At 3 a.m. on Thursday morning, six hours behind the medieval burg of Sandwich in County Kent, England, I shall arise in the pre-dawn silence of my Austin home, tiptoe through a sleeping house of golf agnostics and renew my favorite summer TV ritual.
With the illicit delight of a child spying on Santa, I will fire up the glorious high-def at a volume audible only to our border collie. Then I’ll sit in a Moonie-like bliss for four days watching ESPN’s images of blonde, waist-high sea grasses billowing across Royal St. George’s Golf Club, home to the 140th British Open.
No sight in golf, not Pebble’s crashing surf, nor Augusta’s heaving fairways groomed like a Manhattan poodle’s butt, quickens my heart like the first televised moments of ancestral links golf and what the Royal & Ancient would prefer we call the Open Championship. Watching golf’s most intriguing and unpredictable major in the wee-hour darkness feels like the pre-internet days of my childhood, like watching Neil Armstrong land on the moon in black and white. It all feels so distant, old and un-American in the best of ways, even though I’ve now been lucky enough to witness a few Opens and play several of the venues.
Without even seeing the TV you often can hear that this is not typical American golf. Flagpoles are clanging so loudly in the gales they almost drown out the buffeting British trousers and waterproofs. It’s the only golf tournament with its own soundtrack – constant wind. And that’s why I watch.
In good years, with an angry ocean beside them, battered players will limp off a Carnoustie or Turnberry like Vikings returning from a seal hunt. Sergio may even cry!
How does any mortal golfer even sniff par in such conditions? I always marvel at why guys like Padraig Harrington, Darren Clarke and Colin Montgomerie, after playing a lifetime in vicious wind, don’t come to our comparatively tame country clubs in America and shoot fifty-nines with their eyes closed. It must throw them off to be able to hear their nosehairs rustle.
But one would never want to only hear the Open.
Unless you have experienced the British Isles’ radiant high latitudes – St. Andrews sits about even with Goose Bay, Newfoundland -- it’s difficult to appreciate the invigorating quality of sunlight and air at a Muirfield or Troon. I’ve seen hardened pro photographers all but weep like Sean Connery when describing how their work leaps from the lens at a British Open.
I’ve sat on the stone steps of the Royal & Ancient for hours at a time, mesmerized by simply watching the sky above the 1st and 18th holes at St. Andrews go from Cancun blue to seething mountains of coal, then back again within the hour. (Let’s not discuss the rain just now.) At dusk their luminous storybook towns seem backlit by Hollywood. Rows of red and green pubs – now finally smoke-free from Belfast to London – stand in the pristine light like new boxes of Crayolas.
Unlike in the States, the British Open is often played in a true golf village, a wee dip in the road like Gullane (population 3,700; next to Muirfield) or Sandwich (pop. 6,800) that might vanish were it not for eons-old dunesland between the ocean and the farms that some genius architect like James Braid or George Lowe Jr. turned into a golf sanctuary. I’ve been to high school basketball games that had more people than some of these legendary golf company towns.
On one of my first journeys to Scotland, I teed off at Gullane’s revered championship course, known to locals simply as No. 1, and to my utter dumbfounded glee a young mother, well within her rights, crossed directly in front of the tee box down a communal path with her baby stroller.
“Splendid day for the golf,” she chirped to our enchanted group of Yanks.
We waved and smiled like it was a Macy’s Day Parade, giggling at the thought of the SWAT-team response such a trespass would have caused at a private American golf cathedral. Many of the world’s consensus top-ten links courses are not only open to the public, unlike our Oakmonts and Seminoles, but their trails and dunes are shared with joggers, surfers and mums on a stroll.
Over there golf is more deeply woven into middle-class culture. You see happy mall-deprived teenagers walking to the courses with golf bags over their shoulders. In Ballybunion, Ireland, I once stood in a grocery check-out line and listened to two middle-aged women fervently discuss their golf grips. Top that, Cialis.
I was fortunate to witness one of the most infamous British Opens, the now-legendary Van de Velde Train Wreck of 1999 at Carnoustie, where the humble Frenchman kissed away the title with an epic meltdown on his 72nd hole. Yet, I remember that Open as much for a simple act of kindness. Screwed out of my hotel room just hours before the tournament, an Aunt Bee-like retiree let me sleep in her cozy B&B basement and insisted on making me a splendidly unhealthy breakfast each day, all for a tenth of what the hotel would’ve charged.
The tournament itself is brilliant, from the sing-song introductions by the beloved starter, Ivor Robson, to the iconic blue-and-yellow scoreboard rising above the 18th hole, the refreshing TV commentary of the BBC’s Peter Alliss on ESPN and the eternal quirkiness of evil burns and pot bunkers.
But best of all, though curmudgeons like Dan Jenkins decry their insufficient pedigrees, I love watching the life-changing victories and tragic flameouts of nondescript wonders like Ben Curtis, Todd Hamilton, Van de Velde, and last year’s surprising winner, South African Louis Oosthuizen.
That they often do not go on to legendary careers means little to me. I like to think that only the British Open’s primal qualities could ever summon up those once-in-a-lifetime performances, that somehow playing on golf’s most natural landscapes, bathed in history, helps even the meek find their inner giant.
Bruce Selcraig is a former writer for Sports Illustrated. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.