From the minute you walk through the gates at Augusta National Golf Club during the week of the Masters, all you hear about is tradition.
The traditional opening tee shots; the traditional (incredibly awkward) awards ceremony inside Butler Cabin; the chairman’s traditional Wednesday press conference. It goes on and on…and on.
I like to remind people that the first Masters was played in 1934—a mere SEVENTY-FOUR YEARS after the first Open Championship.
Unless you are an absolute golf philistine—almost certainly an American—you do NOT refer to the British Open. The United States Open came along 35 years after the first Open. There’s just one Open Championship. Period.
That said, I’m not buying this R&A marketing campaign in which it now wants its championship to be called just, ‘The Open.’ What, it stopped being a championship?
Real tradition is the Open Championship awards ceremony: the low amateur is introduced; the runner-up—or runners-up are introduced—and then, “the champion golfer of the year,” is introduced. He speaks, the giant hand-operated scoreboard to the left of the massive 18th green grandstand reads: “Congratulations Jordan. See you next year at Carnoustie.”
That’s what it said last year at Royal Birkdale. This coming Sunday it will say, “Congratulations ----. See you next year at Royal Portrush.”
Hang on, you will say, Royal Portrush? That’s in Northern Ireland. It isn’t part of the Open Championship rota. Perhaps not, but the championship was contested there in 1951—the year the Masters was being played for the 18th time.
Now, you might point out that the REAL Masters awards ceremony takes place on the putting green once the (really, really awkward) Butler Cabin ceremony takes place. There’s the tradition of the previous year’s champion putting the green jacket on the new champion’s shoulders.
Cool stuff. Of course you have to wade through the introduction of every golf official in the WORLD to get there. It takes about three minutes to get to the champion golfer of the year.
The best description I ever heard of why the Open Championship is unlike any other came from Tom Watson, unofficially an honorary Scot after winning the championship five times and coming within inches of a sixth win nine years ago at the age of 59.
“Golf in Great Britain is like baseball in the States,” he once said to me. “Even if you don’t play baseball, you grow up understanding it. You can tell the difference between a routine play and a great play. You know when you’ve seen something special.
“That’s the way golf is in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Even if you don’t play it regularly as an adult, you understand it. The fans there go to tournaments to watch golf—not sit in a corporate tent and tell people they saw some star go past. They come to watch golf. They appreciate golf. They know that sometimes a shot that ends up 30 feet from the hole is a lot more impressive than a shot that ends up 10 feet.
“As a player, you feel it; you feel their understanding of the game and their ability to understand how hard the game really is to play.”
I’m not saying that fans who go to Augusta to see the Masters don’t love golf. I’ve seen enough of them walking the golf course with awed looks on their faces to know that’s not the case.
But when I stand under the famous clubhouse tree—granted among the privileged set—I hear more people talking about going to Berkman’s Place—the super-expensive new corporate hangout—than about hanging at Amen Corner. Both the U.S. Golf Association and the PGA of America factor the number of corporate tents they can fit into a venue into their decisions on where to play.
Nothing wrong with that. And there are plenty of corporate tents nowadays at the Open Championship.
But the golf courses remain uniquely different than ours, at least in part because the R&A doesn’t mess with them. For all the complaining about U.S. Open setups, I wonder what the scores would be like at Augusta if the greens didn’t stimp about 200. OK, maybe I’m exaggerating to make a point. But no one complains about that—in part because the green jackets won’t say how fast the greens are stimping. Secrecy is one of Augusta’s most practiced traditions.
When Tiger Woods shot 18-under-par 270 in 1997, the green jackets had a fit and began lengthening their golf course. It’s now about 500 yards longer than it used to be.
The R&A has lengthened holes in places through the years but the fact is there aren’t many spots to add length. If the weather is benign, scores are going to be low—even at Carnoustie—which is generally regarded as the most difficult of the Open rota courses.
If Henrik Stenson shoots 20-under-par at Troon, so be it. Spieth’s winning score at Birkdale last year was 12-under-par. The last time the Open had been played there in 2008, Padraig Harrington shot three-over-par and won by four shots.
Links courses need to be protected by the weather. That’s why the Scots say, ‘if it’s nae wind and nae rain, it’s nae golf.’
There will be nae tricking up of the golf courses. If the weather’s benign this week at Carnoustie, the winning score will be something close to the seven-under par that Harrington and Sergio Garcia shot to play off in 2007. If there’s rain and wind, it will likely be closer to the six-over that Paul Lawrie, Justin Leonard and Jean Van de Velde played off at after Van de Velde’s infamous Sunday 18th hole triple-bogey.
(Side note: the first time I played Carnoustie in 1985, one of my playing partners, the late St. Petersburg Times columnist Hubert Mizell said to his caddie on the 13th hole, ‘when do we get to the easy holes?’ Without missing a beat the caddie replied in a rich Scottish brogue: ‘when you get to St. Andrews.’ He was right).
Let’s be honest, the Masters has done a masterful job of marketing itself as THE major of the four majors. It does so by forcing its TV ‘partners,’ to adhere to all its various rules. Fans are ‘patrons,’ because somehow we’re supposed to believe that Masters fans are some kind of a cut above mere fans or spectators. There’s no front or back nine but a ‘first nine,’ and a ‘second nine.’ There’s no rough; just a first cut and a second cut.
Why? Because the green jackets say so.
A couple of years ago, Tripp Isenhour and I were taping a Golf Channel segment and the subject was Tiger Woods. Tripp made a comment about how poorly Woods had driven the ball on the front nine on Sunday at the Masters a several weeks earlier.
The producer screamed, “Stop, stop tape!”
Tripp and I were baffled. “You said front nine,” the producer said. “You can’t say that. It’s first nine.”
“We’re not at Augusta,” I said. “We’re in a studio.”
“Doesn’t matter,” the producer said. “Someone from Augusta might be watching.”
Of course. Big Brother’s always watching.
I still remember when I truly fell in love with the Open Championship. It was the second time I covered it—1987 at Muirfield. Saturday dawned cold, windy and rainy—the kind of playing conditions that would keep Americans huddled inside.
Driving to the golf course about an hour before the first tee time of the third round, I saw thousands of fans walking in the gates. None seemed deterred even a little bit by the weather.
Shortly before the last groups teed off—there was no lightning, so no weather delay at all—I was talking to David Begg, then the communications director of the R&A. A Japanese reporter approached.
“Mr. Begg, I have a question,” he said politely.
“Anything,” said Begg.
“Why is it you don’t hold this event in the summer?”
Begg grinned. “We try to,” he said. “But this year, summer fell on a Tuesday.”
I truly hope summer’s long gone in Scotland by the time the lads tee it up on Thursday. There’s no tradition in golf like an Open Championship in wind and rain in Scotland.
Just remember, Gene Sarazen, the man who made the Masters the Masters, was born in 1902—42 years after Willie Park Sr. won the first Open Championship at Prestwick. No, Old Tom Morris didn’t win the first one—but he won the next two— the second one TEN YEARS before the claret jug was awarded to the champion golfer of the year.
But that’s another story for another day.