By Michael Bamberger
Thursday, July 17, 2008

SOUTHPORT, England — Except for maybe Carnoustie, the Open is played in what the British call "holiday towns," some more charming than others. This one has the requisite amusement parks, cotton candy in all the popular colors, a United Nations of cheap restaurants, pubs on every corner, all manner of guest houses and three big hotels.

I was last here for the '91 Open, won by Ian Baker-Finch, and in those days Big Jack was staying at the grand dame hotel, the Prince of Wales, on sentiment alone, having first checked in there in the late 1950s. In '91, my touring in-laws took my wife and me to one of those long English dinners, with a soup course and a cheese course, and Nicklaus was at a nearby table. He was with Raymond Floyd and Tom Watson, along with their wives, all three players already past their primes and enjoying the fruits of their labors. Hard to imagine a similar scene today.

Jack would go to the Open each year with his wife, Barbara, and their only daughter, Nan, and Mrs. Nicklaus tells a story about a sweltering night at the P.O.W., now many years ago. No air conditioning, of course, so Big Jack opened the windows and the door and somehow dangled the suitcases above the door and set up other obstacles for would-be intruders. I'm sure there are players there this year, but I did case the joint and didn't see a single one, although I did see plenty of Royal & Ancienters, blazered and tied.

Speaking of ancients: I'm at the grandly named Royal Clifton, a Best Western on The Promenade where pensioners rule at lunch time and guests under 55 are pretty darn rare. It's dowdy and cramped and $250 a night during Open week — double that if you're walking in off The Promenade — but I'm not prepared to call it a dump, although you might. The shower is one of those telephone-like contraptions, and if you don't know what I mean, you're missing nothing. Even though it's gray and cloudy and cool, my room is sauna-like. I'm reporting, not complaining. I'm at the Open.

There's a new chic place in town called The Vincent, chic and SoHoish in a town that's still pushing fish and chips. There's trash here and there, and it's not a tidy town but, like everywhere else you go as an accidental tourist, you never know what might jump up and bite you. In Wednesday's long dusk, in a band shell in front of The Vincent, a brass band from the village of Formby played a medley of Beatle hits. The lads, of course, were from Liverpool, just down the road. Take the A589 to the second round-about, go five kilometers, turn left at the Treble Six bar, or some such thing.

It's golf country, through-and-through, really good golf with no pretense and little tourist play. Every town has a course, and the club's are open to working men. Here, in Southport, you walk down The Promendade, past a little bar that describes itself as the smallest pub in Britain, and on the edge of town you come upon the Southport muni, which describes itself as the oldest municipal course in England. The 18 holes were laid down by Mr. H.S. Colt even before the Clifton pensioners were in grade school, under $20 at the dusk rate, a father and his young son heading off in Wednesday night's cool wind, well aware that the Open championship of the world was about to be played in their backyard.

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