Sunday, December 07, 2008

Sad to say, Carnoustie is the only course on the British Open rota I haven't played in the dozen or so Open Championships (that's what we call it) that help checker my career. I did play the Scottish Open there a couple of times, so I know the course and I'm really going to miss being there this year.

However, one aspect of the Open I won't miss at all -- the accommodations. Because of the influx of fans, places to stay for the week can be difficult to find and expensive, as well, because hoteliers know they have the market cornered.

For this reason, players often rent houses, the occupants of which presumably go on an all-expense paid vacation, thus avoiding all the unwashed louts that invade their towns. If you don't mind the thought of some strangers sitting on your toilet and going through your stuff, it's not a bad way to make a few bucks.

Houses at The Masters, for instance, go from $7,000 or $8,000 to upwards of $30,000 for the week. For this kind of cash, as a renter, you want to be sure the owner doesn't check on you every day to see if you are rifling through her knickknack drawer or goose-stepping around the kitchen in her underwear whistling the Star-Spangled Banner with the toilet plunger on your head.

I have stayed at the Zimmerman house in Augusta for the last three years and I have never once laid eyes on Mrs. Zimmerman, who, I'm sure, is a very nice woman. For the record and her peace of mind, I have never done any such thing in her kitchen. For a start, I can never find the toilet plunger.

But I digress, as usual. The houses that come up for rent at the British Open are generally of a slightly different standard and the occupants can have a very different attitude than that of the Zimmermans, who pretty much leave their house as they live in it.

Once at Royal St. George's, two other players and I rented a small house for the week for the ridiculous sum of £3,000. The owner had all but stripped the place bare of anything of any comfort, leaving us cracked coffee mugs, a few ancient bone-handled knives and forks, slippery toilet tissue (particularly upsetting), and threadbare towels.

The bathroom consisted of a dusty pink basin and can set, which went beautifully with the grimy avocado tub with the separate hot and cold faucets. In order to take a shower, you had to plug two rubber thingies onto the taps and hook the hand-held shower onto a bracket on the mildewed wall. Then you had to hope like hell you could regulate the temperature in time before the eight-quart hot water tank ran out. There were only two temperature settings in the shower: shrink or scald.

Also, the bed linen was nylon and there was a padlock on the linen closet. The first night, I snagged a toenail getting into bed and threw a complete wobbly fit. I ran down the stairs, found a screwdriver, and took the door off the linen closet. Inside was all the linen, cutlery, china, and toilet tissue we would need.

We were all right until we noticed that every time one of us stood at the kitchen sink, an elderly lady was sitting in the kitchen of the neighbors' house across the back wall, some 15 feet away. She was obviously watching us.

We tried a couple of cheery waves, but she just sat there glaring with a cigarette hanging from the corner of her mouth. After a couple of days, this began to really irritate me, so the next morning I washed the dishes wearing nothing but a Speedo and a pair of fake breasts. (Don't ask; I used to travel with a rubber chicken in my hand luggage just to freak out the security people at the airport.)

Anyway, that afternoon I came back to the house early after a practice round. My two housemates were out on the golf course, so when I heard a bump upstairs, I knew something was up.

I got my sand wedge, went to the foot of the stairs, and called up, "Who's there?" No answer. Now, like in most elderly British houses, the floorboards creaked. I thought I heard just such a noise coming from my room as I crept slowly up the stairs, hoping for once I had picked the right club.

I pushed open the door to my room, which appeared to be empty until someone simultaneously sneezed and banged their head, which moved the dust ruffle around the bed. I hooked the wedge under it and lifted it up to reveal the intruder -- the old bat from next door.

She was desperately trying to reinsert her false teeth. She sneezed violently again, hitting her head on the box springs and sending the teeth skating across the hardwood floor.

"Can I help you?" I asked and offered my hand. She took it and I pulled her out so she could stand. The front of her housedress was thick with lint and dust and a dead moth hung from the arm of her spectacles.

I reached around the bed, picked up her false teeth, and handed them to her. "You might want to rinse these, they're a little dusty," I said. She marched, tight-lipped, into the bathroom across the hallway, and returned moments later, looking defiant and a little fuller around the mouth.

"I'm sorry, young man," she said, "but I'm the owner of this house and last night I heard a terrible crash. So, I thought I'd check to see if anything had been broken."

I looked at her thoughtfully. "Presumably, then, you thought we'd broken the floor under this bed."

She looked at me malevolently and said, "I wasn't expecting you back this early. Aren't you supposed to be practicing?"

"No," I replied. "I perfected the game at lunchtime." I told her that the crash she heard was probably me falling over a rip in the carpet by the back door while I was carrying a brown paper sack full of empty gin bottles we had found in the larder.

I pointed out that we had paid to rent the house and its contents for the week and the only thing the house contained at the moment that we didn't need was her. Now in full battle-ax mode, she replied that, taking into consideration the damage to the linen closet, her entrance was justified and she intended to keep the £200 security deposit.

I told her that would be fine and ushered her to the door, assuring her we could find a way to do much more damage than that.

Players from this side of the Atlantic have often avoided the Open Championship for this very reason. Housing is incredibly expensive, considering what you get, or rather what you don't get. Also, if by some twist of fate, the weather is good and the temperature climbs above 70 degrees, every ice machine within a 30-mile radius will break.

Anyone reading this who has been there will know this is true. Barmen still take ice out of the bucket with tongs, one lump at a time, as if they were dropping diamonds into your glass. Then, as if they knew the cruelty of the gesture, will pour room temperature liquid over the two cubes, melting both in the process, thereby nullifying the whole point of the exercise.

If you're planning to go to the British Open -- which, despite all of the above, I still think is a very good idea -- there is no way you can avoid crappy accommodations, but there is a way to pay less for them.

It's very simple: Don't book anything in advance. Just show up. Then, look for a parasite who has been hoping to suck the green out of someone's wallet, but as yet has been unsuccessful.

The local real estate parasites will have lists of them. A lot of these people will have booked their vacations in advance and will be wetting themselves at the thought of having to pony up for the trip themselves. This puts you in the driver's seat.

Just stride into the local realtor's office and say something like, "My good man, I'd like to rent a house for the week. Say, something like three small bedrooms, one bathroom with a shower I have to run around in to get wet, and a black-and-white television with one of those turny knobs to change the channels."

I guarantee he will have a dozen or so similar properties and you should offer about a third of what they are asking to leave room to make it seem you're willing to be generous.

So, in other words, if you have no plans for Carnoustie this year, you're already ahead of the game -- and in much better shape than you might have thought!

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