In many places and to many people, this opinion borders on fact: The greatest of golf’s four majors is the British Open. For starters, it closes with the winner draped in these time-smoothed words, delivered with Churchillian authority: champion golfer of the year. Come next year, when the PGA Championship moves to May, the British Open will be the final of the four majors and those crowning words will become even more meaningful. If that’s possible.
Yes, over there, in the kingdom, our American phrase — the British Open — hits the ear like the clank of a shank. As Malcolm Booth, the R&A’s head of marketing, said to me recently, “When we hear ‘the British Open,’ it just jars a bit, as it would for anyone who is called by the wrong name.” His point is incontestable. The name of the thing is The Open Championship, and it was a WGC event long before WGC events were invented. The Open is the ultimate world golf championship.
And the most wet-and-wooly. Johnnie Cole-Hamilton, the R&A’s top operations person, takes pleasure in describing the Open-sponsored campground, a new program that offers a half-priced ticket and a free tent for anybody between 16 and 24. Not that the good man actually used the déclassé phrase half-priced ticket. “A subsidized ticket,” is how he said it, while noting the longtime free-admission policy to the Open for anyone under 16. All over Instagram you can find snaps taken last year when the English golfer Tommy Fleetwood toured the R&A campsite near Birkdale and knocked on some tent doors. The Open meets Woodstock.
Year after year, the whole evolving Open show — whether you are a competitor, spectator, caddie, official, volunteer, reporter, course worker, food vendor — is as much fun as you can have while wearing waterproofs. (An old car-park ritual involves arriving fans standing on pieces of cardboard in the rain and dressing for “the golf.”) Doesn’t matter if the person is from England, Scotland, Ireland or Wales; from Spain, Italy or France; from Australia or New Zealand; from South Africa, from China, from India. Ask Jordan Spieth. Ask Matt Kuchar. You can’t not enjoy the Open. Last summer at Royal Birkdale, those two made-in-America golfers were scrambling all about Birkdale’s pale fairways and grassy dunes, pulling out all the stops, for the privilege of carting around that little five-pound silver jug for a year. Spieth, as winner, will be coming back to the Open for the next 40 years. If you could, wouldn’t you?
The Open is always played with palpable joy even while, on their backs, the contestants carry the weight of a hundred million eyeballs and all that history. The Glasgow Herald surely flooded the zone when Willie Park won the maiden event in 1860. NBC Sports, in all its platforms, had a field day with Spieth and Co. last year. The vibe off the Masters is, Aren’t you special? For being in the field, in a green members’ jacket, in the gallery, in the press building. The Masters is special. But the Open is open-armed: Come on in!
At Carnoustie this year, you can take the train into town, walk 500 meters, pay cash at the door (or by phone or plastic or whatever) and enter the course at any of a dozen or so places. Couldn’t be easier. Plus, the small-batch beer, the brick-oven pizza, the fish-and-chips—and the all-day golf.
There will be two notable changes at Carnoustie from the last time the Open was there, in 2007, when Padraig Harrington won and Rory McIlroy, as an 18-year-old amateur, announced himself to the world. (I remember what my colleague Gary Van Sickle said: “He’s like a young Lanny Wadkins.”) The first change could not be earthier. The R&A has built a series of spectator mounds — little dunes, really — between the 12th green and the 13th tee that look like they’ve been breathing sea air for a hundred years. The second change comes straight outta cyberspace. At the 2007 Open, following the phone bedlam of the 2006 Open at Hoylake, the R&A had a no-phone policy for the four competition rounds. Now (and since 2013) the R&A invites spectators to bring their phones, and to use the R&A Open app to view player locations, leaderboard changes, weather advisories, course maps, plus the live streaming of play, the posting of video highlights and the linking to your favorite social-media sources. The R&A is an iPhone in one hand and a train schedule in the other.
Its overlords have always wanted the players to play. Their attitude is the course is the course, the weather is the weather, the leaderboard is the leaderboard. Spieth shot 12 under par over the four rounds last year and in the gloaming of the Sunday finale the R&Aers looked delighted. When a 59-year-old honorary Scotsman, Tom Watson, finished 72 holes at the 2009 Open at Turnberry in a tie for first, they were verklempt. The British golf community — at the Royal and Ancient clubhouse in St. Andrews and way beyond it — has no interest in watching the greatest players in the world be humiliated by our humbling game. It wants to celebrate them. They know what we all know: what we give, we get back. Crank up “Ode to Joy.”
I find that nothing gets you in the mood to play golf like attending an Open. I’ve been to 23 and I can’t tell you about all the fun I’ve had playing evening golf after a day at the Open. I am thinking of a night game at Elie when my playing partner and I quit after 17 to get a last-call dinner at the Golf Tavern, opposite the 18th tee. Playing the Old Course as a singleton in 2007, with strange toothy creatures darting out of the rough. Touring Rye, Western Gailes, Kilmarnock and many other fine courses with my friend John Garrity, the man behind the classic (and hard to find) ode to seaside British golf, Dunesbury. The public Southport Golf Links, in Southport, England—must make a nod to our night game there. We had read somewhere that it was the worst links golf course in the British Isles. We were laughing, it was so good. We ate that night at Pizzeria Mama Mia. Or did we eat there another night after another evening game at a different Southport course?
The first Open for Mike Woodcock, an R&A media official, came as a young boy in 1985, when the Open was at Royal St. George’s, on England’s Kentish coast. (British geographical terms will trip us up—the Firth of Forth.) The Woodcocks are Scottish, and Sandy Lyle, champion golfer of the year that year, is too, and young Mike had a hero to last him the rest of his life. Maybe what Joe Montana is to you. But Joe Cool never had Payne Stewart of the United States chasing him. Also, David Graham of Australia, Christy O’Connor Jr. of Ireland, Jose Rivera of Spain, Bernhard Langer of “West Germany,” all of whom finished two shots back. It was an open Open. They all are, really. These days there are qualifying events on five continents. That’s far different than it used to be, but things change. In 1962, as the U.S. Open winner, Jack Nicklaus had to go to Scotland and play in a qualifier. He made it, and played in his first Open.
My first Open was that ’85 Sandy Lyle Open. I remember Big Jack fetching beers from the bar, among the locals, at the Chequers Inn, on the neighboring Royal Cinque Ports Golf Club course. The merchandise tent at RSG was half mom-and-pop shops and booths, and I met an artisan golf-glove maker who invited me for a game and a home-cooked dinner. That ship has sailed. The Open merchandise tent has become corporate, soulless and boring.
But the Open is the Open, and the kingdom is the kingdom, and for every one thing that changes over there, two things stay the same. Last year at Birkdale, I stayed with three friends in a rented house so close to the course we could hear clapping from the grandstands. The house had a hitting net in the backyard. My housemates and I breakfasted outdoors on the Sunday morn at a newsagent/breakfast nook/package store on the Liverpool Road called The Barrel House. We read the papers, drank coffee, ate scones and chatted up the ladies, done with church, at the table beside our own. One of them was Tommy Fleetwood’s aunt, and I’ve been following him ever since. Maybe he’ll be named as the champion golfer of the year this year. Or not. Somebody will be. The Open is grand and intimate and modern and old and everything in between. If you go this year, pack an extra sweater. Carnoustie can be cold.
I’m going to download that app.