— Anyone who loves golf dreams of playing in Scotland on the classic links courses on which the game was invented. Americans who get to play venues such as the game’s cathedral, St. Andrew’s, and this year’s Open site, Turnberry, talk about it forever.
They reserve tee times years in advance, plan their trips, throw concerns about cost to the winds that whip in from the gray Irish and North Seas. It is a pilgrimage, and they are true believers. When they come back, they glow as if they’d been visited by the ghost of Old Tom Morris himself in the guise of a burning gorse.
I hope you watch the British Open and develop a dream like that. I hope sunshine and calm gives way to half-gales and frigid rain falling horizontally, just to let you know you won’t be doing anything remotely resembling you’ve ever done before. I hope you say, “I’ve gotta try that!”
But when you come back, as many stories as you’ll have about drives struck that landed 157 yards from the tee — “You wouldn’t believe it!” — and full sand-wedge approaches that landed next to the hole and bounded another 45 feet past the pin, you won’t want to run off and find a similar course in the United States.
You could construct an exact replica of Turnberry on a similarly buffeted scrap of seaside in this country. If you build it, they won’t come. And the few that do will never come back.
Scottish, Irish and British links courses are great places to visit, but the vast majority of American golfers would rather play a course with windmills and clowns on the greens than a true links. Like running a marathon, it’s something you’d like to do once, just to see what it’s like, but you probably won’t want to make a steady diet of it.
It’s too bad, because if it weren’t for those wonderful slaves to silly traditions who inhabit the British Isles, we would long ago have lost any connection to the way golf was originally played, not to mention any idea of the value of the bump-and-run. Golfers of a certain age who grew up in Texas and other arid states played courses with similar characteristics, but those don’t exist anymore, having gone the way of things in America, which is soft and luxurious.
We build courses and call them links, because they’re along the ocean, bordered by sand dunes, generously bunkered and surrounded by deep and wiry fescue and other wild and gnarly grasses and shrubberies. But then we put in lush and soft irrigated fairways and pool-table greens whose hardness is controlled as much by man as by nature.
It is only because of the British that we still have a tennis tournament — and it’s the greatest in the world — played on the surface for which the game was invented: grass. It’s nature’s own carpet, and as soon as we learned how to cut it and roll it and make it a delight to naked footsies on hot summer days, we started playing on it. But the U.S. Open gave up on grass — too difficult to maintain, especially when you could solve all your problems with asphalt. Even the Aussies, who are pretty traditional themselves, gave up on it. But the British never will. It wouldn’t be cricket.
And it is only because of the Scots, who started it all, that we still have a major championship played at places such as Turnberry and St. Andrew’s, where the fairways and greens are green and kind of soft if it rains and brown and sort of like concrete, only harder, if it doesn’t. In America, golf courses don’t get extra cachet if the grass crunches under your soft spikes. In the British Isles, they do. It’s called “character.” It’s called “tradition.”
In Scotland, they didn’t even bother with people cutting the grass. They let the sheep do it. And the shepherds who tended the indolent fur-balls, invented ways to occupy themselves between wee nips of usquebea — the “water of life.” The most popular one was knocking rocks at rodent burrows with sticks.
We may assume wagering was involved, which would have spurred advances in technology. Sticks became carved wooden clubs, then wooden shafts with forged iron heads. Some genius realized that stuffing a hand-made leather ball with wet feathers was better than hitting a rock. And so it went, the gutta percha ball — or “guttie” — replaced the feathery, only to be replaced by wound balls and so on, until now we’re hitting balls that Old Tom Morris would have given all his possessions to own with implements that would appear to him as having been constructed by aliens. He wouldn’t know what to make of the perfectly uniform grass and the spongy spring in the underfooting. And greens that always accepted a good wedge would be beyond his ken.
I’m a fan of American courses, particularly the Northern courses cut through hardwood forests. But there’s something special about returning once a year to courses that still retain the features of the courses that Old Tom and Young Tom and Harry Vardon and the early legends played, the courses on which the game was invented and developed into a great sport — perhaps the greatest life sport there is.
I love the British Open for that reason. There are times when I’ll think, “Haven’t these blockheads heard of irrigation?” but it won’t be long. They’ve thought of it, just as they’ve thought of replacing their infernal, sod-fronted bunkers with the occasional water hazard. But they’ve rejected it.
In their minds, it wouldn’t be golf.
May that never change.