Duel in the Sun: Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus in the Battle of Turnberryby Michael Corcoran, Mike Corcoran
The British Open, or the Open Championship as it's known outside the United States, is believed to be the most challenging tournament in professional golf. There was no greater Open than in 1977 at Turnberry on Scotland's southwest coast, when Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus battled over the last thirty-six holes with Watson winning with a closing birdie. Drawing on
The British Open, or the Open Championship as it's known outside the United States, is believed to be the most challenging tournament in professional golf. There was no greater Open than in 1977 at Turnberry on Scotland's southwest coast, when Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus battled over the last thirty-six holes with Watson winning with a closing birdie. Drawing on interviews with participants, caddies, journalists, and spectators, Michael Corcoran brings the drama of this historic Open Championship to vivid life. Along with a revealing retelling of the '77 Open, Corcoran delivers an evocative historical overview of the Open and the tradition it represents.
"Corcoran conveys the essence of the game at a golfer's pace, an unhurried and careful examination of the course, the wind, the lie, the texture of the grass, the landing area, risk and reward, the safe shot, the position of the field, the adrenalin of the moment, the habit or tendency shown in like situations. Everything feeds the story."—William R. Willan, Aethlon
William R. Willan
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In the summer of 1977, the eight best golfers in the world were all veteran American players. Jack Nicklaus was the most accomplished player and the biggest star among a murderer's row that included Lee Trevino, Tom Weiskopf, Johnny Miller, Raymond Floyd, Hubert Green, Hale Irwin, and Tom Watson. When these eight players teed it up at the Open Championship at Turnberry in southwest Scotland during the first full week of July that year, they were joined by an emerging threesome of extraordinary talent that would one day rise to eminence: nineteen-year-old Nick Faldo of England, twenty-year-old Severiano Ballesteros of Spain, and twenty-two-year-old Greg Norman of Australia. The scions of America's championship golf tradition, led by twenty-three-year-old Jerry Pate and twenty-five-year-old Ben Crenshaw, were also on hand at the Turnberry Hotel that week to compete in the 106th playing of the Open Championship. It was the first time that Turnberry had hosted the Open.
There were, of course, other big-name golfers at Turnberry, including the biggest name of them all. At age forty-seven, Arnold Palmer's best days as a player were behind him, but he was still the most recognizable golfer in the world. He was alone among the U.S. players in remembering and experiencing a time not even twenty years before when America's best golfers were reluctant to play in the Open. Some were undoubtedly too small-minded to grasp the significance of competing in the Open, a condition that was aggravated by the small amount of prize money available. Others shrunk from the challenge simply because of the arduous journey to Britain and the fact that, havingmade the journey, they would still have to survive two qualifying rounds before they even got to play in the championship proper. Still another obstacle in the days before widespread and convenient transatlantic air service was the proximity on the calendar of the U.S. PGA Championship to the Open -- the two were usually held within a week or two of each other.
Arnold Palmer went to Scotland to compete in the Open for the first time in 1960, and it would be inaccurate to say that America's undivided attention was focused on him when he crossed the Atlantic Ocean in late June. The Cold War, which had shown signs of reduced tension between the U.S. and Soviet Russia early in the year, had turned more bitter than ever in May when CIA-employed Gary Powers was shot down over Russia in his U-2 spy plane. It was also a presidential election year, and in the summertime the campaign of the young Irish Catholic senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, was gaining momentum. Sports fans in the States, however, had very little to distract their interest in Palmer's trip to the Open; his timing was just right. When the Olympics started in late August, Americans would be enthralled by the triumphs of Al Oerter, Rafer Johnson, and a skinny light-heavyweight boxer from Louisville, Kentucky, named Cassius Clay. When the World Series was played in the fall, it would feature the New York Yankees for the twenty-fifth time since 1920, led by American League MVP Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle. Despite their big name players, the Yankees lost in the seventh game when Pittsburgh's Bill Mazeroski slugged a ninth-inning home run. A few months after that, Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Chuck Bednarik would sit on top of Green Bay running back Jim Taylor as the clock ran out in the NFL Championship Game at the University of Pennsylvania's Franklin Field. In the sports championship void of high summer, however, Palmer was the biggest news in American sports. When he traveled first to Ireland to play in a tournament called the Canada Cup, and then on to St. Andrews for the Open, the sporting public's interest went along with him.
Palmer's professional contemporaries in America at the time certainly took note of his trip, and since he had been beating their brains out all year, were probably glad to hear he wouldn't be around for a few weeks. With the exception of Palmer, top-level American professional golfers in 1960 thought all the talk of the history surrounding the Open Championship and the significance of winning it was just so much flapdoodle when you got right down to it. American players reasoned that a trip to the Open was a money-losing proposition even if they won top prize (which in 1960 was £1,250, or $3,500), and cited this as the reason they stayed home instead of trekking to Great Britain to try to win the game's grandest championship. Henry Longhurst, the brilliant English writer, didn't hold it against them. "With so much money at stake at home," wrote Longhurst in 1959, "the leading American professionals no longer venture across the Atlantic as [Walter] Hagen and [Gene] Sarazen did in the golden age of golf. Much as we may regret it in Britain, we can hardly blame them, yet I venture to believe that they lose something by not coming at least once, and that even [Ben] Hogan felt that the British Open added a sense of completeness to his career."
Palmer's bid for the Open title at St. Andrews in 1960 would be only the fourth by a leading American professional at the top of his game since the championship resumed after World War II. Frank Stranahan, an American amateur and heir to the Champion spark plug fortune, finished as the runner-up in the 1947 and 1953 Opens and played in the tournament regularly during the postwar years. Sam Snead, from West Virginia, won the first Open played after the war, in 1946 at St. Andrews, and then not a peep was heard from America's best professionals until 1953, when Texan Ben Hogan arrived to play in his one and only Open at Carnoustie on Scotland's east coast. Hogan won, adding the Open to the Masters and U.S. Open titles he won earlier in the year. He was the only player to win three professional majors in a single season until Tiger Woods matched the feat forty-seven years later. The Scots admired Hogan's single-mindedness, but quickly realized he lacked a warm side in public, dubbing him "the Wee Ice Mon."
