British Open 2016: Lessons from Royal Troon

July 20, 2016

With the 2016 British Open in the books, our staff compiled short stories of what they will remember from the week at Troon outside of the Phil Mickelson vs. Henrik Stenson duel. 

Two Bad Lipouts

Over the last few years we’ve wondered aloud if there were two more refreshingly honest golfers than Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth, two guys who, like the Jim Carrey character in Liar, Liar, seemed incapable of not speaking their minds.

Lovely. Can they please stop now?

At the 145th British Open at Royal Troon, McIlroy said that Olympic golf not only isn’t worth his time, but it also isn’t worth watching on TV. He said he would watch track and field and “the stuff that matters” in Rio. Rory was ripped for it, and given the opportunity to clarify his comments two days later, he said, “Obviously I feel like I do my bit to grow the game. It’s not as if I’m uninterested.” He mentioned his roles in promoting PGA Junior League and First Tee programs, but added, “I’ve spent seven years trying to please everyone, and I figured out that I can’t really do that, so I may as well be true to myself.”

Then came Spieth, who bristled at being the victim of his own success: “I think it’s been a solid year, and I think had last year not happened I’d be having a lot of positive questions.Instead, most of the questions I get are comparing to last year and, therefore, negative because it’s not to the same standard.”

Oh, dear.

Forget about his ball-striking or his putting. When he isn’t at his best, as he hasn’t been for much of 2016, Spieth paints himself as the victim of bad bounces and bad course conditioning. Now it’s harpies in the press.

Spieth is so mature in other respects, it’s easy to forget that he’s only 22. He will learn. The woe-is-me thing is not just a bad look; it also has to be terrible for his game. He has enough to worry about on the course. At No. 3 in the world he hasn’t been playing to his standards. Like it or not, he’s going to be asked about it. The only thing he can do is play better.

McIlroy’s comments were more surprising, first because he’s 27, and second because there was no need. As his mum, Rosie, might say, if you can’t say anything nice, then you’d better hope Brandel Chamblee doesn’t get wind of it. As with Spieth, why bring all that unnecessary noise onto the already noisy stage of major championship golf?

Maybe the stress of turning down their spots in Rio pushed them over the edge. As a journalist, I love it. But as an unabashed fan of McIlroy and Spieth, I’d like to see them get back to winning majors. To that end, it’s time for them to zip it for everyone’s sake. —Cameron Morfit

Embrace The Quirks

Forget the notion that Royal Troon is dull and unimaginative, even if the first six and the last six holes are awfully mundane. Upon closer scrutiny, it’s evident by the list of champions, and by the shots the great players are asked to play, that Troon succeeds brilliantly, if not architecturally, as a proper test of golf. I profess my affection for Royal Troon for one simple reason: It dishes out rumpled, funky links golf, where bunkers are true hazards, where ground-game options are emphasized, where lucky bounces occur with delightful frequency, where exhausting debates on green speeds are absent and where the coastal breezes affect everything. Once the wind and weather moved in this week, the royal and ancient game was on—and there’s none better.

Take the 11th hole. This converted par-5 has played as a 482-yard par-4 since 1997, and there are few harder holes in golf. The hole usually plays into a crosswind, and it features a blind tee shot to a crooked fairway; dense, gorse bushes to the left; and a stone wall and railway tracks to the right. Design that hole today and you’d be sued for malpractice. The pros howled, predictably, but no one said, “unfair.” This is quirky links golf. Deal with it.

Likewise, the Postage Stamp 8th, is a par-3 that measured a mere 100 yards on Saturday, yet it played as the seventh-hardest hole. That’s what wind, a brilliantly contoured green and its surrounds, and five especially penal bunkers can do to a tour professional. What we learned from Troon is that weird, wild links golf is the best test of all. —Joe Passov

Civilized Sanctuary

The world is mad and getting madder. The deaths in Nice were remembered at Troon, chiefly in the form of black ribbons adorning the caps of many golfers and caddies. As a gesture it is at once trite and meaningless, and also grand and poignant. It won’t change a thing, but it is a nod to various shattered worlds: We play while you grieve. The ribbons were for the victims in Nice, but they could have been for the lost lives in Dallas, in Baton Rouge, in too many other places.

