TROON, Scotland – Jim Herman arrived here as a 38-year-old virgin. The 145th British Open is his first. On Sunday night, he’ll return whence he came, the PGA Tour. But he'll never be the same. He has experienced championship golf on a true and great links, and that will be part of his golfing DNA for the rest of his life.
For Bobby Jones and Sam Snead and Tom Watson, links golf was nothing like love at first sight. But it was for Herman, who won in Houston in April and this year will play in all four majors in a single year for the first time. Herman had come to Scotland on a buddies' trip in October 2013, late October. The days are cold and short by then, but play is fast. The guys got off the plane and played 36 at Muirfield, three months after Phil Mickelson's victory. Herman liked playing the ball on the ground and hitting chip shots that stopped near the hole and did not run up one hill and down another before finishing in something known as a collection area. A collection area is a place to take your recycling.
Herman's point, aided and abetted by your correspondent, who has similar dispositions, is that links golf is the purest and truest form of the game. By extension, the British Open is not only the oldest and most international golf championship, but it is also the best.
"At Oakmont, the main obstacles were the speed of the green and the slope of the greens," Herman said of this year's U.S. Open venue, where he missed the cut.
He was sitting in a lounge at the Marine Hotel, where he and his wife, Carolyn, are staying. The hotel sits hard by Royal Troon. By Saturday night, he had not been in a car since Monday morning, and he had not eaten anywhere other than the hotel. He is an authority on the hotel's pot roast, having ordered it every night.
"Here," he said, looking in the direction of the course, "the main obstacles are the wind and the bunkers."
You play every shot with those two things in mind. It is a thoroughly engaging experience. Herman played the first three rounds in one under par, good for a share of 13th place. Yes, he got the better end of the weather on Thursday and Friday. Nobody said Open golf is fair. Nobody said life is, either.
Ben Hogan won the 1953 U.S. Open at Oakmont and the '53 British Open at Carnoustie, two of the hardest courses you could ever want to play. Oakmont's greens have always been notorious for their speed and slope. But the science of growing and cutting grass has undergone a revolution over the past 60 years. Hogan didn't have the OCD gene for putting as he did for others parts of the game. He teed it up 18 times in the U.S. Open and once in the British Open. Were he playing today, you can imagine the same lopsided, 18–1 score, but now in favor of the British Open. Links golf is not about the putting contest. That's why it suits Herman so well. In links golf there is never a single way to play a hole. On Saturday, Herman's playing partner, J.B. Holmes, hit a driver on the downwind par-4 1st and left himself with a 40-yard running pitch shot. Herman played the hole with a four-iron and a full wedge. Both made birdie.
As a public-course golfer growing up on the tree-lined courses of Cincinnati, Herman loved watching the Open and venerated Tom Watson's career in it. Then, as a PGA Tour member a couple years ago, Herman got to meet the man who hoisted the claret jug five times. In a practice round on Monday here, he played a few holes with Justin Leonard and Zach Johnson, each of whom has his name on the little silver pitcher. Open vibes were washing all over him.
Herman is one good round from qualifying for next year's Open, at Royal Birkdale. The top 10 finishers qualify for the following year's Open. While Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson analyze the wind for four trying hours in an effort to win, another competition will be held. That's the nature of tournament golf. There's always a competition within the competition. There's always something at stake.
But Herman wasn't going to play his first Sunday in a British Open even thinking about a top 10 finish. He said he would focus on playing the wind and avoiding the bunkers. "I've only been in one bunker all week," he said Saturday night.
Mickelson and Stenson were playing up 18. Jim and Carolyn were enjoying a pint of Guinness. His face was wind-burned. He looked both exhausted and exhilarated. He was playing in his first Open and doing it well. "This to me is golf as it is meant to be played," said the newest convert to the game in its aboriginal form.