During the postwar years, appearances by Americans were so rare that it was news during the 1951 Open that an American caddied in the tournament. His name was Bob Carlsson, and he wore a University of California sweatshirt while working the bag for K.E. Enderby. In 1955, the top American finisher was Ed Furgol, who had won the 1954 U.S. Open. Furgol finished eleven shots behind the winner, Australian Peter Thomson, and was joined in the field by Americans Johnny Bulla and Byron Nelson, who had by then retired from competitive golf. In 1956, the Open was played in England and Snead and Hogan were there just prior to the championship to play in the Canada Cup. Neither bothered to play in the Open. American Cary Middlecoff made the trip in 1957, one year after winning his second U.S. Open, but in 1958 the only recognizable American face at the Open belonged to fifty-six-year-old Gene Sarazen, who won the championship in 1932.
The 1959 Open was played near Edinburgh at a golf course called Muirfield, the home course of the oldest golf club in the world, the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, established in 1744. (It is worth noting here that a golf club is a group of people -- members -- and the golf course is the playing field used by the members of the club.) Despite the venerable site, not a single American professional showed up. The top golfers from the rest of the world were there, however: Fred Daly from Ireland; Bobby Locke and Gary Player from South Africa; Antonio Cerda and Roberto De Vicenzo from Argentina; Dai Rees from Wales; Flory Van Donck from Belgium; Kel Nagle and Peter Thomson from Australia, who found the excuse of inadequate prize money a poor reason for not playing in the Open. "I know I was making money, or I wouldn't have been going," said Thomson. "The first prize I won at the Open was £750. You could buy a reasonable house for that amount in those days. There was plenty of money to be made out of winning the Open Championship, but there wasn't much to be made by coming in second. Anyone who went to the Open worried about not getting their money back was probably better off out of it anyway."
Fifty years after he made his first trip to Britain in 1951, Peter Thomson recalled that "it took three days because a single air crew took the plane the whole way, and they had to rest every night. After leaving Australia, we stopped the first night in Singapore. The next night was spent in Karachi, and on the third night we finally made it to London. That was if the plane didn't break down, of course. In those days there were frequent breakdowns. It was a great adventure for me. I was a young man on a fact-finding mission." Thomson made regular trips to compete in the U.S. Open as well.
The Argentine De Vicenzo on occasion endured even more than Thomson to play in the old championship. "It is not so easy to get there," said De Vicenzo in broken English fifty-two years after he first made the trip. "I play for first time in 1948 and finish pretty good behind Henry Cotton. I keep this in mind and come back next year and I did good again. Then I decide to play every year. One year, I think it was 1949, I think I cannot go because I do not have the money to go on the plane. Some fellow at a boat company give me a free ticket to go, and it took seventeen days to get to England. When I woke up in Liverpool, I walk off the ship looking like a lost golf player."
South African Gary Player won the 1959 Open at Muirfield, but the talk of the town early in the week was "Papwa" Sewsunker Sewgolum, an Indian-born man playing out of Durban, South Africa, who shot a seventy-one in the qualifying rounds using a cross-handed grip. (For a right-handed player, which Sewgolum was, that meant placing his left hand lower on the club, beneath his right hand.) A black South African named Edward Johnson-Sedibe also tried to qualify to play at Muirfield. He borrowed a set of clubs, turned in a score of eighty-eight in the qualifying and told anyone who listened that he liked being there so much that he planned on sticking around, especially if someone would give him a ride to London. The journey from South Africa to Edinburgh was certainly more daunting and expensive than a trip to the same destination from New York, and if Johnson-Sedibe, a player who didn't even have his own clubs, understood what just having a chance to compete in the Open should mean to anyone who loved the game, were America's best players simply myopic in completely dismissing the Open?
The easy answer to that question is yes. The one thing American professionals could see clearly was the dollar sign. Palmer had won $14,400 when he won the U.S. Open in June 1960, roughly four times more than he would get if he won at St. Andrews. The prize money had never been big in the Open, but the lack of it hadn't deterred adventurous American professionals like Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazen from going to Britain in the 1920s and '30s to see how they stacked up against the rest of the world. Compared to the players who came before them, American tour players in 1960 were living large. Writing in the May 2, 1960, issue of Sports Illustrated, Herbert Warren Wind noted that the young Americans, led by Palmer, "were fortunate in hitting the pro ranks at the golden moment when purses were reaching new highs, and endorsements and promotions frequently doubled what they earned in prize money." Wind, a keen observer of the game and its trends who also wrote about golf for many years for The New Yorker, was dead on the mark. Even players who completely lacked Palmer's appeal were making endorsement income. The magazine advertisements of the time support Wind's observation: Bob Goalby Autographed Clubs by Rawlings. More and more the choice of the young pro; Dow Finsterwald won the Los Angeles Open in Munsingwear. Winners wear Grand Slam Golf Shirts by Munsingwear. Don January won the Tucson Open wearing Munsingwear, too. A golf ball advertisement for U.S. Royal golf balls summed things up nicely. Beneath photos of Ken Venturi, Fred Hawkins, Al Besselink, Bill Collins, and Howie Johnson, the copy reads: Major tournament winners say: "You're longer off the tee with U.S. Royal...the ball with H.I.V.!" Several decades before the world was familiar with the AIDS virus, "the ball with H.I.V." was not the shocking thing about the advertisement (it stood for "high initial velocity"). What was astonishing was that as of 1960 none of those five men had won a professional golf championship of historic significance. The money they made from these endorsements certainly paled in comparison to the bounty reaped by current-day professionals, but it was income nonetheless.
America's leading golfers in 1960 were not a destitute lot who couldn't afford a trip to the Open. The median annual family income in America in the mid-1950s was $5,657. From 1949 to 1959 the lowest amount won by the leading money winner on the American golf tour was $26,088.83 by Sam Snead in 1951. By 1954, Bob Toski had more than doubled that total by winning $65,819.81. Palmer led the list in 1958 with $42,607.50. Even considering the expense of traveling to play on the American tour, the top money earners could have gone to the Open with some degree of regularity if they had any desire to prove they were the best in the world, even if it meant stretching the family finances and even if they made the trip only every other year. Where was the desire to prove oneself against the best that all professional athletes claim burns deep within? Moreover, what happened to the sense of adventure that Americans claim is part of their national heritage?
