previously and finished 73d—with amazing calm. But if he NEVER contends in a major again his weekend at St. Andrews will be worth savoring forever.
And if you didn’t choke up at least a little bit when he opened his victory speech by wishing Nelson Mandela a happy 92nd birthday then you have no sense of history at all.
The awards ceremony at The Open Championship is like no other in golf. No one thanks sponsors and there are no self-congratulatory pats on the back by the guys running the event. Peter Dawson, the head of the R+A, introduces the low amateur, the runner-up and then, “the champion golfer of the year.”
Again, if you don’t get a few chills when those words are spoken, you should be watching baseball at that moment.
I’ve been lucky enough to be standing a few yards away when those words were spoken on 11 different occasions. I hope I find a way to do it again. No doubt the Open will go back to St. Andrews in 2015. Maybe by then I’ll figure out a way to get there.
John's new book: "Moment of Glory--The Year Underdogs Ruled The Majors,"--is now available online and in bookstores nationwide. Visit your favorite retailer, or click here for online purchases