This is the worst Open Championship ever.
Oh, the Muirfield links is a delight, unless you’re allergic to airborne dust. The shotmaking has been excellent: lots of under-the-wind, bump-and-runny strokes on firm, fast fairways. Nothing wrong with the leaderboard, either. You’ve had Tiger, Phil, Lee Westwood, Brandt Snedeker, and Dustin Johnson, to name a few. But I knew this Open was a dud the minute I spotted Rhod McEwan sitting with his family on a patch of grass near the ninth fairway.
A slender, pale and bespectacled man with an inviting smile and a corona of sandy hair, McEwan is rarely seen in sunlight, and certainly not at an Open Championship. For years he has operated a corner bookstall in the Open’s giant merchandise tent, dispensing golf tomes to an international clientele. To read McEwan’s catalog or visit his antiquarian bookshop in Aberdeenshire is to recognize him as the game’s foremost bookman.
He broke the news to me as gently as he could: He’s not exhibiting this year.
Not believing him, I hustled across several fairways to the tented village and plunged into the big merchandise tent. In the far right corner, beyond slick displays of newly minted, brightly colored and appropriately licensed Open Championship sweaters, polo shirts, caps, balls and divot-repair tools was … nothing. The area where McEwan’s tall bookshelves and curio cabinets once stood is now a carpeted exit for merchandise-laden vict -- er, customers.
I should have seen it coming. In the 1990s, before the Open fell into the hands of soulless corporations, the merchandise tent was a hive of untrammeled mercantilism. Local vendors and artists peddled stuff that might otherwise be seen only in a car-boot sale: hickory-shafted floor lamps, kangaroo-hide shag bags, knitted shawls, wool sport coats, golf periscopes, paintings of the Old Course at sunset, busts of Bobby Jones, cut-rate board games and, yes, books. The first time I wandered into McEwan’s bookstall I walked out with two copies of the 1950s classic, Out of the Bunker and Into the Trees -- one for myself (a backup copy) and one for my SI colleague, Rick Reilly, who within minutes was laughing out loud in the press tent.
Everything changed in 2001, when the R&A handed operation of the tent over to International Management Group, Mark McCormack’s burgeoning sports and entertainment empire. IMG promptly hustled most of the small-time merchants out of the tent, promising the R&A that royalties on licensed Open merchandise would generate far more income. And, of course, IMG was right about that. That’s how the tent -- rebranded as “The Open Store” -- became dust-free, odor free, and congenial for corporate brands such as Rolex and Polo Ralph Lauren.
Somehow, McEwan retained his book-lined corner. If you wanted a first-edition Bernard Darwin, signed by the author, he had it. If you wanted a spanking-new copy of Dan Jenkins’s You Gotta Play Hurt, he had that, too -- and if you were lucky, his own self would be there to sign it for you. (“Fairways and Greens, Dan Jenkins”.) All the prominent golf authors, from both sides of the Atlantic, signed books and held court at McEwan’s bookstall.
I don’t write this as a disinterested observer. I fondly recall signing sessions for my own books, including Tiger 2.0, Tour Tempo, and Ancestral Links. The typist to my right, Michael Bamberger, inscribed copies of To the Linksland and This Golfing Life. The cheeky lad to his right put his Alan Shipnuck on Bud, Sweat and Tees and The Battle for Augusta National. We were all humbled by the fact that we were signing at the Open Championship, surrounded by Rhod’s magnificent collection and tournament golf’s most magnificent challenge.
Gone, all gone. McEwan’s rent for the week was raised to the point that he could no longer operate at a modest profit. Understandably disappointed, he spent only a day or two at Muirfield before returning to his shop, where my humble output gets to share the shelves with the great (and not-so-great) chronicles of our crazy game.
The missing bookstall did not escape notice. Alex Micelli raised the subject with R&A secretary Peter Dawson at a Wednesday press conference. “Back in the day,” Alex said in his preface, “it wasn’t a merchandise tent, it was a golf show.” And Alex wondered if the R&A might want to reconsider that development.
“Well, I think you’re right,” Dawson replied. “We have lost a certain charm of the marketplace -- the soul, if you like -- of historical artifacts and things.” But the secretary reminded Alex that the Open “had to be” -- those were his exact words -- a financial success to keep up with the other majors.
“All of the majors, especially in the United States, make a good deal of profit from merchandising. We were not doing that, and so it’s natural that we would try to put in a merchandising option, which we have done, and it is generally very popular,” etc., etc. Dawson held out a slim hope that golf’s heritage might get more space at some future Open, “although that might not involve going back to exactly what we had before.”
And so it goes. When I left McEwan yesterday, he was keeping to the shade of one of those big white tents. It was the wrong side of the canvas for a bookman.
Lousy Open, don’t you think?