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The Magic of the British Open

by ausgolf writer Selwyn Berg

The Open Championship is the most magical event on the world golfing calendar. When Willie Park shot 174 over two rounds of golf to defeat Old Tom Morris in 1860, they could scarcely have imagined that 129 years later a black American with Asian blood would take the same title. In 2000, at St Andrews, 24 year old Tiger Woods did just that, and at the same moment became only the fifth man ever to win golf’s grand slam of four majors, joining Jack Nicklaus, who completed the Slam at 26, Gary Player, Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen. Other immortals to have their name inscribed on The Claret Jug include Watson, Norman, Price, Faldo and Baker-Finch.

In 2002, I was one of the many Aussies who cheered for Appleby and Elkington from the mighty grand stand at the 18th at Muirfield as they completed superb final rounds of 65 and 66 respectively to enter into a four-way tie (the first in 131 Opens to go to a sudden death play-off). And how we cheered them on again, as they walked onto the hallowed green a second time, but alas, Ernie Els triumphed in the end.

Like all courses on the Open Rota, Muirfield was a brutal examination of the world’s best. We’d walked the course on that windy, rain-lashed Saturday, the day that local Colin Montgomerie spat the dummy and shot 84, just 20 strokes worse than his brilliant 64 on Friday. Tiger Woods never quits, but he took 81.

We’d played at Turnberry earlier that week, so we knew what conditions could be on Scottish links courses. Compared with Australian conditions, Turnberry epitomises what is different about real links golf: The rough is thick, nasty, deep and penal; the fairways are narrow, full of small bumps and mounds that combine with the ever-present wind to usher your ball into the aforementioned rough. Forget about advancing your ball towards the hole from this stuff. If you (or more likely your caddie) are fortunate enough to find it, a sideways swipe with a sand iron back onto the fairway is the only means of escape. Weather is another factor. We enjoyed mid-summer temperatures of around 15 degrees C, but wind chill made it colder. Rain is not unheard of. At other times of the year it is indeed necessary to maintain a brisk pace of play, not merely as demanded by etiquette, but to avoid the blood from icing over.

Turnberry Ailsa Course

Turnberry (left) is not short, either. There are several par 4’s of more than 400 yards, and a brutal, uphill par 3 that plays 221 yards from the forward tee – this hole is rated 15, so I didn’t receive a stroke – I thought 4 for 1 Stableford point an excellent score. Satisfaction comes from knowing that you’ve played a true championship layout, survived every challenge of course and nature, and walked in the footsteps of Open winners here that include Norman, Watson and Price. The sense of history is perhaps paramount.

Nicklaus himself said, "If I had to play six straight weeks in Scotland I’d lose my swing completely."

We’d also played Carnoustie, dubbed “Car-Nasty” after it was toughened up for the 1999 Open. Proudly touted as “The most challenging course in the world” we found it perhaps not all that tough. The rough has been dramatically cleared; the fairways are generous in width and relatively flat, as are the huge greens. Craig Parry played Carnoustie the week before The Open at Muirfield, and proclaimed it “six shots easier” than it had been at the 1999 Open.

The course is undoubtedly long, even with the tees forward, at over 6600 yards Par 70. The 16th is claimed as the hardest par 3 in golf – 245 yards from the championship tees to an elevated green ringed by bunkers. In two Open appearances, Tom Watson is yet to record a single par. Most of our group, however, managed to negotiate the Barry Burn on the 18th in fewer than the 7 strokes it took poor Jean Van De Velde, whose stunning collapse gave way to the greatest comeback in the history of major championships. Paul Lawrie, 10 strokes behind when the final round began Sunday, became the first Scotsman to win the British Open in his native land in 68 years -- but only after a three-way playoff caused by Jean Van de Velde's triple bogey on the 72nd hole.

The Frenchman tried to be a hero and lost a chance to be a champion. He bounced balls in the rough, off the grandstand, in the water of Barry's Burn and in the bunker. It all added up to a seven when all he needed was a six.

But a golfing holiday in the UK also has its creature comforts. Our very first night was spent in the magnificent Westin Turnberry Resort Hotel. The experience includes being ushered into dinner by a lone bagpiper to feast on a meal that was the equal of anything I’ve tasted anywhere in the world. From the indoor spa, one looks out over the manicured putting greens to the rolling dunes of the course, and beyond to the mighty Ailsa Rock that lends its name to the links now widely recognised amongst Britain’s top three.

In 2003, the 132nd Open Championship returned to Royal St Georges, Sandwich, Kent a venue that in 1894 was the first time the Open was played south of the Scottish border! The field included names now embedded in the mythology of golf - Harry Vardon, James Braid, Willie Park jnr - and was won by JH Taylor. Taylor's autobiography captured the essence of the challenge of the Course in his description 'The possibility of disaster was only too apparent from almost every shot one was called upon to play'

Australians will recall 1993 - one of the truly great Opens. Payne Stewart had a putt from 20 feet at the 18th for a 62. It didn't drop, so he joined the select few who have scored a 63 in the Open. Ernie Els became the first player to break 70 in all four rounds of an Open, scoring 68, 69, 69 and 68. Greg Norman, with a narrow lead from Nick Faldo and Bernhard Langer at the start of the final round, traded birdies with these two, but maintained a 2 shot lead until the 17th, where he missed a putt of 12 inches! A safe 4 down the 18th produced a final round of 64, the best ever final round to win an Open Championship (Norman's second) and matching Els's feat of playing all four rounds under 70.

For information on our British Open tours please email travel@ausgolf.com.au