I think I vaguely remember watching some news reports of Tony Jacklin’s victory in the Open at Lytham in 1969 and Jack Nicklaus the following year at St. Andrews. I definitely remember seeing some of the action from the Opens in ’71 and ’72 with a running commentary on the exploits of Lee Trevino - by Lee Trevino himself - but undoubtedly the first Open that I really remember watching all and any coverage of, was the 1973 Open at Royal Troon and the victory by American Tom Weiskopf – a name that at the time I found quite intriguing. I was 13 years old and had just commenced my own golfing journey, playing with some borrowed clubs on the school playing fields at the top of my road. As I’ve said many times, I’ve never played a game of rugby but it was on the rugby pitch where I learned to play golf!
The 1973 Open at Troon was memorable to me for a few things. Harry Carpenter presenting in front of a map of the course that looked like it was made by the same BBC props team that made the weather maps. The fantastic range of Argyll jumpers that only ‘Dads’ would be seen dead in. And American golfer, 71 year old Gene Sarazen returning to the UK to play in his last Open. Gene won the Open in the only time it was played at Prince’s in Kent in 1932, and was playing in the first round alongside Fred Daly who won the open at Royal Liverpool in 1947 and Max Faulkner who won the Open at Royal Portrush in 1951 – the only time the Open has been held outside either Scotland or England up til now. All three played together, all resplendent in wonderful Plus 4’s – surely the most ridiculous looking but highly practical golfing garment. You could ride a bike in them without the need for bicycle clips! I clearly remember watching the shot of the first round when Gene holed his 5 iron at the famous short par 3 eighth hole ‘Postage Stamp’. Many people forget that in the second round at the same hole Gene, having sent his tee shot into a green side bunker, holed from the sand for a very impressive birdie. Just three shots over two days to play the famous 8th with none of them from the putting surface. Whilst I’m sure that in the coming week the Postage Stamp will be the subject of much chatter I think it will be another Par 3, the 17th, which will play the greater role in the outcome of who gets to lift the Claret Jug.
The Open was first played at Troon in 1923 when Englishman Arthurs Havers took the title of Open Champion – a feat which was the subject of the recent ‘A look back in time’ article in Golf News sponsored by ETIQUS. South African Bobby Locke triumphed at Troon in 1952 before the unbroken run of American winners started with Arnold Palmer in 1962.
My first visit to any Open was in 1989 when the Open was again held at the Ayrshire course. My good friend ‘Sunderland’ took me via Turnberry and a round on the then Arran course. It’s was there that he introduced me to his phrase ‘that shot looks a bit sexual to me' . ‘Sexual?’ I asked. ‘Yep, sexual into gorse!’ he laughed. We stayed in a B&B in Girvan making the trip at the crack of dawn to Troon in time to see the first shot of the Open. It was there that we started our decade long ritual of following Seve during the first two rounds of every Open he played in – sadly he failed to make the cut in most Opens after 1988. At Troon in 1989 he was the defending champion having won the previous year at Lytham, and played his opening rounds with the 1982 winner at Troon, and five times Open Champion, American Tom Watson. They were joined by another American Steve Jones. I remember the early leader boards with the names of Jodie Mudd, David Feherty and Australian Wayne Grady figuring prominently. But it was yet another American Mark Calcavecchia who was to come through the field, and the first ever 4 hole play off, to overcome the two Aussies, Grady and the Great White Shark Greg Norman, with the aforementioned Par 3 17th playing a key role in events.
That trip to Troon in 1989 marked the start of my love affair with Links Golf – if you haven’t played a Links course then put it immediately at number 1 on your bucket list!
The 1997 win at Troon by Justin Leonard and the 2004 win by 500-1 outsider Todd Hamilton complete the American dominance of the event when held on ‘The Old Course’ of Troon. I have been fortunate enough to play both the Old Course and The Portland course at Troon and play both rather well. On the Old Course my only ‘bogey’ of the front nine came at the famous Postage Stamp but as we turned at the end of the course, next to Prestwick Airport, and headed home straight into the prevailing wind, the back 9 beat me hands down. We had the services of a caddie on the Championship course and, as visitors, we were allowed to go round the course in no more than 4 hours 15 mins (members are expected to complete a round in under 4 hours!) – which even playing in a four-ball with an American Father and Son combination we were able to do with ease, much to the delight of our caddies who as a result were able to pick up another fee from an afternoon bag.
And so to this year. Sadly I am not able to return to the wonderful links of Troon, one of my most favourite links courses and Open venues, as a result of a recent operation on my neck – not much detail to impart in this blog other than in golfing parlance the titanium supporting my vertebrae is definitely stiff flex. With a ban on driving (both a car and a golf ball) for a few more weeks and a comfortable walking range of no more than a long Par 5 it will be sofa viewing for the rest of the week. I had been invited to the Association of Golf Writers Annual Dinner, a wonderful event attended by a who’s who of the golfing world and one that I thoroughly enjoyed last year. Hopefully I’ll be back on the fairways and able to return once again to the Open in 2017.
One man who is returning to Troon this year and has been given the honour of striking the first drive on Thursday morning is Colin Montgomerie. I first became aware of Colin when he finished runner up to Olazabal in the 1984 Amateur Championship at Formby. Colin made his debut in the Open in 1990 and has since played in the event 21 times. A magnificent golfer with something of a ‘marmite’ reputation – ebullient when winning but a real sourpuss when things aren’t going well – he’s attracted a real mix bag of adulation and accusation in his career. Known as one of those golfers with the ‘best golfer not to win a major’ tag, although he will claim that his record in the Senior Majors now annuls that, could he possibly do a Tom Watson and be in real contention come Sunday? If he is fortunate enough to lift the Claret Jug he will have no need for a representative from his watch sponsor (Rolex) to be lurking by the 18th to ensure that he remembers to put his timepiece on should he win. Colin, like Phil Mickleson, is one of the few golfers who actually wears a timepiece whilst playing.
So enjoy the Open, welcome the coverage by Sky Sports that will allow us to see every shot played from the first to the last, admire Troon, and when the Claret Jug is finally raised in celebration by the Champion Golfer of the Year and winner of the Gold Medal, whether he’s an American or not, take a peek at the watch that will miraculously appear on their wrist – one year it might be an ETIQUS.
PS It was pleasing to hear that Royal Troon members have voted to allow Women membership at the club.
PPS It wasn't particularly pleasing to hear Rory Mcilroy's comments on Olympic Golf.