British Open Prompts Memories
If all goes according to rule, the 138th British Open -- which most simply know as "the Open Championship" -- should tidy up its business today just after lunchtime here on the East Coast.
I regret missing the conclusion of any major, but especially this one. In my opinion, nothing captures the wind-blown original spirit of the game quite like the Open Championship. As in the first, the original, the best.
Unfortunately, I'll have to miss the Sunday finale because, as you're reading this, I'm probably somewhere just north of Manhattan, headed for a few days of hanging out with my hard-working college kids in my adopted Northern home before they head back to college in North Carolina and Italy, respectively.
Since I haven't seen the tykes all summer, it's a trade-off that I'm happy to make, though I must say Turnberry's Ailsa course, where the Open Championship returns after a 15-year hiatus, will always hold special meaning to me for a couple of highly personal reasons.
To begin with, its three most recent Open champs -- Tom Watson (1977), Greg Norman (1986), and Nick Price (1994) -- are my three favorite players of post-Arnie-and-Jack era, first-class guys and extraordinary champions, best summarized by the heroic Watson-Nicklaus "duel in the sun" of 1977. Watson's triumph is regarded by many as the greatest Open finish ever.
Given this vita, I expect this year to be no different an affair, waged on a demanding linksland that has been dramatically reworked to include deeper and more penal bunkering, reconfigured fairways and greens that are reportedly even more elusive, all framed by a waving rough that is so bloody terrifying that 150 players lost 480 balls in a recent members' tournament.
For me, however, Turnberry will be the windswept headland I venerate because it's where my father and I played our final golf match in the late summer of 1994, weeks after Nick Price played his way to glory there.
We arrived there after a week of knocking along the rainy Lancashire Coast, where my dad was stationed during World War II at a big Allied air base near Lytham-and-St.Anne's. It was while there, borrowing the clubs of a member who was off serving in Burma, that my dad first became acquainted with the game of golf, eventually hopping a train to St. Andrews in Scotland to see the "Home of Golf" for himself.
That was more or less our itinerary coming 50 years after the fact and on the heels of the 50th D-Day anniversary, to recreate the journey that had led him to a love of the game that was eventually passed along to me. At that moment, we both knew this was likely to be our final golf trip anywhere together. My father, who was 80, had inoperable cancer and supposedly only months to live.
After stopping off to attend Sunday morning services at the little stone church where Eisenhower worshipped in the Ayreshire village of Kirkoswald, we arrived at Turnberry about 1 in the afternoon and bumped into a pair of overbearing American dentists from Alabama, both named Bob, whom we'd met on the flight from Atlanta to London.
The Dr. Bobs were so pleased to see us -- or so eager to fleece a couple of suspected pigeons -- that one of them proposed a "friendly afternoon golf match" on the mighty Ailsa course, where the Open championship had just been won by Price.
"How 'bout a 20-dollar team Nassau, if that ain't too rich for y'all's blood?" he drawled with a slightly predatory leer.
I was pretty sure my dad wanted to rest up from our week of walking links courses in the pouring rain. But he surprised me by giving them a cheerful smile. "Give us 30 minutes to change and we'll meet you boys at the first tee," he said. "And how about we make it 50 a side -- in Queen's currency, not dollars?"
They looked shocked, then delighted.
Cutting It Short
"Are you out of your mind?" I gently chided him as we rose in the elevator up to our room. "Those guys are a couple of redneck thieves -- single-digit handicappers."
"Where's your sense of adventure, Bo?" Opti the Mystic, as I sometimes called him, calmly replied. "We have the money. We just don't have the time. Besides, I'm sure you'll play well enough to carry us both. You can tell Jack about it someday." Jack was my son, then 4 years old, at home in Maine. He was more interested in bagpipes than golf bags.
Opti was wrong about his prognostication -- at least initially. I hooked my opening drive into the waist-deep hayfield flanking the relatively easy 350-yard opening hole. My dad topped his drive. The Dr. Bobs both found the short grass, and were all but laughing out loud at our horrible start.
My caddie, who had a deep suntan from a recent fortnight in Tunisia, looked deeply pained. I half expected him to say, "Sir, Lassie couldn't find your ball if it were wrapped in bacon." We were three down after three holes. I was miserable, and the Bobs were gloating.
My father seemed oblivious to the drama, out for a Sunday stroll. "You're worrying too much," he said as we slowed down our walk. "Try and just enjoy this amazing place and don't take things so personally. Think how far we've come. We have nothing to prove to these clowns."
Turnberry's fourth hole is a gem, a 16-yard par-three with an elevated "pulpit" green aptly named "Woebetide."
The Bobs had honors. Both missed the green. My dad left his tee shot on the fringe of the green. I teed up and made my best swing of the day with a 7-iron. The ball came to rest an inch from the cup. The Bobs looked a little shell-shocked as I tapped in for birdie.
You could feel the momentum completely shift. We halved the fifth. Then on the sixth, both Dr. Bobs drove balls deep into the Open rough. Dad and I both hit fine drives to the short grass. But I saw his slowing gait and noticed a leaking colostomy bag.
"Hey, fellas," I said, without consulting with my dad, "we're going to rest a bit. You go on and play ahead."
The surprise and relief on their faces was palpable. "You're forfeiting the match?" the more obnoxious of the two asked.
"Yep," I said. "I'll bring you your winnings later."
There was no protest from my dad. He was visibly whipped. I even paid off our caddie and sent him along, shouldering my own bag.
"I'll walk, you play," said my dad. "It's good just to be here with you. Play some golf just for fun now."
I went par par bogey par. We reached the halfway house overlooking the remains of Bruce's Castle and sat for a time on a sturdy bench enjoying Scottish beers and a lovely Sunday-afternoon view of the Firth of Clyde. Below us on the rocks, families were gathering whelks for their supper.
"We could have beaten those guys. We had them scared to death," I pointed out.
He shrugged. "Probably true. But we would have missed this view."
As in most things, Opti the Mystic saw something in the beauty of this moment that I'd nearly overlooked. After a lengthy spell on the bench, we jumped over to the par-3 15th and I played our way home, making pars all the way. It was one of the most unforgettable afternoons of my life.
That evening, a fellow came over to our table in the dining room and asked if he could join us. It was Terry Bradshaw, the football star and CBS sports commentator. He was lonely for some American companionship, I suspect, and we were the only Yank voices in the dining room at that moment.
"It's so cold and rainy over here," he said with a laugh, "I'm buying a new sweater everywhere I go. My bag weighs about 200 pounds. ... Isn't this place dang amazing?"
The bagpiper was beginning to play -- as he does every evening at dusk -- on the terrace overlooking the golf course and sea. I excused myself and walked out to the terrace to listen to the haunting skirl of the pipes. I heard my old man telling Bradshaw about our match with the Dr. Bobs and hearing Bradshaw's robust laugh.
A thought suddenly occurred to me, and I went back inside to the small bar just off the dining room. I asked the barman to borrow his telephone. I dialed home to Maine and found my children having their Sunday lunch. Jack got on the phone.
"Listen to this, Rocket man," I said to him -- then held the receiver out an open door of the bar. I don't remember what the piper was playing. I just remember how Jack laughed with delight, and how I, thinking how far we'd come, cried at the beauty of the moment.
Jim Dodson, writer-in-residence at The Pilot, can be contacted by e-mail at email@example.com.
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