Monday, July 13, 2009

2009 British Open

Day 2 Scotland
This trip is my first away from North America. I have always heard of jet lag and now that I have experienced it, let me confidently tell you that it is not underrated! After being up for approximately 40 straight hours, I awoke on Tuesday morning at 1:30 a.m. EST (Indiana time) to start my day. And psychologically that was a blow!

My first destination was the Royal Troon Golf Club and a 7:50 a.m. local tee time. This is one of the spectacular courses that are part of the regular rotation for the British Open. Built in 1878, Royal Troon is a seaside links course. The opening seven holes run away from the clubhouse and overlook the ocean.

The tournament tees at Royal Troon stretch 7,175 yards. We caught this Scottish gem on a docile morning. The sun shone brilliantly off the ocean and the breeze was rather gentle. The fairways, although irrigated were a mixture of green and brown turf, which is customary for Scottish links courses.

The greens were excellent and a little on the slow side. The bunkering at Royal Troon is classic pot bunkering with faces featuring layered stacked sod. The bunkers are deep and the sod walls can be a nemesis. The sand is brown and heavy, but very playable.

I made my first birdie of the trip on the 5th hole, a 210 yard par three. I hit a 5-wood into the wind about 12 feet from the hole and made the putt. I mentioned that the first seven holes were seaside. The 8th hole is a 123-yard par three, which features a small green and as a result it is named “Postage Stamp”.

The locals refer to the fescue rough at Royal Troon as “hinchu” and as the Scots say, the first foot is “rather juicy”. That is a fact that I can testify to!

The number one handicap hole on Royal Troon is the 11th called “The Railway” because a train runs alongside the right of the hole. This train runs from Ayre to Glasgow, which is about a 35 minute trip. Separating the golf course from the railroad track is a stone fence built in 1784 by Bill Shepman.  This par four hole played 421 yards for us- 490 yards from the tournament tee.

I never knew Bill Shepman, but I am now in debt to him! My errant second shot, struck with a 5-iron, went wayward to the right and bounced off Shepman’s wall onto the green about 25 feet from the hole. I collected my par and moved on.

As you can imagine, a place like Royal Troon is laced with history. Recent Open winners include Todd Hamilton, Justin Leonard, Tom Watson, Tom Weiskopf and Arnold Palmer. The next Open to be played at Troon will probably be 2014, although that announcement is forthcoming.

This was one of those rare days in golf when the surroundings, circumstances and company far outweigh the quality of the shots hit. My caddy, Kevin, has toted bags around Royal Troon for 20 years and in his own words, “is the youngest lad in the company.”

After lunch at Royal Troon we headed over to Turnberry and our first look at the site for this week’s Open Championship. One of the real pleasant parts of the day was being in the clubhouse when Jim Remy, President of the PGA of America, informed Tom Lehman that we are giving him an exemption to next month’s PGA Championship at Hazeltine in his home state of Minnesota.

Lehman, a former Masters champion and Ryder Cup Captain, responded with a big hug to Remy and a heartfelt thank you. “I know you guys have important sponsors at the PGA and if there is anything I can do to help, just ask.” That was a classy move by one of the all-time great guys to play professional golf.

We walked around the main area and kind of got our bearings for the rest of the week. I checked into the Media Center and was assigned my worksite the week. Kenny Perry was in the media center interview room at the time.

Turnberry is located about 30 minutes from our lodging in Ayre. On the way home, we drove the coastal road. This will be our route to and from Turnberry each day. It is less traveled and the scenery is breath taking.

The road winds along the steep cliffs overlooking the Turnberry Bay, part of the Atlantic Ocean. Scotland is inhabited by many beautiful, small cottages. Most are made of stone or stucco. The properties are clean and tidy. Many dwellings are perched on the tops of hills where the beauty reaches as far as the eye can see.

The fields and meadows are luscious and emerald green. The white dots you see are hundreds of sheep that graze on the hillsides. Joining the sheep are herds of cattle. One particular species is known as the belted cow. This black cow dates back to ancient times and is native to Scotland. This cow actually has a white ring around its middle, resembling a belt and that is why they call it the belted cow.

Life here………. seems simple.

As I finish writing this story from the small tea room at the Ellisland Hotel, six local ladies are nearby enjoying their afternoon tea.

The chattering stops and the ladies turn to the small television in the room. The Sky Network is showing live footage of eight Union Jack flag draped coffins that are being returned from Afghanistan. These are British soldiers who were killed in action a few days ago- the worst disaster of the war for this country.

