SANDWICH, England — You never fall out of love with your first girlfriend, not completely, and so it is with your first links course. She — do you remember when golfers, like Foreign Service officers speaking of far-away countries, gave courses the feminine pronoun treatment? — becomes part of you, part of your golfing education.
Royal St. George’s, on a long stretch of linksland on the mellow Kentish coast, is a great, tough, gnarly, mean and unfair golf course. You wouldn’t want a British Open played on any other sort of course, would you? St. Andrews, Troon, Royal Lytham: they’re all pretty much the same way. It’s been fair game to the diss Royal St. George’s for years all because of one comment Jack Nicklaus can’t even remember saying anymore. The Bear was once asked about his favorite Open courses. This was a hundred years ago. Big Jack said, and I’m paraphrasing, “I like them all, but I like them best from north to south.”
By that he meant that the Old Course in St. Andrews, halfway up the East Coast of Scotland, was his favorite. (He conveniently forgot that Carnoustie is north of St. Andrews.) And that St. George’s was his least favorite.
The great man is entitled to his opinion, of course, even when it’s wrong. And just maybe Nicklaus’s view is colored by the fact that he never won here, never remodeled the course, was never invited to join. (Don’t feel too bad for him. He’s a member at Augusta National and Muirfield Village, too.) Nicklaus played his first links golf at the other Muirfield, in suburban Edinburgh, and you’re not going to do better than that, speaking of first girlfriends, links division.
My own first links experience came here at St. George’s, as a caddie in the ’85 Open, won by Sandy Lyle. I’d never seen anything like Royal St. George’s. If all you knew was American golf, as I did before that week, nothing could prepare you for her bumpy fairways and head-high bunkers and a wind so strong that at one point my boss, Jamie Howell, son of a New Jersey club pro and on his honeymoon, was stopped dead in his tracks. His playing partner, Maurice Bembridge, was losing ground. Augusta National can have its water. Oakmont can have its greens. Shinnecock Hills can have its rough. The single greatest obstacle in all of golf design is wind.
Early that week, I stayed at a little cinder-block motel called The Chequers Inn on the Royal Cinque Ports course, which abuts Royal St. George’s. The Chequers was no tourist trap. It had good food and a great bar. One night, Nicklaus, with his wife, Barbara, stood at the bar with scores of others and enjoyed a pint. He talked to strangers as if they were friends. He was at the tail end of his career. The next year he won the Masters.
Tom Watson played in that ’85 Open, and is playing this week. Bernhard Langer, too. Mike Cowan was there with Peter Jacobsen, who tackled a streaker moments before Lyle holed his winning putt. Cowan’s working this week, too, for Jim Furyk. Nothing really changes in golf. The names of the players and the equipment they play with, yes, but the game doesn’t, it hasn’t, and one of the great things about returning to St. George’s is to see how many things golf has retained.
The little sagging clubhouse, with its red-tiled roof. The thatched hut near the first tee that houses the starter. The “permit holders,” a team of working men from Royal St. George’s and another from Royal Cinque Ports, gearing up for their annual July war-by-the-shore, take-no-prisoners golf match, which will be played shortly after the last Open bleacher is dismantled.
Severiano Ballesteros, tragically, is gone, but this week we have Francesco Molinari, the brooding Italian golfing genius.
Peter Uihlein, a promising young amateur, played with Miguel Angel Jimenez, another man doing an excellent job of keeping Seve’s Spanish golfing spirit alive. Uihlein’s father, Wally, who runs Titleist, walked the old links on Thursday and watched his son watching Jimenez. It was a lesson. “He picked it apart,” the father said, in awe of the chess Jimenez played in his first-round 66. He and his son talked about it. “He picked at it, he picked at it, he picked at it.” To play a really good round of golf on a true links course, you have to be sort of a golfing genius. Jimenez is.
David Gilford was a promising amateur at that ’85 Open, just like Uihlein is now. He made the 36-hole cut but not the one after 54 holes. (There were two cuts back then.) Later he became a Ryder Cupper. I don’t know what he’s doing now, but I’m certain he remembers that ’85 Open. How could he not?
I’m sure Uihlein will remember what he does this week, at his first Open. No matter what he does the rest of his golfing life, he’s played in a British Open at St. George’s. Likely it will be the first of many, but golf promises you nothing. He saw a proper round of golf on a proper links. He’ll never forget her.