The reasons American players stayed away from the Open had to be deeper than money, and they were. The United States had emerged from World War II as the wealthiest and most advanced nation in the world in terms of technology and creature comforts. It never took much for Americans to assume that anything at home was better than what the rest of the world had, and during the postwar Eisenhower years this feeling ran deeper than ever. (Incidentally, Ike himself took to the links of Scotland. Grateful for his wartime service, the British had given him the run of the joint at Culzean Castle, just down the road from Turnberry. He played more than a few rounds at Turnberry.) "In those days," said Bob Toski nearly fifty years after he led American money winners, "if you were tops in America, you were tops in the world. The strength of the foreign players was nothing like it is today. I didn't have anything to prove by going over there. Even if I won, it wouldn't have covered the expense involved." For Toski and his fellow American professionals, it was easy to feel justified in their belief that professional golf in the U.S. was the game at its highest level. American teams regularly routed those from Great Britain during the biennial Ryder Cup competition, and non-American players rarely won significant tournaments in the U.S.
There were other reasons the Open did not appeal to American players. The golf courses used for the Open were not watered except when it rained, and this meant that the ball could take unpredictable bounces when it landed. At the time, competitive rules set by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews (the Open's organizing body) dictated the use of a ball that was smaller in circumference than the 1.68-inch one used in America. The 1.62-inch "British" ball required some getting used to on the part of visiting players. As such, the Open Championships of the late 1940s and 1950s were viewed as an aberrant form of the game that favored those who grew up playing it. On the basis of what they knew of foreign golfers, American players could easily convince themselves that the Los Angeles Open had a better field than the so-called world championship played each summer in Great Britain. The great American players of the first half of the twentieth century had looked across the ocean and seen the world's best players embodied by the likes of England's Harry Vardon. An American golfer in the 1950s looked across the sea and saw nothing.
The American distaste for the Open was acquired at the expense of British golf fans, particularly the Scots. The British fans wanted to see all of the best players compete in their championship, and that included the Americans. Their love for the game was uncompromising; they were even interested in the week-to-week tournaments in the States, not to mention the three major championships played there. The Evening Telegraph, a Scottish newspaper, ran an American comic strip called "MacDivot" and encouraged readers to "sit back and travel the tough American golf circuit. Follow Sandy's adventures on the dollar trail in the exciting MacDivot picture strip."
Essentially, the leading professional golfers in America during the mid- and late 1950s didn't care one wit about the British readers of "MacDivot" or about what Longhurst described as a "sense of completeness" to their careers. The reality was that America's best players had rather lazily turned their backs on the game's oldest championship. The fact that every American player who sought true greatness before them had competed in the Open Championship was lost on all of them but one.
The golf tournament that American sports fans routinely refer to as the British Open does not have the word "British" in its name. It is simply the Open Championship. The qualifying "British" is a convenient way of distinguishing between the Open Championship and the U.S. Open Championship and was put into use by writers with an American audience. Over the years, American fans and most American professional golfers have considered their own U.S. Open to be the premier championship in the world and as such attribute to British snobbery any suggestion that the British version is the Open. There is, however, no arrogance involved in referring to the world's oldest golf championship as the Open. In fact, aside from the fact that it is sometimes held on golf courses in England and occasionally won by English golfers, the Open is not so much British as it is Scottish. (The current-day Great Britain is composed of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Each has a very distinct national identity while still acknowledging a single monarchy, the House of Windsor, embodied by Queen Elizabeth.) The championship's roots are in Scotland, and to this day it is conducted by the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, Scotland (R&A), a body that is the game's primary governing and rule-making body throughout the world with the exceptions of the U.S. and Mexico. For the first thirty-five years of the Open's existence, there were no other meaningful championships that allowed professionals to compete, hence there was no need to call it anything other than the Open Championship. (It is only logical, and the same principle pops up in other places. British golf professionals are members of the Professional Golfers' Association, whereas their American counterparts are members of the Professional Golfers' Association of America. When the British formed their association, no other group of golf professionals existed. Similarly, the amateur championship of Great Britain, first played in 1885, is known as the Amateur Championship.)
When the Open was first played in 1860, it's unlikely that anyone in London or the rest of England even knew it had taken place. Certainly no one in America was aware that it had. The first transatlantic cable between the U.S. and Britain had been completed two years before, but broke after just a few weeks, laying silent until 1866. Even if another method of quickly and effectively transmitting the news had existed (it didn't), most Americans didn't care about anything that was happening elsewhere in the world. The few Americans who had time to pursue leisure activities in 1860 certainly weren't playing golf. In New York, a man might pass some time at Harry Hill's sporting house, watching and wagering on which of two gamecocks with razors affixed to their claws would kill the other. If he grew bored of that, he might go across town to Sportman's Hall to watch a rat-baiting handicap or classic. The hall held 250 spectators who paid up to a $1.50 to watch a handicap, in which a dog was timed to see how long it would take to kill its weight in rats, and $5 to watch a classic, where a specially trained terrier was thrown into an eight-foot-long pit with one hundred rats and timed to see how long it would take him to dispatch of all of them. The best terriers could get the job done in twenty minutes.
Only six million Americans -- about one in five -- lived in urban environments in 1860, so amusement took on whatever form was handy in rural areas. When they had time for entertainment out on the farms, they turned to things such as cornhusking and country dances. The family might gather in the parlor at night and take turns reading to one another or play Dumb Crambo, a game similar to charades. During the day they were playing a game that had British roots, but it wasn't golf. It was baseball, which in rural America at the time was called barn ball, old-cat, or town ball.
