March 3, 2024

The Comfort of Golf Links Never Get Old

Tired of the whole golf-gone-wild thing? The one that turned the professional men’s game into the new toy of Saudi investors? The one with US Senators hauling golf (minus the bag) to work? The one that left PGA Tour star Rory McIlroy saying he feels like a sacrificial lamb in the proposed PGA Tour-LIV Golf partnership?

The rest is easy. This week, links golf, the breezy and unadorned form of the game, takes its annual turn on golf’s main stage. It’s an opportunity for golf to tell its origin story once again. The British Open, the fourth and final of the annual Grand Slam events, is upon us.

The host course, this time around, is Royal Liverpool, also known as Hoylake to those who know the course and its bumpy fairways, pale khaki green in the summer sun and salty air.

British Opens are always played, to borrow a phrase from BBC commentator Peter Alliss, who died in 2020, “in the sight and sound of the sea.” They are contested over connections that are a century old – or much older. Royal Liverpool held its first Open in 1897 and it’s on Liverpool Harbour, although you might think of it as the Irish Sea. The course is a mile from the train station in Hoylake – many fans will get there via Merseyrail – and about 15 miles from Penny Lane in Liverpool.

Texan Jordan Spieth, the 2017 British Open winner, who prepared for Royal Liverpool by entering the Scottish Open last week, played for life on the links course at the Renaissance Club. One evening, Spieth slipped away and played North Berwick, old ties and love. His 13th green is protected by a stone wall because – well, why not? The wall was originally there, and the course dates back to 1832.

“In the British Isles,” American golf course architect Rees Jones said recently, “they like quirky.”

Promoting a course through its architect is a big deal in Britain, a powerful marketing tool in American golf. Years ago, Jones was visiting the Western Gaels for the first time, a rough course on the rugged west coast of Scotland. The club’s head secretary – that is, the gatekeeper – told Jones he could play the course if he could name its architect.

Jones offered a series of names.

Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.

“Who designed it then?” Jones asked.

“God!” the secretary bellowed.

Spieth’s plan was to play just a few holes at North Berwick, but he found he couldn’t pull it off. He played the whole course. While he was there, he talked about the joys of links golf.

“There’s nothing like links golf,” he said. “The turf is completely different. The shots go shorter or longer than the shots go anywhere else, depending on the wind. It is exciting. There is a crack. You use your imagination. There is never a view of the driving range when playing links golf.”

In the background, someone in Spieth’s group offered a “Good shot,” to another player. But you have to be careful with that phrase, when you’re playing in the land of links.

No one could know that better than Tom Watson, winner of five British Opens in the 1970s and ’80s.

“In 1975, I went to Carnoustie to play in my first Open,” Watson said in a recent phone interview. Carnoustie, on the east coast of Scotland, is difficult, bleak and treacherous. Watson arrived at the course on the Sunday before the start of the competition, but was turned away by stewards. It was too soon. Good thing there are 240 traditional links courses across Wales.

“So Hubert Green and John Mahaffey and I went down the road to Monifieth,” Watson said. “I hit my first shot straight down the middle. Everyone says, ‘Good shot.’ We are walking down the fairway. I can’t find my ball. It’s gone. I’m thinking, ‘I don’t know about this links golf.’”

Watson won the 1975 British Open at Carnoustie. And he may have won in 2009 at Turnberry, but his second shot, with an 8-iron, on the 72nd hole, landed short of the green, took a nasty bounce and ended up in fluffy grass. He needs a simple final par to win. Instead, his bogey meant a playoff, and Watson, 59 and thrown, was doomed. Stewart Cink won.

Watson came into the press tent and said, “This is no funeral.” Over time, a links golfer learns to accept the good bounces and the bad ones in any golf life.’

After Tom Doak graduated from Cornell in 1982 with dreams of becoming a golf course architect, he summered at the Old Course in St Andrews. Doak, now a renowned architect (and Renaissance course designer), has been studying links golf ever since. In a recent interview, he noted that older golfers often do well in the British Open. Greg Norman was 53 when he finished third in 2008. Darren Clarke was 42 when he won in 2011, and Phil Mickelson was 43 when he won in 2013.

Links golf, Doak said, isn’t about breaking the driver and abandoning young people. When Tiger Woods won at Royal Liverpool in 2006, he only met the driver once over four days. The greens on British Open courses tend to be flat and slow, especially compared to the greens at, say, Augusta National. There is less stress on putting and the game within the game which favors young eyes and young nerves. The most important thing in golf is the ability to read the wind, the bounce and how to fly your ball with an iron.

“In links golf, you have to curve the ball both ways, depending on what the wind is doing and where the pin is,” Doak said. “You have to figure out what the ball is going to do after it lands.”

Golf takes skill and skill and is earned – something helpful whether you’re playing in the British Open or a casual game with a friend in the long black light of a British summer. Open fans will sometimes end their day of golf with a nine (or more) dinner on the nearby seaside links. Greater Liverpool has a handful of them. All venues do the British Open.

Playing night golf on those courses, you might see golf officials, equipment reps, sportswriters and caddies, including Jim Mackay. Mackay, known as Bones and his caddies to Justin Thomas, was Mickelson’s caddy when Mickelson won at Muirfield ten years ago.

Mackay, like millions of other golf nuts around the world, can’t get enough of the game. That is, the actual game, not its politics, not its business opportunities. Mackay knows, as a golfer and caddy, that success in links golf requires a certain kind of golf magic, the ability to make the golf ball the way you want it to be.

Playing links golf, he said recently, “is like standing 50 yards in front of a hotel and deciding which window on the floor you want your ball to hit.”

The hawk as a poet. Golfer with options.

Links golf, John Updike once wrote, represents “freedom, of a wild and windy kind.” On some level, the winner at Royal Liverpool will understand that. The winners of all those supper games will also be there. Yes, the Open champion will receive $3 million this year. But he will also get a year’s custody of the winner’s trophy, the claret jug, with his name etched on it forever.

Do you know how much Woods earned for winning at Hoylake in the summer of 2006? Not likely.

But many of us remember Woods crying in his caddy’s arms. We remember Woods cradling the pitcher in victory. We remember the clouds of brown dirt that announced his shots, his ball rising, his club head turning.

“Hit it, wind,” Woods would say, now and again, with his airborne ball, as if the wind could hear him, and maybe it could.

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