Part of the intrigue of attending an Open Championship is taking in the culture and history of the area. This is my fourth British Open trip and all have been different. Two trips to Scotland have been followed by a couple to England.
In 2009, I was at Turnberry when Tom Watson nearly rolled back the hands of time and became the oldest player ever to win a major championship. Watson hit a perfect second shot to the final hole. His ball landed just past the hole and rolled over the back of the green. He made bogey and went on to lose an excruciating playoff to Stewart Cink.
A stark reality of years gone by at Turnberry, is an abandoned airstrip on the north edge of the golf course. It had been used for English fighter plane training during World War II. The course suffered major damage during the war and Turnberry was actually shut down for a time.
In 2010, I made my first trip to St. Andrews and the Old Course. The highlight for me that year was getting to play the oldest course in the world on the day after Louis Oosthuizen lapped the field.
Following that round on the Old Course, I was taken to the Royal and Ancient Clubhouse where we had a pint in the Members’ Room. Located near my table was a glass case bearing the original Claret Jug and the Champions Belt that Young Tom Morris retired in 1870 by virtue of this third straight Open Championship title.
Just a quick note about Young Tom. He was born in 1851. You do the math. He was 19 years old when he won his third straight Open Championship. He competed in his first Open at age 14. Young Tom Morris was truly the first and most impressive child prodigy in the history of golf- probably all of sports.
Even in the town of St. Andrews, the devastation of World War II is visible. Still standing are the ruins of the St. Andrews Cathedral, which was destroyed by German bombers. There is a memorial on an outer wall left standing to all those who died during the air raids. Just a few feet away are the graves of Old and Young Tom Morris as well as Allan Roberston, the first recognized golf pro. War has no regard for historical significance.
A year ago, I went to my first Open Championship in England. Royal St. George’s was the site and I stayed in Canterbury. Truthfully, after Turnberry and St. Andrews, I thought the previous two Opens would be hard to top until an emotional Darren Clarke won his first major championship and became a very popular ”champion golfer of the year”
The Canterbury area, located on the southeast coast of England, was named “Hell’s Corner” during World War II because of the relentless German bombings of the English countryside. I remember playing the Rye Golf Club on a rainy and blustery Saturday morning. Located just off of the 4th fairway were the remains of a concrete pillbox used by the English during the war to stave off potential German invaders.
Earlier in the week, we played Littlestone GC. About a hundred yards off the 17th tee in the English Channel was a huge slab of concrete. Our caddy informed us that it was a remnant of the dock that the United States had launched D-Day invasion boats from. The coast of France was visible that day from Littlestone and it was eerie to look across the Channel and see Normandy Beach.
So, here I am this week on the northwest coast of England at Royal Lytham. Sure enough, the lasting effects of war are felt here too. Lytham sits hard and low by the Irish Sea, uncomfortably so at the outset of World War II. It required that precautionary measures be taken. An anti-tank ditch was dug across the gut of the course, from the third to the 14th green. Posts were inserted on Lytham’s flat fairways to thwart their use as enemy landing strips.
We, as Americans, pride ourselves on the sacrifice of war to protect our country’s basic freedoms. Until 9/11 and Pearl Harbor, other than Revolutionary and Civil Wars, rarely have Americans had to deal with conflict from a warring enemy on our native soil.
The mood in and around London in 1940 was not so cheery. It had been a bombing target for 57 straight days. But, even exposed to the daily horrors of war, the British continued to play recreational golf. Certainly, it was done with less frequency and more terror.
Richmond Golf Club, which is located in suburban London, saw German bombs strike its course in 1940. Club officials took it upon themselves to impose “Temporary Rules.”
One rule noted that “if an enemy action should destroy one’s ball it could be replaced without penalty.”
Another stated, “a player whose stroke is affected by the simultaneous explosion of a bomb may play another ball from the same place. Penalty one stroke.”
Richmond GC argued that the Temporary Rules were written in earnest. They even defended the stroke play penalty for playing a second ball when an errant shot was caused by an explosion in the middle of a swing. The club argued that players might otherwise be tempted to abuse the rule, banning noise that occurred at a distance too far to have been a factor.
The interruption of war not only affected the courses, but also the development of England’s best players as pointed out by the great Peter Allis.
“My father might have had another two or three years at the top level. But, a lot of men in their 20’s went away for five or six years. They had little chance of fulfilling their potential, whatever their sport,” said Allis.
Some did not return and one of those was Ronald George Inglis, twice the Scottish Boys champion. He was a RAF pilot who was 21 when he was killed over Germany in 1942. It was a steep price that was shared by all of Britain, as well as its allies.
But, at the end of World War II the Brits showed again that they were the ultimate stewards of the game when they presented U.S. General Dwight Eisenhower, war hero and avid golfer, a lifetime honorary membership at St. Andrews courtesy of the Royal and Ancient.
What’s not to like about this place and these people?