Across the Atlantic, after having suppressed the rebellion in India in 1858, Great Britain was at peace. Queen Victoria was one-third of the way through her reign, placing the still vast British Empire in the midst of what history would come to refer to as the Victorian Age. With the empire having set aside war for the moment, its citizens had time to reflect upon more cerebral pursuits. In 1859 they were shoved directly into the deepest intellectual question of them all with the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection. Those who couldn't be bothered with Darwin's evolutionary theories could divert themselves by reading Charles Dickens's newest work, A Tale of Two Cities. It would still be a few years before they would see the words of Walt Whitman's "I Hear America Singing," which was written in 1860, but it is probable that the thing of primary interest to them from America was not poetry but whether or not the Union's naval blockade of the Confederacy would affect shipments of cotton to Britain. (It did. By the end of 1862, 458,000 people who worked in Britain's cotton-related industries were out of work and collecting relief administered by the Poor Law Board.) Members of the upper class might have heard news from the continent regarding Claude Monet and a chap named Renoir, two emerging artists, or perhaps of a young man named Paul Morphy, an American from New Orleans who was touring Europe and successfully defeating all comers at the chessboard.
Up in Scotland (up from England, that is), many of Her Majesty's subjects were using their free time to pursue the game of golf. They had been doing so for hundreds of years by the time Victoria ascended to the throne, and certainly during the reign of King James IV of Scotland (1488 to 1513), who has gone down in history as the man who issued the royal order banning "futeball and golfe" because he felt it was interfering with the archery practice of his soldiers. It turned out the king was correct: When he led his army in an invasion of England in 1513, he and his forces met the English at the Battle of Flodden. At day's end, James IV and most of his men lay "cauld in the clay." The surviving Scots presumably retreated to Scotland and resumed playing golf. James IV was the grandfather of Mary Queen of Scots, who herself enjoyed playing golf before being deposed in 1567. Kings and queens continued to pursue the game despite Mary's bad luck (she was eventually beheaded), but job responsibilities kept getting in the way. Charles I of England was playing a round of golf on the course in Leith (near Edinburgh) in 1641 when a rider approached carrying news of the Irish Rebellion. While the rider knelt before his sovereign, his horse munched quietly on the grass.
The round of golf being played by Charles I when he was so rudely interrupted was not all that dissimilar from the modern game. For certain, the clubs and balls were different, as were the rules and the number of holes that were played. Nevertheless, if an observer from the early days of the twenty-first century were spirited back to that day on the Leith links, he would undoubtedly realize that Charles I was playing golf.
Forty years after he went to St. Andrews in 1960, Arnold Palmer said that he made that trip because he remembered reading about the British Open as a schoolboy and seeing other accounts of players such as "Bob Jones and Walter Hagen, who not only played in the Open, but won it. Ever since I had robbed my wife, Winnie, of a Walker Cup honeymoon by turning pro late in the fall of 1954 after winning the National Amateur, I'd had it in my mind to play in the British Open. [The Walker Cup is a biennial match between amateurs from the U.S. and those from Great Britain and Ireland. The 1955 Walker Cup was played at St. Andrews.] I went in 1960 because it was at St. Andrews, and by then I had done well enough to afford to go. Of course, it turned out to be especially important after I won the Masters and the U.S. Open earlier that year." Palmer was on track to be the first professional golfer to win all four of golf's major professional championships in a single year. After watching Palmer pull off the largest ever final-round comeback to win the U.S. Open in June, Herbert Warren Wind wrote in Sports Illustrated that Palmer had "unshakable faith in himself and is wonderfully ambitious. Behind him lie the Masters and the U.S. Open now and before him the Centenary British Open. He will go to St. Andrews with a very good chance to continue his sweep [of all the major titles in a single year], for here is not only a marvelous golfer but, if you will forgive a Victorian phrase, he seems to be destiny's favorite."
Palmer's timing was propitious for the Open Championship as well as himself. The championship was celebrating its one-hundred-year anniversary, but its age was showing in the worst possible way. The championship was old, so old in fact that even Palmer probably didn't quite comprehend its true age. The Open predated the sinking of the Titanic by fifty-two years, the Wright Brothers' flight at Kitty Hawk by forty-three years ("No Balloon Attached to Aid It!" cried the headline in the Virginian-Pilot newspaper), the massacre at Little Bighorn by sixteen years, the Transcontinental Railroad by nine, and the first bank robbery by Frank and Jesse James by six.
It's considerable age, however, wasn't enough to bolster the Open's fading prestige. The failure on the part of the best American players to fully participate had damaged the tournament. America had the most of a lot of things, among them the most recreational golfers (golf fans) and the most top-shelf professional players, and the absence of America's best players and the interest of its fans had pushed the Open to the brink of becoming an anachronism. The thing that had always made the Open stand alone in the world of golf was that it was the de facto world championship played in the land where the game began -- a championship that not only was open to all who aspired to play in it (assuming they were good enough), but one that encouraged and nurtured the perception of itself as a true international event. It had been that way almost from the outset in 1860 when the members of the Prestwick Golf Club, on the west coast of Scotland, laid the foundation for the Open. (While even nongolfers are aware of St. Andrews's reputation as the "home of golf," that town is on Scotland's east coast, on the opposite side of the country from Prestwick. St. Andrews is indeed the spiritual home of golf and is today the "home" of the Open insofar that the tournament's organizing body resides there. The Open's "birthplace," however, is Prestwick.)
The need to have a recognized champion in any pursuit of physical and mental skill is as old as man, a requisite for the content existence of both the highly skilled competitors and the not-so-talented who gather around to watch them. Contests of skill exist in every culture for two reasons: They lessen the tedium of life and, more important, they resolve doubt, which is one thing humans have a lower tolerance for than tedium. It was the gnawing of doubt that led to the Open. Throughout the 1850s, everyone in Scotland who knew anything about golf knew that Allan Robertson was the best golfer of them all. Robertson, who is regarded as the first golf professional in history, earned his living crafting golf clubs and balls (by boiling enough goose feathers to fill a top hat, stuffing them into a leather casing, and sewing it shut) at his shop in St. Andrews. On occasion, Robertson would put aside his tools and take to the links, where he had a reputation as a money player. The high-stakes games of the day had more in common with Thoroughbred racing than with today's modern professional golf tournaments. In Robertson's day, individuals would financially "back" players in competition, and during the course of play, spectators would crowd around the players and make countless bets as well. Robertson was considered the top gun in such matches and had been so since 1849 when he teamed with his understudy, Tom Morris, to defeat Willie and Tom Dunn of Musselburgh, with £400 up for grabs. When Robertson died in 1859, it left a void in the minds of the game's enthusiasts -- there was no one who could be pointed to as the champion golfer among all others.
