Reverence and the irreverent collide at The Open

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Long before Donald Trump followed Barack Obama, The Open was the world leader in incongruences, of the irreverent and reverent. It’s as if the docent at the snobby auction house came in half-cocked and filled the room with Ansel Adams and Leroy Neiman. Elysian Fields meets W.C. Fields. One minute you’re sitting there in that anecdotal cacophony, in that half-windsored, winter-weighted sport-coat world and the periphery of gray is suddenly interrupted by a group of men dressed like bunnies, discussing who was the better teacher, Bob Torrance or Pete Cowen.

In 1985, The Open left Scotland for England (it does that every now and then to remind Britain what makes it “Great”) and was played on the southern shore near the Cliffs of Dover at Royal St. George’s. As the championship Sunday was coming to a close, when the only worry was that they might run out of champagne, and the thread of the rich tapestry of The Open was playing out once again, by cracky, a streaker appeared on the 18th green. Give the man credit, streaking in the cold of Scotland has its own shortcomings; one is more apt to be seen in his full potential in warmer climes of Royal St. George’s I’m told … and the sun was out down south.

This man had to be dealt with, but nobody really wanted to put down their shepherd’s pie and do the dirty deed and the bobbies looked reluctant as they circled the naked villain. Tom Kite and Peter Jacobsen were just short of the home hole watching this dance, when Peter (does anyone else recognize the irony of someone with that name taking hold of the situation?!) horizonalized the man and then celebrated as if he had won golf’s oldest championship. I’m told Sandy Lyle later held the claret jug in the spidered light looking royal, if not yet ancient.



Even the name of the trophy suggest confusion. Claret is a dry red wine from the Bordeaux region of France, of left bank and Chateau Lafitte-Rothschild fame, Napoleonic perhaps. A jug is, well something to put Uncle Buck’s homemade hooch in. But give a man a claret Jug, empty even, and he can hardly speak. Unless his name is Justin Leonard.

Long before Leonard had a Sunday that looked like it was authored by St. Paul and won The Open, Bobby Jones played and spoked his way onto the shoulders of the citizens of St. Andrews in that river of tweed behind the home hole at the Old Course. He held his most prized possession, his putter, Calamity Jane, above the fray. Even that scene, as perfect as it was, illustrates the anachronistic contrasts of color, sartorially and personally, present amongst all things Royal and Ancient.

Jones came to The Open in 1921 as a 19-year-old, and after 36 holes was the low amateur in the field. But in the third round, bunkered at 11, he took four to get out and then inexplicably quit. The petulant and irascible young man, when he left for America, left an irreverent impression of disdain behind. He wouldn’t return for five years and when he did he was never beaten again in The Open, winning in 1926, ‘27 and 1930. The compost of contempt that Jones had felt at first blush at the Old Course blossomed into the most florid prose, when later in his career he said, “I could take out of my life everything except my experiences at St. Andrews and I would still have had a rich and full life.”

Like Jones, Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus know the sting of humility on links golf. Jack’s first round as a professional in The Open, in 1962, he shot 80, and in the third round of the 1987 Open at Muirfield, he equaled his highest ever round as a professional in a major with 81. Fifteen years later, Woods, also at Muirfield and also in the third round, also shot his worst round in a major – 81. Of which the great commentator Peter Alliss said, “It’s like turning up to hear Pavaroti sing and finding out he has laryngitis.” And yet, both of them completed the career Grand Slam by winning golf’s oldest major championship. Jack at Muirfield in 1966 and Tiger at St. Andrews in 2000.

Nicklaus also chose, as had Arnold Palmer, and later Tom Watson, The Open as the place to retire from major golf. The event meant that much to them, I suspect not only for its history but because those that come out to watch the championship are unlike any other spectator in sport.

Traipsing through the sand dunes, in the worst that Mother Nature can throw at them, they seem to have an inexhaustible zest for life. Jauntily headed to see Phil or Lee or Luke, they’ll stop to look out at a bit of windblown sea and then predict the coming weather with pharmaceutical precision. It is not just rain to them. It is a warm rain or a driving rain or it is a soft rain and why worry because, as they say, most of it ends up as Scotch, anyway.

And if the sun comes out, regardless of temperature, out come the shorts – from younger and skinnier days most likely – and you’ll see legs as white as string cheese and they will walk past men dressed like bunnies. And just when you think you’re at the Piccadilly Circus a positively surreal scene will unfold and there in front of you is nothing impermanent and everything is royal and ancient.

Yep, nobody does the irreverent and reverent like The Open.