Tussocks, scrub, gorse, grass, hillocks and heather ... oh boy
The oldest golf tournament is an ageless and enduring test, and only four South Africans have won it
Take away the grandstands, flagsticks, advertising hoardings and TV towers and a links golf course looks much the same as it did in 1860 when Scotland’s Willie Park senior won the first Open Championship at Prestwick.
Shaped by nature’s mounds and swales, the only sign of man’s interference are the clipped shorter bits that make up the fairways and greens.It’s what makes the oldest golf tournament an ageless and enduring test. Modern technology, from space age clubs to balls that can combat the wind, can only take players so far on these rugged coastline courses. Extreme weather and imperfect bounces usually have the final say.
The 147th Open Championship, which starts at Carnoustie on Scotland’s northeast shores on Thursday, is the most sought-fter title in the game. And one of the most recognised sporting events on the planet.
Most pros say playing a windswept links in conditions that can change dramatically during a round is still one of the greatest tests of their skill, patience and courage.
One false shot can end a tournament, but one brave swing can positively alter their lives forever.
The title of Open Champion, or as the Royal and Ancient (R&A), the custodians of the game, prefer, “the Champion Golfer of the Year”, is a lifelong ticket to recognition and status.
Even in a sporting calendar that clashes with attention from Wimbledon, the Tour de France and the World Cup every four years, the Open is always a highlight of the year and an indelible part of the British summer.In South Africa we have an affinity for the tournament thanks to the rich success local golfers have achieved on those ragged links courses.
The Claret Jug, the prize for winning the Open, has been in SA’s possession 10 times with the great Bobby Locke leading the way with four titles.
Gary Player won three Opens among the nine majors he won during his illustrious career while Ernie Els has two titles to his credit and Louis Oosthuizen one.Els’s second win, at Royal Lytham & St Annes in 2012, is the last time a South African won the Claret Jug but this year there are 12 locals in the field and any one of them could bring it back.
Being the original championship golf tournament underpins the Open’s prestige but, like all old institutions trying to survive in a modern world, it too had to be dragged into the 21st century.Muirfield, host of 16 Championships and one of the 10 courses on the current Open roster, faced the prospect of losing its status as an Open venue unless it admitted female members. In March 2017, the privately owned club eventually voted to allow female members, which considering it was 17 years into the 21st century underlines the theory that not all traditions are good.
But the Open trades in tradition and history and for the most part it has been a positive story of sporting excellence, and occasionally despair.For every Tiger Woods, Gary Player, Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus, there is another player with a story of golfing tragedy, farce, or both that has left them Claret Jug-less.
Frenchman Jean van de Velde holds the unofficial title of most infamous Open meltdown when he threw away a two-shot lead on the final hole at the 1999 Championship at Carnoustie.
A triple bogey on the last, which included playing a shot, pants rolled up, barefooted and ankle-deep in water in the Barrie Burn that cuts across the 18th fairway, is one of the most replayed Open disasters in history.
The Open requires patience, precision, skill, temperament and a slice of luck. With winds generally increasing during the day, making the most of benign scoring conditions when they present themselves is a key to winning the title.
Oosthuizen did just that in 2010 when he won at St Andrews. Making the most of good conditions with a 65 on day one, in which a record 73 players shot under par in the sedate environment that rendered the Old Course at St Andrews defenceless against the power hitters.
The next day Oosthuizen teed off early and carded a 67 in near windless conditions. But by late morning the breeze had turned nasty and his early score was the lowest of the day as he held a five shot lead at the halfway mark. He would win by seven shots.
The luck of the draw plays a part at the Open, but players still have to capitalise by making the most of the elements when they offer respite.
That’s why it’s such compelling drama and remains impervious to all the challenges and competition from other sporting events in a more global world.