Where There’s Gorse, Of Course

Bobby Curran
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Friday - July 15, 2005
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In Great Britain, they call it simply The Open Championship, and it happens again this weekend on the Old Course links at St. Andrews. Oh sure, they understand that Americans are going to call it The British Open, and it draws little more than a raised eyebrow these days. And the Brits respect the U.S Open even if it is a Johnny-come-lately tournament. You can understand why. British people have candlesticks older than this country and they take their traditions seriously.

Get somebody from Great Britain chatting about The Open and they’re likely to tell you about the oldest champion, Old Tom Morris, who won the title in 1867 at the age of 46 years 99 days. They might sing the praises of the youngest champion, Young Tom Morris, who won the following year at the tender age of 17 years, five months and eight days.

Naturally, The Open has had its share of histrionics and controversy. The 16th edition was scheduled for St. Andrews Royal and Ancient Golf Club in 1876, only the second time at that location. As 34 golfers took to the links for the championship, so did many members of the club who were there for the autumn gathering. There were many delays and bad feelings between competitors and members. Bob Martin was in the clubhouse with a second and final round score of 176. Davie Strath was on the 17th needing to play the last two holes in 10 strokes to win the title. On his third shot, his ball hit one of the players still on the green and rolled close to the cup — this allowed Strath to two putt, and his six on the final hole put him in a tie forcing a playoff the following Monday. Then a complaint was lodged about Strath’s actions on the 17th, and the rules committee decided that they would make a ruling after the playoff. If the complaint were upheld, Strath would be disqualified. Strath told the club to rule before the playoff. When they refused, Strath refused to participate and Bob Martin went through the formality of walking the course to become champion.

Much has changed since then. The original prize of a wide belt of rich, red Morocco leather with silver buckle and emblems was replaced with the Claret Jug in 1873. It was awarded to the winner that year and every year after until American Bobby Jones won at St. Andrews in 1927. Then the R&A championship committee announced that henceforth the cup would stay in permanent residence at the Royal and Ancient, and a duplicate costing 40 pounds (sterling) would be presented to the champions. Since then, many winners have commissioned private copies of the claret jug for their own collections.

Another change since the early days includes a rotation of 13 golf courses that host The Open — six sites in Scotland, six in England and one in Ireland. And the prize money has jumped up some since local caddie Tom Kidd won 11 pounds (sterling) in 1873. The switch from a 36- hole format to the modern-day 72-hole was made in 1892.

Other tournament features are largely unchanged. The weather is mostly lousy but, hey, this is Great Britain. The courses remain links-style, and in Scotland, at least, players hit balls across heather and gorse. In fact, in Scotland, the courses often look like moors where suddenly a flagstick appears out of nowhere.

And they love their records and statistics.

You probably didn’t know that Tiger Woods was the first champion to win by as many as eight strokes since J.H. Taylor did it in 1913. Or that Jack Nicklaus, playing his final Open, has been the runner up a record seven times. Want some really obscure benchmarks? Jolly good.

The only champion to have the same score in each round was Densmore Shute in 1933 at St. Andrews with four 73s.

Biggest span between first and last victories? Good old J.H. Taylor, 1894–1913.

Had about enough? Right then, stiff upper lip and carry on.

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