Golf is still reeling from…a rules debacle. Not at Troon, of course. Very seldom is there a rules problem at a British Open. That’s because the R&A, presenters of the Open, have a confidence in handling such issues. You don’t see that sure-footedness at the Masters, at the U.S. Open or at the PGA Championship. (You do see it in PGA Tour play, in spades.) Also, at the Open, rules officials are guided by veterans from the European tour, who, like their PGA Tour counterparts, know exactly what they are doing.

The royal and ancient game has been mocked by outsiders, and even insiders, ever since Dustin Johnson was assessed a stroke at the conclusion of his Sunday round at the U.S. Open because of a moving ball under weird conditions, which meant he won by three shots, instead of four.But that manic attention to detail, to a system of rules that is intended to create a level playing field for each player, is what makes the game what it is. Golf is an oasis from the madness of the world because it is so civilized. It is civilized even when the players detest one another, which is not often the case, and it is civilized when the players have an abiding respect for one another, as was the case when Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson played the Open finale in a combined 128 shots.

The calamity of Oakmont is, of course, nothing when compared to a real tragedy. But golf is in a tricky place. In all of the noise that came out of Johnson’s penalty, one major point has been missed, and that is that the rules exist in an effort to be fair to every player. That is at the heart of all civilized behavior: the rights of others.

The driver of that truck in Nice didn’t know a damn thing about how to live in a civil society. That is a true tragedy.

Phil and Henrik on Sunday were in their own cocoon, each trying to do a difficult thing well and succeeding beautifully at it. Each showed grace under pressure. For that, they have my undying gratitude. —Michael Bamberger

Beef Encounters

Every once in a while a breath of unexpected air blows across the sports landscape: Long John at Crooked Stick, Linsanity at MSG, the Washington Generals (then the New Jersey Reds) snapping their 2,495-game losing streak against that formidable team from Harlem.

At Troon casual golf fans were introduced to Beef, né Andrew Johnston of the London Borough of Barnet. If you somehow missed him (though you couldn’t have, what with NBC, The New York Times and falling head over heels for him), he was the guy who makes Zach Galifianakis look fit.

Beef’s Confederate-soldier beard is gnarly and knotted. He’s built like a suburban dad who has indulged in too many PBRs. The perpetual twinkle in his eye makes you want to dart under the ropes and hug him. “At the end of the day, I’m just a normal guy who happens to play golf,” Beef said.

Charming, right? That’s the other thing about Beef. Dude can work a room. On Saturday evening a reporter asked Beef to estimate his weight. “I have no idea,” he chirped. “You want to pick me up?” Live from Ayshire, it’s … Andrew Beeeeef Johnston … with moooosical guest … Katttty Perry!

Beef, 27, wears Minion T-shirts and piñata outfits. (He donned the latter while feting his first European tour win, in April at his home club in North Middlesex.) His fans pay homage by waving burgers at him. A couple of weeks ago, for a stunt straight out of a Gallagher routine, Beef teed up a burger.

Let it be said, it’s not exactly difficult to stand out in golf’s upper echelon, with its creased slacks and apparel sponsorships. But still, There Was Something About Mary, and There’s Most Definitely Something About Beef.

He came up short at Royal Troon, carding a two-over-par 73 on Sunday to finish eighth. But Beef’s growing legend came up big. Fans regaled him on every hole, and Jimmy Roberts gave him the full essay treatment on NBC. It was a good week for Beef. God willing, there will be many more. —Alan Bastable

Calm Amid the Storm

Troon will be remembered for many things. An epic duel. Fickle weather. Boisterous fans. The Postage Stamp.

Most won’t think of serenity. That’s only because they didn’t look in the right spot.