Reality always has a way of showing up………. even for the Scots. 

Day 4 Scotland:
The 2009 Open Championship began at Turnberry on Thursday morning. I would say that my day started in perfect fashion with a 7:30 a.m. starting time a few miles away at Prestwick Golf Club.

This is significant because the Open Championship began in 1860 and Prestwick hosted golf’s oldest event for its first 12 years. I would like to take a moment and introduce you to my caddy, Chris McBride. He is going to help take us through this wonderful Scottish journey.

Caddies can be a fruitful source for history and trivia. In my lifetime, I have been fortunate to play some great courses with caddies- Augusta National, Pine Valley, Oakmont and Royal Troon, just to name a few. Chris McBride rates as the finest caddy I have ever had because he provided more than just correct yardages, local advice and the line on my putts.

Chris helped me understand the significance of the Open Championship and how this part of the world has shaped championship golf as we know it. His descendents were Irish. They changed their name from the Irish McBryde to the Scottish McBride. They did so, hoping to get jobs in the Scottish shipyards at a time when Irish Catholics couldn’t get hired.                

According to McBride, the greatest Scottish golfer in history was a fellow named Alan Robertson. “He was undefeated in four ball play. No one could touch him- not even Old Tom Morris,” said McBride.

Robertson was a golf ball maker and one of his “featheries” recently sold for 28,000 pounds! He died in 1859 and is buried twenty feet to the right of Old and Young Tom Morris at St. Andrews. Upon Robertson’s death, heated arguments surfaced all over Scotland as to who would be the countries best player would be.

In 1860 the first Open Championship was held solely for the reason of seeing who would be Robertson’s successor. It was a three round stroke play tournament and  Prestwick was chosen as the site.

At the time, the course had 12 holes. The Open Championship of 1860 was won by Willie Park. It consisted of three 12-hole rounds in one day. “They started in the dark and finished in the dark,” said McBride.

Over the years, Prestwick was converted to an 18-hole course. The last Open Championship played there was in 1925. There is a stone monument on the site where the original first tee was. When the course opened, the #1 hole was a 587 yard, par six. In 1870, Young Tom Morris made a three on the hole on his way to winning the Open.

The 17th hole, a par 4, at Prestwick is known as “Alps” because the green lies over and beneath the base of three large hills. It is the only original and undisturbed hole from the 1851 layout. It was then the 2nd hole. 

There is not much maintainable turf at today’s Prestwick. The 18-hole layout rests on about 85 acres of land, which is located in Ayshire within eyesight of Turnberry Bay on the Atlantic Ocean.

“Even though it is no longer on the Open Championship rota, it is still used for major Amateur Championships. Prestwick remains to this day a marvelous test of golfing skills and despite today’s modern equipment the course is still challenging and fun to play. It is a course which reminds all who play it of the essence of links golf as originally conceived,” says the scorecard from Prestwick.

My group consisted of fellow PGA Officers, Jim Remy, President; Allen Wronowski, Vice President plus Joe Steranka, Chief Executive Officer. We played Prestwick from the club designated tees of the day, about 6,500 yards. Our round finished under the allowed 4 hours and 11 minutes for a foursome and we walked.

I used a driver once in the first five holes. The “wee stretch” from 7 through 13 featured five par 4’s that ranged in length from 430-460 yards; a 215 yard par three and a 550 yard par five. The home stretch included the 16th and 18th which were 284-288 yard holes that were drivable. Prestwick was an 18-course meal that provided everything your taste buds could ever want!

During the round, I learned several new golf terms courtesy of McBride, the caddy.

“A son-in-law shot” is not what you were hoping for, but you will live with it. Let me go on record as saying that I have two great son-in-laws.

“A mother-in-law shot” is looking good going away. No comment.

“A sister-in-law shot” is up there where you know you shouldn’t be. Hmmmm.

“A Lebanese Hotel” is one of the large sand bunkers at Prestwick.

Even for a guy as savvy as McBride, this is an exciting week. “The local train was loaded at 6 a.m. this morning. Lots of foreigners headed to the Open. The weather forecast looks perfect and somebody could shoot 63 out there this week. It’ll probably be somebody in the first round that won’t finish in the top 10,” quipped McBride.

“We have a group of Americans coming in on Sunday morning to play. They don’t know it yet, but I am riding with them on their bus up to Turnberry. I can’t wait to get there,” concluded McBride.

