British Open Winner Will Be a Champion and a Survivor

July 12, 2016

We gauche Americans have done a variety of vulgar things to the royal-and-ancient game, but maybe the worst of our offenses, worse than even rough-trampling beer carts, is the invention of a seemingly innocuous term: the signature hole. You know, 18 at Pebble, 17 at the Stadium course, 13 at Augusta. The eight or so courses in the British Open rota do not have signature holes. The Open returns this week to Royal Troon for the first time in 12 years. Maybe you have heard about the tiny 8th, the 123-yard dune-to-dune par-3 called Postage Stamp, as the course’s signature hole. It is not! That would be a slight to the other 17 holes.

Poor Troon, named for a wee town on the west coast of Scotland, hard by a heaving sea called the Firth of Clyde. Beyond that 8th hole, the course is just not that memorable. It is fair (few blind shots), hard (literally), windswept (most every afternoon) and penal (beware the gorse). No matter: By Sunday night we’ll have a winner.

“You don’t need a lot of flash to be successful there,” says Todd Hamilton, who won the last Open at Troon. “You just need—”

Uh, internal fortitude.

This will be the ninth Open played at Troon, and the last six have been won by Americans, each of them an expert in workingman’s golf. “You go to that 1st tee with your lunch pail,” Hamilton says. Arnold Palmer won at Troon in 1962, Tom Weiskopf in ’73, Tom Watson in ’82, Mark Calcavecchia in ’89, Justin Leonard in ’97 and Hamilton in 2004.

O.K., Weiskopf could be viewed as the outlier in that group. He was a perfectionist and suffered for it. But that week in ’73 he accepted the haphazard nature of seaside golf. The winner at Troon will be somebody who knows how to roll with the punches.

Hamilton, U.S. Open winner Dustin Johnson, defending British Open champion Zach Johnson and 153 others—Tiger Woods not among them—will gather for the 145th playing of the Open, which begins on Thursday. Summer’s here, and the time is right, people: Wimbledon, the Open, the All-Star Game, the Rio Games. Some lineup. We’re taking a holiday from all of the Brexit talk, and if we go to Cleveland, it will be to watch Danny Salazar pitch, not to see Bobby Knight in action at the Republican National Convention. We’re definitely going to Troon, to observe, among other things, how the high priests curve the ball in the heavy sea air. To win at Troon, you have to have all the shots.

For that reason, among others, Weiskopf is bullish on Dustin Johnson. “I think he’ll run the tables,” he says. Weiskopf envisions four rounds in which Johnson drives it past Troon’s menacing fairway bunkers and thereby plays a course far different from many of his competitors, who will be inclined to use irons off the tee to stay short of the traps.

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Over the years Troon has barely changed. When Palmer won on the then par-72 course, attacking it with long, straight driving, it measured 7,045 yards. At the ’89 Open, Calcavecchia all but invented the modern bomb-and-gauge game. He won on a course measuring 7,067 yards by driving it long and anywhere, then using his deep-grooved, thick-bottomed irons to play out of the rough. The response of the club to this new form of golf was to do … nothing. This year, the course (now a par-71) is 7,190 yards, all stretched out.

That is the ultimate statement about how the game is viewed in the kingdom. It was good enough then; it’s good enough now.

The grand poobahs of golf over there understand that in all links golf, the main obstacle is wind. Unlike the USGA and the PGA Tour, the R&A does not, traditionally, impose intense speed upon its greens. You could find a bowling ball with more grass on it than Oakmont’s greens had for the U.S. Open last month.

That’s one of the reasons Dustin Johnson’s ball on the sloping 5th green in the last round suddenly fell backward off its perch while he was in its vicinity, resulting in a one-shot penalty. The debate over whether he deserved the penalty and when it should have been assessed continues. Nobody seems to like how the USGA handled the matter, but the governing body for American golf is always obligated to make sure its rules are followed to a T, for the sake of every player in the field.

Weiskopf says you could see a similar problem this week but with a different result. “As exposed as some of those greens are at Troon, on that front nine especially, you could have that same situation, easily,” he says. A ball moves while a player is standing over it. “But over there, that R&A runs the event with so much authority, so much knowledge, you’ll never have a situation like that mess in Oakmont. They’ll say, ‘O.K., tell me what happened.’ It will be a shot or not, and they’ll play on.”

Weiskopf’s point is this: The Scots invented the rules and the language of the game. You’ll never hear a self-respecting British golf snob speak of a “signature hole.” But play on is a war cry over there. That and, on you go. The Open is not an entertainment to them. It is a championship, the oldest and broadest in all of golfdom. You may not remember the 12th hole at Troon. But you’ll remember who won there and how he did it.