Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Mondays with Murray . . . on Tuesday

The British Open will be held on the Old Course at St. Andrews, from Thursday through Sunday. . . . The late Jim Murray has been there.



You Heard It Yelled Here First

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — This is where it all began. This course saw Sarazen, Vardon, Bobby Jones, Hagen. Nicklaus won here. Twice.
   This is golf's shrine. Its fountainhead. Its Garden of Eden.
   This is where a guy first yelled "Fore!" at a slow-playing group ahead. This is where the first guy said, "That's good, take it away!"
   This is where they first pressed the bet, where a guy three down first said, "You're pressed — four ways!"
   This is where a guy first clapped his hand to his head after a tee shot and groaned, "No! Not over there again!" This is where a guy first said, "What am I doing wrong?" This is where a guy first said, "Anybody see where that went?"
   This is where the handicapping system took form. Made golf the only sport this side of horse racing that tries to level the playing field. This is where a guy first said, "I'll play you for tuppence if ye'll give me three stokes a side." This is probably where the first hustler with an 18-handicap shot a 69 when he had to. This is where a player first begged, "Get legs!" or, "Bite! Bite!” depending on whether his ball demonstrated a tendency to quit on him or to take off like a moon shot. This is where a mis-hit shot became a slice or a hook, where the first golfer said, "I topped it!" This is where sand traps came from because the whole original course was one giant sand trap.
   This is where a five-iron was a "mashie," a three-wood a "spoon," a two-iron a "cleek" and a nine-iron a "niblick."
   The whole story of golf is enclosed here on this eccentric series of tees and green on the North Sea littoral. It is 6,933 yards of contrariness and stubbornness. If it were human, it would smoke a pipe, have a white walrus mustache and stride around with pink cheeks and an imperious look in a tweed suit that smelled of tobacco and had patches at the elbow. And he'd be prone to say, "Here, here! We'll have none o' that!"
   It would be sad to him that "gowfers" didn't still have to use the tradesmen's entrance and know their place and not be getting airs. And they'd have to change their shoes at their cars and not be cluttering up the members' quarters where gentlemen were and not people who putted for money.
   He would be Lord something-or-other and would wear a bowler, carry a brolly and vote Tory.
   In some ways, this is the last stand of the British Empire. The sun not only doesn't set on St. Andrews, sometimes it doesn't rise on it either. Rain gear probably made its first appearance on this course too.
   You kind of get the bends when you walk on St. Andrews if you're a golfer. It's like a Catholic entering the Vatican for the first time, a Muslim reaching Mecca.
   It has reason for its haughtiness. You're not really a champion till you've won at St. Andrews (pronounced sin-TANDREWS). Ben Hogan never won here. Hogan won a British Open, but he never confronted the remorseless contours of St. Andrews. Which is a pity because Hogan and St. Andrews were made for each other. It would have been Dempsey-Tunney, John Wayne and the Indians. They were alike in many ways. Asking and giving no quarter. Hogan stalking, probing for weakness, St. Andrews dancing out of reach.
   At first glance, St. Andrews appears under-equipped. There's not a tree on it. It's as wide open as a waterfront saloon. Its defenses come largely from the weather — and its own dottiness. It relies on its attackers' overconfidence.
   It's wide and inviting. It seems a little like a guy strolling through a crowd with his wallet sticking out and a $25,000 Rolex on his wrist. Pickpockets fight to get near him.
   That's the way golfers are at St. Andrews. The first time. They get less reckless with each succeeding 18 and get downright cautious after they've been embarrassed by it a few times.
   You can win some British Opens from the parking lot. Seve Ballesteros did in 1979 at Lythan. You can't win on St. Andrews from anywhere but the fairway.
   The course is like the Brits themselves, cheerfully ignoring the way the rest of the world does things. They both generally proceed at their own pace and to their own drummer.
   You know how the Brits pronounce words any way that suits them? They take the position it's their language. Well, they and St. Andrews take the position that golf is their game too. They blithely ignore abnormalities like double greens and merely smile indulgently when a Tommy Bolt comes along, spots these double greens — such as the one that is a terminus for either the third hole or the 16th — and inquires whether he can choose the closest one to putt into.
   If you say, "We don't have double greens in America," they murmur, "What a pity!"
   The fairways are so close together that a sign is posted: "Homeward players have the right of way!"
   St. Andrews stands alone among golf courses. It has since 1744. Golf is 18 holes a game because there were that many at St. Andrews — after they pruned four others out of the rota because maintenance was too steep.
   It used to be watered by God and mowed by sheep. But now, it has the modern contrivances. Somewhere, Old Tom Morris must be gnashing his teeth.
   Americans used to skip this tournament. You couldn't make expenses, receipting for a few hundred quid and having to meet a transatlantic steamship cost.
   Australian Peter Thomson or South African Bobby Locke won it annually - till Arnold Palmer decided to add it to his dossier in the '60s. Americans won eight out of 10 in the 1970s. But, since 1984, only one American has won it. Mark Calcavecchia survived a three-man playoff with two Aussies in 1989. It has been won in the last decade by two Brits, two Aussies, a Zimbabwean and a Spaniard, besides Calcavecchia.
   St. Andrews doesn't care. It has seen its game grow since it was played by a couple of shepherds wielding tree limbs and balls made of goose feathers. And now that it's a worldwide game of such consummate architecture, the practitioners consider St. Andrews quaint.
   St. Andrews considers them quaint. I mean, whose game is this anyway? Shut up, Yank, and just don't get in any of those pot bunkers and get on the right side of those double greens.

Reprinted with permission by the Los Angeles Times.

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