At the spring meeting of the members at Prestwick on May 30, 1860, one of Her Majesty's officers proposed a solution to the "problem" facing the golfers of Scotland. He was Major J.O. Fairlie, and his idea was that "a private subscription should be opened with a view to procure a Medal for professionals [author's emphasis] to be competed for under regulations submitted to the meeting." The men in the room immediately consented to put five guineas toward the purchase of the medal, with the hope that the other leading clubs in Scotland would contribute funds as well. They did not, and Prestwick was left holding the bag as it were. Undaunted, the men of Prestwick assumed the sole responsibility of creating the championship, and they eventually provided thirty guineas from the club's coffers for the purchase of a red morocco leather belt with silver plates attached to it. It was called the Challenge Belt, and the members of Prestwick declared that any man who won it three years running would take permanent possession of it.
On Wednesday, October 17, 1860, the tournament for the Challenge Belt was played at Prestwick. There were eight players in the field, and in that single day they went around the twelve-hole Prestwick links three times for a total of thirty-six holes. To understand how the Open actually became "open," it is important to review the scores of the eight men: Willie Park (174), Tom Morris (176), Andrew Strath (180), Bob Andrew (191), Daniel Brown (192), Charlie Hunter (195), Alex Smith (196), and William Steel (232). The three leading players, Park, the winner, Morris, and Strath played superb golf by the day's standards, with Park and Morris averaging slightly less than five strokes per hole and Strath averaging precisely five strokes. After those three players, the scoring dropped off significantly, with the last-place finisher Steel taking an average of between six and seven strokes per hole.
When the spring meeting of the Prestwick club took place the following May, some men present, perhaps remembering that not all the professionals had played well in the inaugural tournament, proposed that the competition be expanded to include amateurs. After all, there were plenty of golfers who could go around Prestwick averaging six or seven strokes per hole. Major Fairlie saw merit in this suggestion and on the spot proposed that in addition to professional golfers, "the Challenge Belt be opened to be played for by gentlemen [nonprofessional] players...of the following clubs: St. Andrews, Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, North Berwick, Prestwick, Carnoustie, Perth and Leven." By pronouncing this plan, Major Fairlie became the first golf administrator to put his boot in his mouth. His fellow members unanimously carried his suggestion, but in the months between May and September (when the tournament was to be played), there were strong objections voiced by the members of Scotland's clubs who had been excluded from the list of eligible participants. (There was a total of nineteen golf clubs in Scotland in 1857.) The men of Prestwick heard the protests and made a decision that altered the history of golf. At a meeting on September 25, 1861, one day before the second competition for the Challenge Belt, it was "unanimously resolved that the Challenge Belt to be played for to-morrow and on all future occasions until it be otherwise resolved, shall be open to all the world." It was never "otherwise resolved." From that moment on, any golfer from any land who thought he had enough game could compete for the championship.
In view of the fact that the British home islands were the only places where golf was played to any significant extent in 1861, Major Fairlie and the other men of Prestwick demonstrated either tremendous foresight or dumb luck by using the word "world" in their proclamation; as the game was being played to various degrees by a handful of people outside of Great Britain. In the United States, golf had appeared briefly on the town green in Charleston, South Carolina, from 1786 to 1811 and then seems to have vanished until after the War Between the States, whereupon it reemerged in various forms in West Virginia (1884), Vermont (1886), the western part of Pennsylvania (1887), and Yonkers, New York (1888), on the estate of John Reid, a Scottish immigrant. Reid and a few other fellows started the Saint Andrews Golf Club, the first such club in America and one of the founding clubs of the United States Golf Association in 1895. Canada's first golf club wasn't established until 1873 in Montreal. Golf courses appeared in France at Pau (1856) and later in Belgium and South Africa in the 1880s.
As much fun as it is to imagine that in 1862, given a year's notice, golfers from all over the world boarded ships, saddled up horses or camels, or got on trains headed for Prestwick, it didn't happen. The Open remained a rather small and parochial affair in its early days. Scotland was the only place that had golfers in numbers, and those who were up to competing in the Open had to make the journey to Prestwick, which, as the crow flies, is about sixty-five miles from Edinburgh and one hundred miles from St. Andrews, the two east coast strongholds of golf. Few of the men who competed were full-time golf professionals, rather they were plasterers, slaters, or railwaymen who had a knack for the game. A few years after Jack Burns won the Open in 1888, someone spotted him working near the railway sheds in St. Andrews and asked him about the state of his golf game. "Never better!" said Burns. "I haven't been off the [railway] line for years." Like many talented golfers of his day, Burns realized being a golf champion didn't put food on the table. Ample prize money, however, wasn't the only thing the Open was lacking; if it was going to be a worldwide championship, it needed the world to show up.
The trickle of players from around the world to the Open began with the arrival of players from Scotland's natural enemy, England. They hadn't been playing golf in England for as long as they had in Scotland, but the English had two fine links courses early on: Westward Ho! in North Devon (1864) and Hoylake (today more commonly referred to as Royal Liverpool), founded in 1869. (There were other courses, but none that would prepare a player for Scotland's rugged seaside links.) The first English competitor of note was John Ball, an amateur, in 1883. Writing in 1951, Englishman John H. Taylor, who considered Westward Ho! his home course, recalled the early days of England's challenge to Scotland's golf supremacy. "It was a small and solitary force who in 1890 and the years that followed, set out to challenge the might of Scotland -- a forlorn hope indeed, when I myself met the Scottish professionals in 1893 at Prestwick my fears were not allayed though subsequently I found that they were but human in the mistakes they often made."
