My earliest recollection of The Open was the one held in 1973 at Troon in Scotland. I had just had my first putting experience in the local park at the bottom of my road and was about to progress to the pitch-and-putt in Graves Park in Sheffield. I was 12 years old and golf was becoming an important sport in my life. The Open coverage on the beeb, along with Henry Longhurst commentating was essential viewing for the golfing enthusiast, as golf, like most sports was rarely seen live on the box.
Amongst the famous American names of Nicklaus, Miller and Trevino was the unpronounceable (to a 12 year old at least) Tom Weiskopf. The Open, back then, was played from Wednesday through to Saturday and the new name in American golf, Tom Whatdyoumacallhim won the cherished Claret jug. The tournament will always be remembered for 71 year old American Gene Sarazen’s nostalgic visit to these shores. He was the Champion golfer way back in 1932 when the Open was held for its one and only time at Prince’s in Kent. Gene, whose mantra was ‘when I play slow I play bad’ will be remembered for holing his tee shot at the famous 8th Hole ‘The Postage Stamp’ in the first round. Few will remember that the next day Gene hit his tee shot into the greenside ‘trap’ at the same hole promptly holing his bunker shot for a birdie too. In the early years of televised golf those two shots offered much opportunity for the new ‘action replay’ technology.
The story goes that Tom Weiskopf with the Claret Jug in hand drove the next day from the Ayrshire coast across to St Andrews in the belief that he would be able to play the world famous Old Course. Upon arriving he met the starter and proclaimed:-
‘Hi, my name is Tom Weiskopf and I’m here to play the course’
‘Tam whooo?’ enquired the starter in the slightly over pitched east coast Scottish accent.
‘Tom Wise-Cough’ replied Tom. ‘I won The Open yesterday at Troon.’
‘Aye’ said the starter, but continued: ‘Ya mite bee tha Open champion but ye’ll nae plae the Auld Course t’day’. The Old Course was closed on Sundays no matter who you were. Whatever the truth, it’s one of those great golfing stories.
My first visit to the Open was in 1989. My friend, originally from Sunderland asked me to go with him to the Open which that year also happened to be at Troon- he’d booked a surprise for me. So off we went one Wednesday to Scotland to stay in Girvan and watch the Open on Thursday and Friday. The surprise turned out to be Turnberry with its famous Lighthouse and the ‘Ailsa Craig’ rising from the sea. As it was Open Week the Ailsa course was reserved for hotel guests and so we played the then Arran Course. I found the whole day captivating. Sunderland said that I hadn’t seen anything yet and to wait until the next day, when I would witness professional golf in the dunes and whins of Troon. He was right – wow! Those three days were to change my golfing life forever – there was golf but then there was Links golf!
That Troon holiday bore the tradition that continues to this day – normally in ‘open week’ Sunderland and I will play Links golf. Initially we’d play ‘final qualifying’ courses on the Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and then watch the Open on Thursday and Friday. Over the first 10 years or so we’d play most of the Links courses around the open venues and then most of the venues themselves. Eventually we had to spread our wings and take in the fine Links courses of Ireland, Northern Ireland, Wales, most of Scotland, Kent, Devon and Cornwall. To date we’ve played over 100 coastal courses with 78 classed as ‘true Links’. Each course has proved to be a lesson in golf history as much as a game of golf.
At each course I’d buy a ‘Strokesaver’, in the middle of which would be a section on the history of the club and famous players associated with it. It’s been a comprehensive education on the beautiful game that is Links golf and as a result the bookcase in my study has slowly but surely amassed most of the favourite golfing titles of the last 50 years.
In 1989 the reigning champion was Seve. Sunderland and I would spend much of that year and the next decade of Open Championship golf looking for Seve’s ball amongst the knee-high rough of all the championship links venues. Sadly despite our best efforts we would never help him to win his fourth Claret Jug. With the recent release of the film ‘Seve’ – a docudrama of his life- it was only right that we went together to see the cinematic story of our hero. In a theatre capable of seating some three hundred people there were just eight of us watching in admiration his journey from the beach at Pedrena, Spain, to the major golf championships. I can’t remember the last time I cried but I have to admit that the tears welled up at the end. Seve loved Links Golf as you have to have real imagination to play the sort of shots required to succeed against both fellow competitors and the ever changing weather conditions. He had that in abundance.
With The Open once more teeing off- this time at Royal Liverpool, Tiger back in the mix and Justin Rose fresh from his victory at the magnificent links at Royal Aberdeen, I’m drawn to one last snippet from one of those aforementioned Strokesavers. Just along the road from Hoylake is the wonderful Links course of Wallasey – a course that starts and ends amidst the dunes that epitomise Links golf. In the Club house hang two famous portraits – one of Bobby Jones the founder of The Masters and the other of Dr Frank Stableford. It was Dr Frank’s trials and tribulations at the 2nd hole there that led him to put forward his points system of scoring, enabling the more modest golfers amongst us to still have something to play for should a disaster befall us early in the round (in his case most times he played the second hole). It took some years for his Stableford scoring system to be accepted by the establishment but today it is a foundational format for playing enjoyable competitive club golf.
As I set out on my new venture I’m left to ponder if the Golf Linksometer with its unique distinctive bezel, its aim of being a identifier of the proper golfer, of upholding the importance of etiquette and in particular raising awareness of a good pace of play will ever be accepted as the de facto element for a golf timepiece – we shall see. But there’s one question where in my mind there is no doubt – given the choice, it is links golf for me every tee time.
Enjoy The Open