Thursday, July 15, 2010

2010 British Open Championship

2010: The Open Championship/ St. Andrews, Scotland

Every five years or so, the Open Championship is played at St. Andrews, the world’s  oldest golf course created some 600 years ago. Located on the St. Andrews Bay, which feeds into the North Sea on Scotland’s rugged northeastern coast, this quaint little village is the Bethlehem of Golf. It all started here.

This is the 150th Open Championship. This competition is the oldest of its kind in the world. Willie Parker won the first Open at Prestwick in 1860. The runner-up that year was a chap named Tom Morris, Sr., known today as Old Tom Morris.

Born in 1820, Old Tom is credited as being a great player, clubmaker, greenkeeper and golf course designer. He excelled in every facet. To understand St. Andrews, you must know about Old Tom Morris.

He apprenticed under Allan Robertson, who was recognized as the world’s first golf professional. Robertson made featherine balls. When the gutta percha ball surfaced in 1849, Roberston and Morris had a famous split when Old Tom recognized the new ball “as the future of golf.”

Morris left for Prestwick in 1850 where he served as its first greenkeeper. He did double duty in 1860 as he prepared the course for competition and finished second in the tournament. Old Tom would go on to win four Open Championships. His first was in 1861. A year later he won by 13 strokes, which is the largest margin of victory in British Open history. After winning in 1864, Morris became the oldest Open champion at the age of 46 in 1867 and that record still stands today. Sorry, Tom Watson.

He returned to St. Andrews in 1865. By this time, his young son Tommy was already becoming a Scottish legend. People in this part of the world would argue that Young Tom Morris was the world’s first junior golf phenomena. Sorry, Tiger Woods. Young Tom’s accomplishments are legendary.

At the age of 13, Young Tom Morris won a celebrated exhibition match against the world’s best players. In 1866, at age 16, he was victorious in a star studded professional event at Carnoustie. He won the first of his four Open Championships in 1868, beating his father in what is still the only father/son combination to finish first and second at the British Open. That same year, Young Tom had golf’s first recorded hole-in-one. 

Young Tom receives credit for the creation of the Claret Jug, which is presented to the Open champion. Traditionally, the victorious player was presented with the Challenge Belt after winning the Open. When Young Tom won his third straight Open in 1870, he retired the Belt and the Claret Jug became the new prize. There was no Open in 1871 and Young Tom grabbed the Claret Jug in 1872.   

Three years later, while playing in an exhibition match Young Tom received word that his wife and child died during child birth. Morris died three months later on Christmas Day. The cause of death was not known.

“People say he died of a broken heart but if that was true, I wouldn’t be here either,” said Old Tom Morris.

Following his son’s tragic death, Old Tom consumed himself in his duties at St. Andrews and became actively involved in shaping the design of some of the world’s greatest courses. Besides Prestwick, he gets credit for Royal Dornoch, Muirfield, Carnoustie and Royal County Down. Today, the 18th green at the Old Course is named in his honor.

Old Tom toiled at St. Andrews until his retirement in 1904. During his 39 years as the greenkeeper he instituted many of today’s modern golf course maintenance practices. In 1899, he took on an apprentice greenkeeper at St. Andrews named Donald Ross who would become a future golf course design genius.

Morris died in 1907 and is buried beside his son in a cemetery that is at the old Cathedral ruins in St. Andrews, just a few hundred yards up the hill from the Old Course. There are many hair raising experiences when a golfer makes their first pilgrimage to the town of St. Andrews. Visiting the gravesites of golf’s most famous father and son is near the top of the list.

The inscription on Young Tom’s tombstone reads as follows: “Deeply regretted by numerous friends and all golfers, he thrice in succession won the Championship belt and held it without envy, his amiable qualities being no less acknowledged than his golfing achievements.”

Everything about St. Andrews, the town and the Old Course, explodes with history and uniqueness. The Old Course greens average a square footage of 22,267- compared to 6,435 at Augusta National and 3,500 at Pebble Beach. The Old Course only has 11 different greens because there are seven double greens. And in one of those mystical instances of golf numerology, the sum totals of the two holes sharing each of the double greens conveniently equals 18 (2/16, 3/15, 4/14. 5/13, 6/12, 7/11 and 8/10).

Of all the British Open venues, St. Andrews has the widest fairways. It would appear to be the widest course in championship golf. The shared first and 18th fairway alone is 140 yards wide. But, the bail out area on every fairway always produces the toughest approach angle to the green.

One hundred fifty years of championship golf. The extraordinary features of the Old Course. The village of St. Andrews overlooking the North Sea. The gravesites of Old and Young Tom. This is truly golf’s version of Bethlehem!

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