Englishmen bearing arms had entered Scotland an untold number of times before 1890, and the results usually weren't good for the Scots. The only difference this time was the weapons. It may have taken thirty years for them to gain their footing, but starting in 1890 when Ball won the championship seven years after he first played in it, the English rolled through the Open. Late in the day of Ball's victory, Scotsman Willie Campbell seemed like he was going to win only to be denied when his ball found trouble in one of Prestwick's bunkers. An hour after the championship's conclusion, Campbell and his caddie were seen sitting on upturned buckets weeping bitterly, as only a Scotsman who lost to an Englishman could. By the time Taylor won the title in 1894 and '95, the English were in the Open to stay, and the Open was in England to stay. Taylor won his first Open at the Royal St. George's Golf Club in England, the first time the championship had gone south of the Scottish border. (Taylor and fellow Englishman Harry Vardon comprised two-thirds of what golf historians eventually referred to as the Triumvirate or the Great Triumvirate. The third member was Scotsman James Braid, and between 1894 and 1914, Taylor, Vardon, and Braid won a total of sixteen Open Championships, five each for Taylor and Braid, and six for Vardon.) In 1907, a Frenchman named Arnaud Massy won the tournament at Hoylake. Massy had learned the game in Biarritz and then moved to Scotland to learn from the North Berwick professional Ben Sayers.
In 1887, English author Horace Cox met a young man from San Francisco who was visiting England. "Once the [American] public has seen this good old game, it will become immensely popular," said the American traveler. He was correct. The first American golfer to hit British shores in competition was Walter Travis, who went to England in 1904 to play in the Amateur Championship. Travis was born in Australia but had lived in the U.S. for most of his life when he began playing golf on Long Island in 1896. In 1904 he was forty-four years of age, old by the standards of champion golfers in any era. Travis struck his hosts as a loner, and the incomparable English writer Bernard Darwin (grandson of the evolutionist) described Travis as "the little middle-aged man from America, with the black cigar..." going on to write that Travis "had something of a black and Satanic air" about him. (In Darwin's defense, he also wrote he "had an uncomfortable feeling that we ought to have tried harder to penetrate that uninviting reserve, and gave up the effort too readily.") Satanic or not, Travis won the championship and the comfy parochialism of championship golf was ended until America's playing professionals reintroduced it in the 1950s.
No player born in America won the Open until Walter Hagen did so in England in 1922. The previous year, Jock Hutchison, a player who had emigrated to the States from St. Andrews, had won the Open at St. Andrews, but the Scots considered him one of their own despite the fact that the claret jug awarded the winner went back to the U.S. with Hutchison. (Tom Morris's son, Tom Morris, Jr., won the Open in 1868, '69, and '70. He was permanently awarded the Challenge Belt, just as the men of Prestwick had said would happen back in 1860. Since there was no belt, there was no Open in 1871. In 1872, Prestwick was joined in running the Open by the R&A and the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers. The three clubs kicked in together to pay for a silver claret jug that has been the championship trophy ever since.) Hagen, however, was born in Rochester, New York, so there was no confusing the issue. For the rest of the decade, Hagen and amateur Bobby Jones of Georgia dominated the Open Championship, with Hagen winning four and Jones three by 1930. Now the Open was a world championship, and to boot, the Scots and English were fond of Hagen and Jones, particularly the latter. Said Longhurst, "By his superb skill and unfailing charm Bobby Jones probably did as much to draw Britain and America together as all the diplomats combined."
Hagen was admired for other reasons, namely his personal flair and his advocacy that professional golfers be treated like gentlemen. He had burst upon the scene at the 1913 U.S. Open when he approached John McDermott in the changing room and announced, "I'm Walter Hagen, from Rochester, and I've come to help you boys take care of Vardon and Ray." Vardon and Ray were the two great English stars playing in that U.S. Open. They were "taken care of," but not by Hagen. That feat was handled in a playoff by twenty-year-old amateur Francis Ouimet.
During the decade after Jones won the 1930 Open, it evolved as the world championship of golf, and the fields of competitors and champions were more diverse than ever. The championship was won three times by Americans after Jones during the '30s and six times by various Englishmen, and the fields occasionally included players from South America and Japan. In 1939, England's Richard Burton edged out American Johnny Bulla for the title. Two months after Burton won the Open, the Wehrmacht invaded Poland. There were no Open Championships during the next six summers. Amid the devastation of the war, not many people noticed that the two golf courses at Turnberry had been appropriated and covered in part with concrete for use as airfields.
Palmer was in St. Andrews to win the Open, but at the same time he had a chance to rekindle the bond created when the Scots embraced Bobby Jones as one of their own. On both counts, Palmer was practically alone as an American. The only other recognizable Yank was Sarazen, playing in the Open for the fourteenth time. To their eternal credit, the Scots received Palmer as if the Americans had never been away. "We used to watch and caddie in the Open when we were boys," said John Philip, who was a young man living in St. Andrews at the time. "We didn't see many American players, and then came Arnold Palmer. What a sight he was."
Palmer arrived in the small university town a week before the championship -- just after winning the Canada Cup with partner Sam Snead at Portmarnock, Ireland -- and quickly got to know the people. He practiced during the day, and in the evenings attended social functions. He signed autographs with patience and a smile, and he signed them all. When the Scots watched him play during practice, it was their first glimpse at the fearless, attacking Palmer style of play, and their first look at the crazy helicopter finish to his swing and his body's expostulations toward the ball.
After retiring to his room for the evening, Palmer reviewed and finalized his plan for the competition. Spread before him were maps of the eighteen holes that made up the Old Course in St. Andrews, golf's most famous and idiosyncratic playing ground. Staring at the charts, Palmer decided how he would attack each of the holes based on the weather and the direction of the wind at a given moment. It was critical that he have multiple ideas on how to assault each hole because the direction and strength of the wind could shift countless times during a round at the Old Course, sitting as it does on Scotland's east coast along the North Sea.
