x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

British Open's popularity closed for debate

A golfer's career is not complete without playing this unpredictable and weather-challenged tournament.

Americans Tom Watson, left, and Jack Nicklaus contested the 1977 'Duel in the Sun' to make it one of the greatest in the event's history.
Americans Tom Watson, left, and Jack Nicklaus contested the 1977 'Duel in the Sun' to make it one of the greatest in the event's history.

"Any golfer worth his salt has to cross the sea and try to win the British Open," said Jack Nicklaus, the game's greatest champion, about what many consider golf's most coveted prize.

The Golden Bear would traverse the Atlantic 38 times in search of the Claret Jug, swirling in his head tales of Old Tom Morris's victory at Prestwick in the first British Open in 1862, or Walter Hagan's breakthrough win for America 60 years later.

Many more have boarded the boat since "Sir Haig" claimed the 1922 title at Royal St George's, attempting to add their names to the pantheon of past winners of the game's oldest major. Some would promise to go to even greater lengths to fight on its fabled fairways.

"To me, the [British] Open is the tournament I would come to if I had to leave a month before and swim over," said Lee Trevino, winner of consecutive Claret Jugs in 1971 and 1972.

The tournament continues to enchant and enthral, even in its 141st edition. Golf is stripped bare and played on courses carved by Mother Nature, six centuries after the game was born on the famous links of St Andrews' Old Course.

Of course, the US Masters, perhaps the British Open's closest rival, is steeped in tradition, too. Augusta offers the ceremonial tee shot, awards the Green Jacket and attracts 'patrons' rather than spectators.

However, the British Open is infinitely subtler, more likeable. Even the dainty Claret Jug holds a certain regality, standing proud on top of some of the finest names in golf. It is no garish Green Jacket, or an unwieldy Wannamaker Trophy.

Then there is its special bond with the gallery, the crowd coronating the champion elect as he makes his way on Sunday on to the 18th green.

"Being announced on different tees around the world as Open champion, it doesn't get any better than that," said Darren Clarke, last year's winner, this week.

"To me, the Open is the oldest, the biggest, the best."

Hailing from Northern Ireland, where the Open was held in 1951, Clarke could be accused of bias, yet he is backed by ringing endorsements from past American champions John Daly and Tiger Woods, who rank their victories at St Andrews as the proudest achievements of their storied careers.

Nicklaus, himself twice winner on the lawns of the Royal & Ancient's clubhouse, concurs.

"When the British Open is in Scotland, there's something special about it," he said. "And when it's at St Andrews, it's ever greater.

"If you're going to be a player people will remember, you have to win the Open at St Andrews."

St Andrews sits at the head of an impressive British Open rota. In Scotland, Turnberry, with its lighthouse watching over the Firth of Clyde, hosted the 'Duel in the Sun', when Tom Watson conquered Nicklaus in the sport's most feverish shoot-out to land a second of five British Open crowns.

"Naturally, the Open I won there all those years ago is one of the majors I most cherish," said Watson.

Add to that Muirfield, where Nick Faldo displayed during the final round in 1987 a remarkable consistency that would drive him to become the world's best.

Carnoustie, the scene in 1953 of Ben Hogan's final major win, and Royal Troon, home to Arnold Palmer's demolition of the field in 1962, complete the Scottish set.

South of the border, Royal Lytham, this week's host, launched the legend of Seve Ballesteros, just as Birkdale provided the platform for Peter Thomson in 1954 to play "the finest pressure shot of my life" on the third last hole to spark a run of three successive titles.

Some time before, Hoylake was the venue for Bobby Jones, the supremely gifted amateur, to complete the 'Grand Slam' while Sandwich, some 73 years later, was the stage for Ben Curtis, the world No 396 and a qualifier, to win a major at his first attempt.

Yet that is the caveat. For all the British Open's great champions, the allure lies in its unpredictability and its ability to conjure up the most unlikely of winners.

More than at any other tournament, the elements dictate how the course will be played. Patience and perseverance, the game's virtues ceded in this technological age, are given their sternest examination.

"You have so many different weather conditions," said Woods. "You just don't know. That's one of the unique things about the British Open and why it is my favourite major championship.

"It's the only tournament besides the sandbelt courses in Australia that we can actually use the ground as a friend and bounce the ball into the greens. Modern golf is all up in the air."

The great Gene Sarazen gave an insight into the British Open's seductive powers when he returned to Troon in 1973 after a 50-year absence and promptly holed his tee shot at the par-three 'Postage Stamp'.

"For many years the hole had haunted me," said the 71 year old at the time.

"I feared it, so when I walked on to the tee and faced the wind I admit I was nervous. I selected my five-iron as I was determined not to be short.

"When the crowd roared and I realised the ball was in the hole, I felt there was no better way to close the book on my tournament play than to make a hole in one on the Postage Stamp."

Those closer to these shores have been bitten by the British Open bug, too.

Ross Bain, the Dubai-based professional golfer who contested the Claret Jug in 2007, told The National last year: "Along with the US Masters, this is the tournament every golfer wants to be a part of if they are honest.

"There is so much tradition, so many great winners and when it starts on the Thursday it's an incredible experience. The magic around it will never go away. It's quite something when you hear your name being called out on the first tee."

However, not everyone has held the British Open in such high regard. Illustrious Americans, Byron Nelson and Sam Snead, were both once found complaining about its paltry prize money, Snead claiming the US$600 (Dh2,204) he received for his 1946 win meant "a man would have to be 200 years old at that rate to retire".

The uncompromising Boo Weekley, Snead's less-celebrated compatriot, once grumbled about the lack of sweet tea and fried chicken on offer at St Andrews. No doubt the R&A almost choked on their tea, of the English variety, and scones.

Even Mrs Padraig Harrington seemed unmoved by her husband's first major victory at Carnoustie in 2007.

"I woke my wife up and said: 'I'm the Open champion. I can't believe I've done it,'" the Irishman recalled. "She said: 'I can believe it; there's the trophy. Now can you go back to sleep?'"

Perhaps it should be left to Palmer, the eight-time major winner whose presence in the early 1960s guaranteed Americans would today still be making that trip across the sea, to have final say on the lure of golf's premier event.

"I never felt I could be a complete professional without having won the British Open," he said. "It was something you had to do to complete your career."


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