The par-4 11th brutalized the world’s greatest golfers. Measuring 482 yards, it features a blind tee shot over prickly gorse, a fairway flanked by native vegetation, and a devious green. Beyond an out-of-bounds stone wall along the right side, a train line runs north to Glasgow, south to Ayr. Every 15 minutes or so, a train would whip through. Fittingly, the hole is known as The Railway.

All of those perils left no room for grandstands. The 11th is the farthest hole from the clubhouse, and it was easily the least-trafficked. Near the green, a thin row of fans milled along the ropes, but they were contained to one side, away from the railroad. When golfers left the 11th green, often dazed from a bogey or worse, they strode to the next tee in silence, 50 yards from the nearest spectator. On the tee at the par-4 12th, they were in solitude, the train line now behind them. To their right, a thicket of purple wildflowers swayed in the breeze. Between train runs, the only sound was the wind passing through the flora.

It all called to mind another peaceful spot in the golf rota: Amen Corner. The hole numbers even match up. I asked a marshal if he’d ever been to Augusta.

“Nae,” he replied in a Scottish lilt. “But I’ll go with ye if you’re goin’.”

If he only knew. With a little imagination, he was already there. —Jeff Ritter

Common Sense…What a Concept!

It wasn’t until this year that the USGA figured out it didn’t need rough between fairways and bunkers at the U.S. Open. Funny, but it’s been that way at British Open courses for a few hundred years. You land a shot near a bunker, any bunker, and its well-like properties will draw the ball in like a magnet. Last week, Royal Troon’s Postage Stamp 8th green was a delightfully dangerous Exhibit A.

We learned, again, at Royal Troon that greens don’t have to be Augusta-like, with Stimpmeter speeds hitting 14 or 15. Troon kept its flattish surfaces relatively slow. They were playable in the wind. And, what a coincidence, nobody’s ball moved when they were trying to hit a putt, unlike at Oakmont.

Sure, the British Open has to play it safe because the potential for wild weather is far greater along the North Sea than it is at U.S. courses. High winds that blew balls around on the greens stopped play at the last two Opens at St. Andrews, the home of golf. Still, would a tournament at Oakmont or Oakland Hills or even Augusta National be any less exciting if the greens were running at 10 instead of 15? Would slower greens fail to identify the champion golfer of the week? Not likely.

At the Open, slow greens offer a challenge. It’s just a different challenge than what the world’s best players are accustomed to.

The R&A knows something about course setup that the USGA doesn’t and, from what I have seen, probably never will. —Gary Van Sickle

Shank You Very Much

Transcendent golf is nice to watch, if you like that kind of thing. Some people enjoy basking in a star’s reflected glory.

I’d rather see a flawed reflection of myself.

The flubs. The skulls. The shanks. The comic outbursts of frustration. I’m looking for a game with which I’m all too familiar. This week at Royal Troon confirmed that I am not alone.

No sooner had the sun set on the final round when up popped cheerful online links to the “worst shots” of the Open.

“So far!” one outlet added, reassuring folks like me that there’d be more to come.

All around the world streamed high-def images of train wrecks, set to chipper music to enhance the mood. Kicking off the montage was none other than Monty, Troon’s native son, sent out first on Thursday morning in a sweet symbolic gesture that gave way to a sour adventure in the sand. Other dogged victims included Yusaku Miyazato (see Postage Stamp; suffering), James Heath (ditto) and on and on, highlighted by Matt Jones, who went off the rails, literally, on the 11th hole by slicing his tee shot onto the bordering train tracks. Jones responded to that stray shot with a soft toss of his driver. You can tell from the replays that he has fine technique. But he could also stand a lesson from Rory McIlroy, whose third-round, three-wood fling led to a separation of clubhead from shaft and a viral clip that’s been catnip to viewers who are into Schadenfreude.

Me? I’m not that heartless. I take no special pleasure in someone else’s pain. I just don’t like being lonely, and I can relate to struggles on the course; they help me feel connected to the brotherhood of man.

So I enjoyed the weekend.

How about you?

I haven’t mustered up the interest to watch it yet, but word is the final twosome played pretty well. —Josh Sens