Preparing for another Open, and remembering the ones that came before
One of the great pleasures of my ridiculously fun job is making a mid-summer trip to the British Open, which I'll do again this week.
The last time I was at Royal Lytham was in 2003. That was in the third week of a three-week trip. Ben Curtis won the Open at Royal St. George’s, where it was so sunny and hot kids were sledding down the hillsides covered with shiny brown grass. The next week Tom Watson won the Senior Open at Turnberry. He raised a glass of bubbly in victory but did not drink it. The following week, Annika Sorenstam won the Women's Open at Lytham, two months after she had played at Colonial. She wasn't Tiger, but she was close. She was a woman in full.
At Turnberry in '03, I stayed in the hotel right on the course. Is there a grander "resort" -- I detest that word -- anywhere in the world? Not that I've seen. Fuzzy and Mrs. Fuzzy were in the room next door. One night, around 7 p.m., the Zoellers were leaving their room at the same time I was leaving mine. They were dressed for dinner and smelling good. I had my golf bag on my shoulder. Fuzzy and I talked about "evening golf." (Now there's a wonderful phrase.) You can start a round at seven at night and easily finish, especially in Scotland, where it stays light well past 10.
The next night, at the same time, the three of us were leaving our rooms again. The Zoellers were looking spiffy. I was wearing one of those puffy (and absurd) hotel-issued robes, with a bathing suit underneath it. Fuzzy put on his British accent and said, "Going to spa, are we?" There will never be another Fuzzy.
There was all sorts of American golf royalty at Turnberry that week, starting with Palmer and Nicklaus and Watson. It's been said many times that Arnold Palmer reinvigorated American interest in the British Open when he lost by a shot to Kel Nagle at the Old Course in 1960. My guess is there's some truth to that claim, but only some.
In '53, Hogan won the Open at Carnoustie, but there was no Hogan "bump." For the '57 Open at St. Andrews, the home of golf, the only Americans in the field were Cary Middlecoff, Frank Stranahan and Gene Andrews. Pretty meager. Then Palmer played so well in '60, in his first British Open, and he won the Open in '61 and '62. And in '63, at Lytham, there were all of eight Americans in the field. Now you have Tiger Woods calling the Open his favorite major, and virtually any American who can play does. I'm sure Palmer had a lot to do with that, but I suspect Watson and Nicklaus were every bit as influential. (Gary Player, too.) We're accustomed in this hectic world to having things happen overnight, but the truth is evolution always unfolds in the slow lane.
I fell for Open golf watching Watson at Carnoustie on TV in my parents' house in Patchogue, L.I., in '75, at age 15. Watson was wearing one of those little tweed caps, and he looked great. The hat was not a billboard for 5-Hour Energy. Watson was powered by the wind.
Ten years later I went to the Open for the first time, as a caddie. The '85 Open was at Sandwich, as the Britons often call Royal St. George’s, and I caddied for a young pro from New Jersey, Jamie Howell, who was on his honeymoon. He qualified for that Open at a neighboring Open links, Royal Cinque Ports, which the old British golf writers called Deal. It's French: Five Ports. The French, of course, pronounce cinque as sank, but you know how it is with the English and the French: All the Brits say Royal SINK Ports.
J.H. Taylor -- one third of golf's original big three, a.k.a. "the Great Triumvirate" -- won the 1909 Open at Deal and designed Royal Birkdale, which I plan to play this week. (As I say, it's a ridiculously fun job.) Last year, when the Open was at Sandwich, I played evening golf at Royal Cinque Ports. Trump has built himself a course in something he's calling the Great Dunes of Aberdeen. I walked the land there before it was a course. It was a stunning. Maybe his course there is good. I hope it is. But that Deal course is all I could ever want, and it never gets more than (I'm guessing) 30 feet above sea level. It's all in the routing, the humps and hollows, the traps, the greens, the breath of the seas -- and the charm. How do you manufacture that? You can't.