Palmer knew that the instant the tiny British ball (1.62 ounces and 1.62 inches in diameter) was airborne its fate would be out of his control and at the mercy of the wind, the unpredictable and most feared enemy of a professional golfer. To fully understand this, it helps to consider the game from the perspective of a world-class golfer. Simply put, golf is a game of connect-the-dots played in reverse. As he stands on the teeing ground of a given hole, the top-level player first considers where the actual hole in the ground is cut on the putting green several hundred yards distant. He then determines the point that will give him the most advantageous angle of approach to the hole, and draws up in his mind a series of strokes that will safely get his ball to that point, each shot played to a point (or dot) that presents a friendly angle of approach to the subsequent dot. Playing in a vacuum, the expert player would land his ball precisely at the chosen spot nine times out of ten. Playing in the wind, the player must gauge its strength and direction and make an educated guess regarding the effect the wind will have on the length and direction of the ball's flight. A ball played directly into the wind flies shorter than it normally would, and any curve in its flight is exaggerated. A shot played straight downwind can be difficult to judge because the breeze negates backspin on the ball and renders it unable to stop when it hits the ground. This effect is exponential on the ultrafirm ground of Britain's links courses, and a ball struck downwind can bound along for what seems forever until something (a bunker or patch of rough) gets in its way. If the wind suddenly gusts stronger or dies down or is swirling above the player's head (where the ball will fly) in a manner that cannot be detected, the ball will wander off track and the well-made plan is suddenly beholden to luck.
Had they been aware of this after-hours preparation by Palmer, British golf fans might have thought it overkill. Writing to the editor of the British periodical Golf Monthly, a reader from the era noted that the "American view is that a golf course should be an infallible tribunal for skill alone: for 500 years the English and Scottish view has been the element of luck should predominate -- and this is true of St. Andrews."
His nighttime cramming aside, Palmer assimilated himself into the surroundings as if he'd been there all his life. While defending champion Gary Player looked like a circus escapee cavorting around in trousers with one white leg and one black, Palmer opted for muted colors, mostly dark, in his choice of attire. While many players in the field wore trendier white golf shoes, Palmer chose black. Henry Cotton noticed that nearly every player in the field was wearing an American-style baseball cap (he referred to it as a jockey hat), but not Palmer. For most of the two weeks while he was on the golf course, Palmer wore the same type of traditional wool cap worn by nearly every man in the crowd. "His dress in quiet colors and his friendly, modest manner delighted the home crowd," said Cotton after the championship was over. The only thing Cotton thought remotely odd about Palmer was that he not only wore a leather golf glove on his left hand (many players did the same, but it was just then becoming vogue), but that he changed gloves several times during a round and wore them without breaking them in first. The gloves went directly from the package onto Palmer's hand without a thought.
For all his preparation and despite his impressive playing credentials, Palmer was not yet assured a spot in the championship proper. There were two qualifying rounds to be survived before entry into the four-round chase for the claret jug. With more than 380 players vying for spots in the eventual field of 77 players, these rounds required two days, Monday and Tuesday. Palmer survived easily, with a round of sixty-seven on the New Course and seventy-five on the Old Course. During his Tuesday round at the Old Course, his first competitive test upon it, Palmer found out how fickle the ancient field could be. It rained for a good part of the round, and on one hole, his tee shot was blown out of bounds by the wind. On another occasion he required two shots to extricate his ball from a bunker known as the Principal's Nose.
The championship proper was scheduled for three days, with eighteen holes played on Wednesday and Thursday and thirty-six holes on Friday. The three betting favorites, Player, Palmer, and Peter Thomson (who had won the Open four times during the period of the absent Americans), played well the first two windless days with aggregate scores of 143 (Player) and 141 (Palmer and Thomson). They looked in a bad place, however, because the Argentine Roberto De Vicenzo, had scored matching sixty-sevens the first two days. Two strokes behind De Vicenzo stood Thomson's fellow Aussie, Kel Nagle, at 136. Nagle had been driving the ball rather poorly for the better part of the summer, but while in Texas to play in the Colonial Invitational tournament he found an American-made driver that he fancied. He drove the ball well with it all week at St. Andrews. With one day to go, Palmer was seven strokes behind the lead.
Friday arrived a gray and misty day, and Palmer looked for all the world like he had been born for this moment. Out for the morning round wearing tan trousers and a slightly darker tan shirt covered by a black cardigan sweater, Palmer stalked the fairways with his local caddie, Tip Anderson, who matched him stride for stride in shirt and tie and a trench coat. Palmer was charging now, and everyone knew it: He was on pace to shoot sixty-eight if he made par fours at the final two holes. And then it began raining. The seventeenth hole at the Old Course is known as the Road Hole, and it is the most difficult hole played anywhere in the world of championship golf. With the rain pelting down, Palmer made a five there, something most of the field would do despite its par of four. The eighteenth hole at the Old Course is a fairly simple and straightforward hole for a professional golfer. The setting is magical, but the hole itself has only one truly striking characteristic: a deep hollow in the front portion of the green known as the Valley of Sin. If the approach shot is misjudged on the short side and the ball settles into the Valley of Sin, taking three putts to get down is a very real possibility for even the best player. With the wind blowing hard off the sea and the rain intensifying, Palmer erred on his approach. The ball came to rest in the Valley of Sin, and he took three putts to finish his round. "I let those two get away," he said to Anderson as he walked from the green. Things weren't as bad as they seemed, however. Palmer had nipped five shots off of De Vicenzo's lead, and one off of Nagle's. He had them in his sight now, and the afternoon round lay ahead.
The afternoon round never came. The rain became a downpour the likes that few St. Andreans could remember. Within twenty minutes of Palmer completing his round, two greens and several fairways were completely submerged. Water gushed down the stone steps of the R&A clubhouse like a waterfall. The Valley of Sin became a small lake, and after the rain had died down a bit, spectators still holding umbrellas over their heads admired the reflection of the imposing R&A clubhouse upon it. The fire brigade was summoned to pump the water out of the valley -- no one ever remembered that happening before. The R&A decided to postpone the final round until the following day.
On Saturday, the rain was gone as a permanent fixture, although it did drizzle at moments. Palmer exploded from the starting blocks with two consecutive birdies, and scored thirty-four on the front nine, and Nagle made it to the halfway point in thirty-four as well. By that time, De Vicenzo had faltered, and it was left to Palmer and Nagle to fight it out. Palmer was playing a group ahead of Nagle, and when Palmer birdied the thirteenth hole, he trailed by only three strokes. When Nagle took three putts for bogey at the fifteenth, Palmer was only two shots back.
