Public Links Increase Lure of British Open

Teeing of in the footsteps of greatness: My brother, Chris, hits his tee shot on the ninth hole at Turnberry in 2003.

Teeing of in the footsteps of greatness: My brother, Chris, hits his tee shot on the ninth hole at Turnberry in 2003.

Here’s a timely story from my first trip to Scotland, published in the National Post in 2003:

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – Standing on the first tee at the Old Course at St. Andrews, it occurs to me that the British Open is the most democratic major golf championship in the world.

After all, most public golfers can call up and make a reservation at a club such as Royal Troon, Turnberry or even Royal St. Georges, the host course for this year’s British Open. Arrive as scheduled, plunk down a credit card and you can be playing on the same fairways where Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus or John Daly won the British Open.

This simply cannot be done at the sites of other major championships.

The Masters? Augusta’s hallowed fairways are the playgrounds of the world’s corporate elite — but even some of the richest men and women in the world cannot find a way to tee it up on those lush, green tee blocks. The PGA Championship is also typically held at well-regarded private clubs. This year’s PGA is being played at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y. Try calling up and asking for a round. I dare you.

The U.S. Open purports to be “America’s tournament” — and it has certainly attempted to land at public courses. Last year’s event was held at the famed Bethpage Black municipal course in the state of New York.

But the reality is the U.S. Open is largely played at exclusive private clubs such as Olympia Fields, where the 2003 tournament was held in June.

That leaves the British Open. In theory, almost all of the famed British golf courses are part of private clubs. But unlike their North American counterparts, most private golf cour-ses in England or Scotland are open to the public, allowing golfers to attempt to tackle their difficult bunkers and greens just as the pros do.

This year’s British Open course, Royal St. Georges, is not particularly different from most of the courses in the rotation for the European Tour’s most prestigious event. Players can tee it up most weekdays at specific times. Weekends and holidays are out for public play at St. Georges, but for anyone willing to pay 125 pounds, the host course for 13 British Opens (including this year) is available.

The thrill of playing on a British Open course is unique in all of golf. I recently returned from a trip to Scotland, where I played three open championship courses, including Turnberry, Carnoustie and the Old Course at St. Andrews.

My group, which consisted of my brother Chris and Bob and Paul Brehl, also brothers, had set out on the golf trip of a lifetime — one that started at Turnberry. The course has hosted the open championship twice since then. The most recent, in 1994, was won by Nick Price.

Caddies in tow, we set off to tackle Turnberry’s famed oceanside holes. Being our first British Open course, nerves got the best of my brother, a low-handicap player who uncharacteristically topped his first tee shot 100 yards down the fairway. But who is not nervous when stepping up to play one of most famed tracks in the world, one that currently ranks 18th in the world on Golf Magazine’s list of the best courses on the planet?

You are always aware of the history that surrounds you while playing a course such as Turnberry. My caddy, Robert, brings this point home when I hit a long drive on Turnberry’s fifth hole. The problem was that I did not hit it straight, blocking it cleanly into the middle of the 17th hole.

“Did you know that Gary Player played his ball from here every round of the 1977 Open?” Robert asks.

Whether that was the case I could not say, but it made me feel as though my wildly inaccurate drive had, in fact, been intentional. The wonders of links golf never cease.

Though it is far from the most attractive course in the British Open rotation, Carnoustie, which held the 1999 championship, is noted for the famed meltdown of Jean Van de Velde on the 18th hole. Sure, it was 50 years ago that Ben Hogan swept to victory in his only British Open, but the Frenchman’s disastrous play on the final hole is what people who play the course these days remember.

The democratic nature of the British Open courses gives players access, more often than not, to failure. Perhaps that is why golfers regularly climb down the wall of the burn on Carnoustie’s finishing hole to have their picture taken next to the spot where Jean Van de Velde attempted to play his wayward shot, which had settled in a small stream.

After stepping into the water, Van de Velde would hold the lead at the British Open for 10 minutes more, ultimately losing in a playoff.

For amateur golfers, just having the opportunity to stand next to one of the greatest failures in golf is rewarding.

Be it failure or greatness, the courses that make up the British Open allow players to opportunity to exper-ience the game’s most memorable moments — and that is rare thing in modern golf.

The final Open Championship course on my travel schedule was the Old Course at St. Andrews, the fabled golf track where some purport the game began. The Old Course has, not surprisingly, hosted more British Opens than any other in the rotation.

But it is the arcane facts and history that make St. Andrews fascinating. My group teed off the Old Course this past May at 6:40 a.m. on a cold, windy Wednesday. With toques on our heads and without having struck a ball, our tired foursome prepared to tee off.

Of course, my caddy reminded me of the history of the first hole at St. Andrews.

“This is where Ian Baker-Finch [a former British Open winner] hooked his first ball out of bounds,” the caddy said as we stared at the massive fairway in front of us. While it might appear to be nearly impossible to miss the first fairway at St. Andrews, my caddy’s well-timed anecdote made it a certainty that all of the players in my foursome would flirt with the out-of-bounds marker on the left side of the first fairway at St. Andrews.

By the time my foursome arrived at the 18th green, a group of curious tourists had surrounded the per- imeter of the hole. When one of our group chipped the ball out of the “Valley of Sin,” the grassy dip that sits in front of the green, and landed the ball near the hole, the crowd broke into applause. We may not have been playing in the British Open but for an instant, I was fooled into thinking we were.

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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

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