In '85, for several days before the BBC took it over, I stayed in a motel called The Chequers Inn, on the Cinque Ports course. One night, in the inn's crowded bar/restaurant, there was Nicklaus himself, with Barbara and friends, carrying pints to his table. Everybody said hi to him. He was fine with all of it. Talk about convivial.
I played some evening golf that week with another caddie, Dave McNeely of Northern Ireland, who was staying in a nearby caravan park. Our golf was just pitch shots and putting contests, as I remember it. We've been friendly ever since. A few years ago, when I was flying to Belfast to write about Rory McIlory, Dave and I happened to be on the same Newark-to-Belfast flight. I gave Dave a ride home. What a lovely garden he and his family have.
At the '03 British Senior Open, I walked some with Barbara Nicklaus as she followed Jack and Tom. At the time, my wife was packing up our old house, preparing for a move, from one house in Philadelphia to another, without any of my manly help. "Tell Christine she's lucky," Mrs. Nicklaus said. "Jack once helped with a move. He lifted one box and said, `I'm exhausted.' He was done." Mrs. Nicklaus had our house figured out.
Watson won that week with Neil Oxman on his bag and his regular caddie, Bruce Edwards, at home in Florida, in the late stages of the disease that killed him, A.L.S. It was a great win for Watson, one of his best, and a wistful experience for everybody. Neil, of course, would much rather have been home in Philadelphia, with a healthy Bruce working for Watson. Neil introduced Watson to Bruce, in a manner of speaking.
Neil, a close friend of mine, had caddied for Watson the week before that Senior Open win, at Sandwich. When reporters asked Watson about Neil’s filling in for Bruce, Watson said, "Neil used to caddie on Tour, years ago. In recent years he's been doing other things." Looking at the reporters, I think they thought this meant that Neil had been doing time in the big house or something. He's a political consultant.
On the Saturday of the 2009 British Open at Turnberry, Watson held the 54-hole lead. Neil and I were both staying up the road in Troon, at the Marine Hotel. We talked in the hotel restaurant for three hours that night. None of the conversation was about anticipating what could happen on Sunday. You know what didn't happen on that Sunday.
I've been at all of Tiger's 14 major wins except one, his 2000 win at the Old Course. I was covering the U.S. Women's Open that week. My friend Joe Logan, a fellow reporter, saw me in Chicago and said, "Who did you piss off?" Karrie Webb won, and our hotel had a ping-pong table. Lee Trevino played in his final British Open that year, and in his bag was a utility club that I had invented. (U.S. Patent No. 6,033,320.) As a one off, if the choice were for me to cover an Open or have my little invention play in one, I'd rather have my club make the trip.
In 2005, when Tiger won at St. Andrews, his post-round press conference was packed, of course. Right at the start he said, "I'll tell you what." Everybody leaned in. "That was one of the best warm-up sessions I've ever had in my life, right there, this morning." He had just won the British Open on the Old Course, and he was talking about his warm-up session! It was one of the most revealing things he's ever said.
Probably the best time I ever had at a British Open came in 2010, the last time the Open was held at St. Andrews. On the Friday, my friend Mike Donald, the former Tour player, and I were walking around the course, following Watson and Woods and some others. At one point, play was halted. Too much wind. We drove down to the links at Elie, about 30 minutes from St. Andrews, for some evening golf. Elie has 16 par-4s and two par-3s. It's a joy.
Elie is on a peninsula and the wind blows every which way. It was so blowy and cold and rainy that you'd have to have been insane to play, but we did, and others did, too. On one short par-4, Mike killed a drive and then a 4-wood, and the two shots covered maybe 300 yards.
When we got to the 18th tee, it was nearly 10 p.m. We had a choice: play the home hole or call it quits and get a last-call dinner at the wonderful tavern across the road from the 18th tee. We parked our wet bags at the entrance and got our order in. I can't remember what we ate, but it was excellent.