Palmer pressed onward, making a brilliant par to save his chances at the seventeenth, one of the holes that had foiled him the previous day. His approach to the green was long and bounded over the extremely narrow green and onto the footpath that gives the hole its name. Palmer displayed superb touch in playing a shot from off the green with his putter, the ball rolling just strong enough to move through a clump of rough on a bank behind the green, but just soft enough as to not run across the green once it reached the shorter grass. It stopped two feet from the hole. "Now," wrote Wind of that moment, "he [Palmer] finally had a lift after surviving for two hours on fight, fight, fight, and he roared on to birdie the final hole after a fine wedge shot that stopped four feet from the cup." As the putt fell, a roar went up into the sky above St. Andrews.
Back on the seventeenth green, about four hundred yards from where Palmer now stood, Nagle heard the crowd's reaction. He needed to make par fours at the final two holes to win. At the moment, things were looking dicey. He needed to make a six-foot putt to secure his four at the seventeenth. It is in such moments that the seemingly simple task of tapping a ball toward a hole in the ground becomes overwhelmingly complex, when in fact the reality of the task hasn't changed at all. The mind begins to race, and suddenly a golfer knows what it feels like to step on the accelerator when the intention was to step on the brake. But Nagle did not step on the gas; he made the putt and subsequently made his four on the final hole. Palmer had come up a single stroke short.
In the moments that followed, Palmer pushed his white cap back slightly on his head and massaged his temples with his thumbs. All around him, people were congratulating him on a job well done. "It wasn't enough," said Palmer over and over again. He had tied the four-round record for an Open at the Old Course, but he was right. It wasn't enough. If placed in his shoes at that moment, most of his American contemporaries would have headed home never to return. Palmer was different, and the Scots knew it. Already they spoke of him as "the great mon."
In July 1961, Palmer was back at the Open, this time at Royal Birkdale in Southport, England. He was again the lone American competitor of consequence, joined only by fifty-two-year-old Paul Runyan. After the first round of the championship proper on Wednesday, he was two strokes behind Dai Rees of Wales and Harold Henning of South Africa. Stiff winds were blowing along the Lancashire coast as Thursday's early starters, Palmer among them, took to the course. Despite the wind, Palmer birdied five of the first six holes, and was off and running for the moment, but as the gusts continued to pick up force, the game became more difficult. Palmer struggled over the closing holes for a round of seventy-three. Nevertheless, it was an outstanding score; only Peter Thomson, also playing early, scored better (by a stroke). Palmer and Thomson had caught a break -- after they completed play, the wind was registering at gale force, and the players who went out late turned in scores in the high seventies and low eighties. During the evening, the gusts blew so hard that exhibition tents were ripped from their moorings, their contents -- golf equipment, clothing, and refreshments -- scattered about the property. The British magazine Golf Illustrated reported "that to see some of the faces of spectators as they looked on at the broken bottles of whisky and beer would have brought tears to your eyes." The wind brought rain with it too, and Friday's two rounds were canceled after some of the players had already begun play.
Palmer was playing well overall, but was especially pleased with his tee shots in the windy conditions. He knew he was prone to an occasional sharply hooked tee shot -- one with a darting curve from right to left -- and that at Birkdale such a shot could prove particularly horrific to his score. To prevent these sudden snap hooks, he had gone into the golf shop at Birkdale earlier in the week and asked if he could use a vise. He then proceeded to place the shaft of the club in the vise and, using his hands, pull the head of the club to a more open position that would allow him to swing away without fear.
On Saturday morning, after the rain had abated, Palmer went out and shot a score of sixty-nine. It was during that round, at the sixteenth hole, that he played one of the most absurdly great shots in the history of the game. A few days after the championship, Cotton reckoned he had never seen a shot like it. "The ball was in a mixture of brambles, wild strawberry bushes, long grass and the local willow scrub. The ball was eight to nine inches down deep in the stuff. I saw the stroke and watched the ball fly dead straight onto the green, almost one-hundred-fifty yards away, into an almost head on wind. I do not know how one measures golfing strength, but Arnold Palmer is certainly a golfing giant." The shot saved a par for Palmer when he might have made a double bogey or worse, and won him the Open. He still had a round to play in the afternoon, and Rees closed in style to get within a stroke of tying Palmer, but when all the shots had been fired, Palmer held the claret jug. He had done it during a week that Cotton described as "the Open at its unfair, uneven best."
Palmer spoke only a few words when he was presented with the trophy and medal awarded to the winner. "I have won a few tournaments," said Palmer, "but this is the one I wanted to win. Nobody can be satisfied until he wins the British Open Championship." As he made his way toward his final destination at Birkdale before departing, he was buttonholed by a British writer who asked him if he still enjoyed the taste of winning. His answer -- given honestly at a time long before superstar professional athletes attended seminars on how to answer stupid questions from the media and long before athletes made so much money that such an answer would sound trite and insincere -- cleared up any lingering questions regarding the difference between Palmer and other American professionals of the time. "I go into every tournament with the idea of winning it," said Palmer. "That's why I'm there. I never enter any tournament just to win money. When it becomes apparent that I cannot win, I have to settle for making money."
And with that, Palmer left the writer and stopped by the shop of Bob Halsall, the golf professional at Birkdale. Before he left, Palmer, the son of a club professional, wanted to thank Halsall for making him feel welcome.
The following summer at Old Troon on the west coast of Scotland and not far from Prestwick, Palmer won the Open again. He was at the absolute height of his power as a golfer during the championship, leaving runner-up Kel Nagle six strokes behind. The next closest players, thirteen shots back, were Brian Huggett of Wales and a young American professional named Phil Rodgers, of whom great things were expected. Rodgers was one of three promising young American players at Troon. The others were Gene Littler and Jack Nicklaus.
Copyright © 2002 by Michael Corcoran
Meet the Author
Michael Corcoran is the executive editor of Golf Magazine. He is author of several books, including How to Break 90: An Easy Approach for Breaking Golf's Toughest Scoring Barrier and The Golf Dictionary: A Guide to the Language and Lingo of the Game.
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