If golf had been invented in California say, or Florida, it would be an altogether easier game—10 holes perhaps; nothing more than 400 yards; light, wispy rough; no pot bunkers.
But instead it was invented by the Scots, hard, flinty ginger-bearded men of the north who wore kilts in fierce winds and ate haggis and survived and thrived despite terrible conditions of deprivation, brutal weather and, across the border to the south, dreadful neighbors.
Golf was thus born of suffering, and the Scots made it in their own image. It was penal, unrelenting, unforgiving. It was for all weathers. This was a pursuit not to be enjoyed, but survived. It was for bravehearts only.
One manifestation is the tradition of an exceedingly demanding closing hole. You’re on the 18th tee, already on your knees after hours of being pummeled by this game. Your bones ache, your feet are sore, and your scorecard is covered in lacerations. You can see the salvation of the clubhouse, but between you and it is the closing hole, often a fearsome par 5 (or 6 or 7) masquerading as a par 4—long, narrow, heavily bunkered and often with a critical jury of club elders peering out disdainfully from the bay window.
This is true at the majority of British Open venues, the glaring paradoxical exception is the Old Course at St. Andrews, whose final act is a drivable and bunkerless par 4 with the widest fairway in golf. The closing hole of the Open is golf’s grand stage for the final act. It can be the backdrop to a stirring drama (Tom Watson, 1977), a tragedy (Adam Scott, 2012; Tom Watson 2009), a love story (Darren Clarke, 2011; Seve Ballesteros, 1984; Tony Jacklin, 1969), a monologue (Tiger Woods, 2000) or a highly comedic slapstick farce (Jean Van de Velde, 1999).
The last hole at this year’s Open venue fits the mold. It might be the toughest closer of the nine venues in the Open rota. The 18th at Royal Birkdale on England’s Lancashire coast is a par 5 for members, but for the world’s finest will play as a 473-yard par 4. From an elevated tee, with a sand-dune ridge and out of bounds all down the right, a solid strike is required to carry the bunker that splits the start of the fairway in two, followed by a long approach to a large but well-defended green that sits just below Birkdale’s iconic white art-deco clubhouse.
Birkdale’s 18th has witnessed much theater. There is something operatic about the home green, where Jack Nicklaus conceded Tony Jacklin’s missable putt here in the 1969 Ryder Cup, thereby giving the home side a sporting half.
A few highlights:
1971: Lu Liang Huan (“Mr Lu”) was a shot behind Lee Trevino. His 5-wood approach landed in the gallery, hitting Mrs. Lillian Tipping, who promptly tipped over. Lu made a birdie, but so did Trevino, winning by a shot. Lu later hosted the Tippings on an all-expenses paid trip to his homeland, Taiwan.
1976: Seve Ballesteros’ audacious chip and run between two bunkers for a birdie to tie for second marked his arrival as an A-lister; soon he would be a leading man.
1983: Tom Watson hit the “best 2-iron of my life” to the heart of the green for a one-shot win and his fifth Open title, a total bettered only by Harry Vardon.
1998: Justin Rose, 17, holed out a 50-yard wedge shot for joint fourth place, the best finish by an amateur in almost half a century.
Come July 23, everyone in the Open will be hoping for a good ending, as in life: Down the middle, warm applause from people who love you, no regrets—you did it your way after all. Final tally. Last words. Fadeout. Silence.
Illustration by John Barton