Thursday, July 19, 2007

Nothing Royal, and That’s Its Charm

Sports of The Times
July 19, 2007

Carnoustie, Scotland

Across the Firth of Tay, St. Andrews is the “home of golf” and rightly so. Shepherds began hitting rocks centuries ago where the blue blazers of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club preside now over the game’s rules and regulations. Most other British Open venues have a royal touch — Royal Troon and Royal Birkdale, for example.

But there is nothing royal about Carnoustie, where the 136th British Open begins today, and that is its charm.

Quite simply, just plain Carnoustie is the working-class course named for this working-class town of 13,000 on the North Sea, where the long narrow street not far from the 18th green is known as Links Parade, which is around the corner from Links Avenue, which leads over to Golf Street.

Most other British Opens are held at upper-crust clubs, with members in upper-crust blazers, but on Links Parade at the Carnoustie Golf Club, instituted in 1842, no blazers were in sight or in demand as an American visitor inspected the club’s trophy cases the other morning with his cap on.

“I’d suggest,” a firm but friendly voice said, “that you remove your hat, sir. The rule here is that if you wear your hat inside, you have to buy a drink for everybody here.”

With a smile, Joe Gourlay, the club’s match secretary who supervises the members’ handicaps — “who can play, and who can’t” — excused the unthinking ugly American and pointed to an autographed photo of Arnold Palmer in full swing.

“Arnold is an honorary member now,” he said, “but for years he was a regular member and always paid his dues.”

Nearby on Links Parade was Simpson’s golf shop (since 1883), the Carnoustie Links Hotel and the Carnoustie Ladies Golf Club, which claims to be “the oldest ladies golf club in the world.” So think of Carnoustie as the British Open’s version of Bethpage Black, the public course on Long Island where duffers sleep in their cars before a weekend tee time, where Tiger Woods won the 2002 United States Open and where the 2009 Open will be held.

Should Woods hoist the claret jug here Sunday, he would be the first to win three consecutive British Opens since Peter Thomson of Australia (1954-56)

Until an unheralded Scot, Paul Lawrie, won a playoff in 1999 after Jean Van de Velde wasted a three-stroke lead in a 72nd-hole meltdown, British Opens at Carnoustie had always produced champions who were or would be famous — Tommy Armour, Henry Cotton, Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Tom Watson.

“I saw Ben Hogan win,” Gourlay said. “I was 9 years old and in absolute awe of him. What I best remember were all the men in coats and ties following him.”

Then, as now, trains to and from Dundee and Aberdeen rumble next to the 18th fairway. During that Open, an engineer stopped his train for a minute or two so that he, if not his passengers, could watch Hogan hit a shot.

Long before it produced famous Open champions, Carnoustie was known for producing golfers who took the game to America, taught it there and won tournaments there.

According to local historians, some 300 “men of Carnoustie” were golf missionaries around the world, notably Stewart Maiden, the pro at East Lake in Atlanta who inspired a 6-year-old youngster named Bobby Jones a century ago.

“I began to swing my clubs as nearly as possible as” Maiden did, Jones wrote. “His method was simple. It seemed that he merely stepped up to the ball and hit it, which to the end of my playing days was always a characteristic of my play.”

Three of those men of Carnoustie were the Smith brothers — Alex, who lost the United States Open in a playoff in 1898, but won it in 1906 and 1910; Willie, who won it in 1899; and Macdonald, who was the runner-up to Jones in both the 1930 United States and British Opens.

And long before the Smith brothers, the pioneers of prize-money golf, Old Tom Morris, the original St. Andrews pro, and his son, Young Tom, played Carnoustie.

Thirteen years before Willie Park won the first “Open Championship,” as it’s known officially, in 1860 at Prestwick, Old Tom helped lay out a 10-hole course at Carnoustie in 1847, later extended it to 18 holes, and arrived there in 1867 with 16-year-old Young Tom to play in what is considered to have been golf’s first prize-money tournament.

According to Kevin Cook’s delightful new book, “Tommy’s Honor,” Park asked Old Tom, “What you brought this laddie here for?”

Old Tom snapped: “You’ll see what for. You’ll see.” What Park and 30 other golfers saw was Young Tom win this “All Comers” tournament and its booty of 8 British pounds, about $16 now. The next year Young Tom — who would die suddenly at 24, three months after his wife died in childbirth — won his first of three consecutive Open titles.

And now, nearly 150 years later, Tiger Woods might win his third straight. How sweet that his opportunity is at Carnoustie.


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