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.