And I think that says it all about being at this Open Championship!

Day 5 Scotland
Friday was my first chance to get on the course and see Turnberry, site of this week’s Open Championship. The group that I picked to follow at 12.47 local time featured Kenny Perry (+1), Kentucky native and Masters runner-up; Greg Norman (+7), former Open winner and Oliver Wilson (+2), from England who was a European Ryder Cup member in 2008.

Speculation at the time I write this is that the cut will be (+3). The weather, or lack thereof, has been a major story in the first couple of days of this Open Championship. Sunny calm skies were the order of the day on Thursday. The second round forecast was for rain and wind.

The Scottish weather people have totally missed it. It has been slightly breezy, cloudy and warmer than predicted. The weather has been reflected in the scores. The last time the Open was at Turnberry in 1994, the cut score was (+4).

I walked the first seven holes today before writing this story. The key to scoring at Turnberry is accurate driving. The fescue, called “hee” by the Scots is very healthy near the fairway cut. An errant tee shot will most certainly result in a bogey or, at least, a great saving par.

The terrain at Turnberry is rugged. It is tough walking for the spectators and there were many reported injuries yesterday from falls down the hillsides. The course is a true links course by the fact the players go out for 11 holes before returning back to the clubhouse on the final 7 holes.

In the threesome that I followed, there was not much in the way of dramatics. Perry birdied the first hole with an approach that left him a 3-footer. He pared the next six holes to stay at level for the Open.

Norman drove it in the “hee” on the first three holes and managed to lose just one shot to par. But, it is looking like he will finish over par in double digits and miss the cut. Wilson has been errant off the tee and was hanging on the cut line.   

A necessary part of walking and watching the Open at Turnberry is buying one of the small transistor radios that broadcast the BBC feed on 107.5 FM. The cost for the radio and two extra sets of double AA batteries is 10 pounds- $16.20 U.S.

The BBC radio feed is always entertaining. They invite emails from all over the world throughout the broadcast and periodically read questions from listeners. The geography represented ranges from Morocco to Australia; from Portugal to Japan; from the U.S. to Sweden. The questions and answers are both unpredictable. The dialogue can be as hysterical as an episode of Monte Python!

One discussion dealt with the greatest rain jacket player of all-time. After little debate it was agreed upon that Sandy Lyle, a Scot, was the winner. There was an all out argument on whether or not “shades” (sunglasses) caused distortion on the green when trying to read putts.

As Camilo Villegas went to the First Tee, a BBC commentator remarked that “Villegas always wears tight fitting shirts to show he is ripped.”

This prompted a response from his BBC colleague, “The only time in your life that you have been ripped is when you drank too much beer!”

As I reached the Sixth Tee at Turnberry, a 231 yard par three, I looked over my left shoulder and found myself standing next to Jim Nantz, CBS sports. We have become acquaintances over the past couple of years and it was great to rekindle our friendship.

The Emmy Award winning announcer was making his first trip to the Open Championship since 1980. “I am just here walking and watching,” said Nantz. Interestingly enough, he like me, had the BBC transistor plugged into his left ear listening to the broadcast.

Nantz will be here until Sunday. He asked about his good friend Craig Kelley, Vice President of Media Relations for the Indianapolis Colts and said, “Wait until Craig hears that we met on the Sixth Tee at Turnberry!”

We walked the hole and watched the group play the tough par three. As we reached the Sixth green, our vantage point was one of the highest on the course. We could see the 7th and 17th two great par 5’s. Nantz smiled and said, “Television just doesn’t dot it justice, does it?”

Nantz left for the hospitality area where he had an obligation with Rolex. I left for the Media Center where I had an obligation with you to meet a deadline!   

As I write, I hear the rain pounding on the Media tent. The television monitor in front of me is showing umbrellas, sideways rain and grimaces from players who are out there grinding to make the cut and finish the round. It keeps raining harder and for the moment these are Open Championship conditions at their best. The weather people have been saved.

It promises to be an exciting weekend. Steve Marino, an America who made the Open field as an alternate, is currently on top of the leader board. Names like Calcavecchia, Watson, Fisher, Goosen, Jimenez, Kuboya, Villegas, Goggin, Weekley and Grace are right below. The cut line has gone to (+3) and could go higher.

I am headed to Gleneagles tonight on the Orient Express for a dinner with the people from Turner Sports, a major sponsor for PGA of America. So, to all of you lads and lassies, “See you on the weekend!”       

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