TV golf viewers, rejoice! We are on the cusp of the three most compelling shows of the year—the men’s, senior, and women’s British Open championships that will play out over the next three weeks at Muirfield, Birkdale, and St. Andrews. At last we get to watch some links golf.
To paraphrase Bobby Jones, there is golf and there is links golf and the two are not at all alike, particularly as practiced by the best players in the world. After months of watching the pros demonstrate their prowess at javelin throwing, we now get to see them try their hands at bocce.
Most of them won’t measure up. Most of them will get caught in the wind or the whins or the funky lies and funny bounces or their own consternation. Dozens of fine players who can win any week on the PGA Tour have no chance on a proper links course.
If you’ve never played a links, imagine facing a 60-yard shot over a stretch of rumpled, humpy, pockmarked ground that rolls at about 10 on the Stimpmeter. Since your path is full of dips and turns all the way to the cup, lofting a shot is somewhere between inadvisable and stupid. So you take out a 7-iron, maybe even a putter, make your best guess at the direction and firmness of the stroke, and send the ball on its way. Early in its journey, the ball crests a mound and disappears for a second or two, then reappears briefly before taking an Indy turn and vanishing again, then barely climbs a final slope before trundling down next to the hole.
Believe me, there is a satisfaction in pulling off such a shot that far surpasses anything you’ll derive from flopping a wedge. It is what Alister MacKenzie called “the pleasurable excitement of links golf.”
Links golf requires mind over muscle, attitude as well as aptitude, creativity and imagination and patience and persistence. Tom Watson confessed that he hated links golf for several years—even after he’d won at Carnoustie and Birkdale. Then in a year when he didn’t win—at Royal Lytham in 1979—he had his epiphany. On successive days at the par five 7th hole, he faced opposite wind conditions. The first day, straight into a stiff breeze, he needed a driver, 3-wood, and 5-iron to reach the green while on the second day, downwind, he covered the same 549 yards with a driver and a 9-iron.
“That was the moment I fell in love with the links,” he says. “‘Don’t fight it,’ I told myself. Enjoy it. Solve the puzzle.“
It’s no wonder Watson went on to win three more Open Championships. And who knows, at age 63 he may even contend at Muirfield this week as he did so brilliantly four years ago at Turnberry. In addition to having the right mind set, Watson the Stanford graduate has the requisite strong mind, and that would seem to be a key asset this week. Look at the last eight champions at Muirfield: Els, Faldo (twice), Watson, Trevino, Nicklaus, Player, and Cotton. Then throw in earlier champions Hagen, Braid, and Vardon. Not only are all of them Hall of Famers, they’re among the smartest, savviest guys ever to play pro golf. Muirfield, as the most straightforward of all the Open venues, actually lacks some of the quintessential quirkiness that makes links golf compelling. There are few blind holes and the greenside terrain is relatively even, with less of that “rumpledness." So we won’t see as many seafaring chips and putts, there will likely be less rub-of-the-green than at other sites. What we likely will see, however, is a champion who knows how to plot his course and golf his ball, someone with a powerful, focused, inventive mind. Since Mozart, Shakespeare, Einstein, and Edison aren’t in the field this week, I’d have to bet on Tiger. This week more than ever.
As I’d bet on Watson a week later when the Seniors tee it up at Royal Birkdale. But the best fun may come the week after that when the ladies return to the Old Course, where virtually every green is fronted by some wacky deformity of the earth, some puzzle to solve, and where Inbee Park will bring her magical putting touch to the world’s largest greens in an attempt to do what no mortal has ever done.
Yes, it will all be a joy to watch!