The joys of golf links never get old

Tired of the whole golf game? The game that turned the professional men’s game into a new game for Saudi investors? The one that made U.S. Senators haul golf (without the bag) to work? The one who let PGA Tour star Rory McIlroy say he feels like a sacrificial lamb in the proposed PGA Tour-LIV Golf partnership?

Rest easy. This week, golf links, the windswept and unadorned form of the game, takes its annual spin on golf’s main stage. It’s an opportunity for golfer to tell his growing up story all over again. The British Open, the fourth and final of the annual Grand Slam events, is upon us.

The host course, this time, is Royal Liverpool, also known as Hoylake to those who know the track and its bumpy fairways, which are turned a dull khaki green by the summer sun and salty air.

British conquests are always played, in the words of BBC commentator Peter Ellis, who died in 2020, “within the sight and sound of the sea.” They are contested in links tournaments that are a century old – or much older. Royal Liverpool held its first Open Championship in 1897 and is on Liverpool Bay, although you might think of it as the Irish Sea. The track is about a mile from the train station at Hoylake – many fans will get there via the Merseyrail – and about 15 miles from Penny Lane in Liverpool.

Lifetime Texan Jordan Spieth, the 2017 British Open winner, who was groomed for Royal Liverpool by taking part in last week’s Scottish Open, played on the Renaissance Club’s links course. One afternoon Spieth slipped away and played North Berwick, an old and beloved Bond. The 13th green is guarded by a stone wall because – well, why not? The wall was there first, and the track dates back to 1832.

“In the British Isles, they like to twist,” American golf course architect Rhys Jones said recently.

Promoting a course by architecting it, which is a powerful marketing tool in American golf, is not a big deal in Britain. Years earlier, Jones had been making his first visit to Western Gailes, a rugged track on the rugged west coast of Scotland. The club’s starchy secretary—that is, the gatekeeper—told Jones that he could play the course if he could name the architect.

Jones provided a series of names.

Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.

“So who designed it?” Jones asked.

“Machine!” cried the secretary.

Spieth’s plan was to play just a few holes at North Berwick, but he found he couldn’t quit. He played the whole course. While he was at it, he talked about the joys of links golf.

“There is no such thing as golf links,” he said. “The grass plays completely differently. The shots are shorter or farther than they go elsewhere, depending on the wind. It’s exciting. It’s fun. You use your imagination. There’s never a driving range shot when you’re playing links golf.”

In the background, someone in Spieth’s group offered another player a “good shot.” But you have to be careful with this phrase, when playing on Earth Links.

No one knows that better than Tom Watson, winner of five British Opens in the 1970s and 1980s.

“In 1975, I went to Carnoustie to play in my first tournament,” Watson said in a recent phone interview. Carnoustie, on the east coast of Scotland, is notoriously tough, grim and challenging. Watson reached the field on the Sunday before the start of the tournament, but was turned away by the gentlemen. It was too early. It is good that there are 240 traditional links courses across Britain.

“Therefore, Hubert Greene and John Mahaffey and I went down the road to Monivith,” said Watson. “I hit my first shot down the middle. Everyone says, ‘Good shot.’ We walk down the fairway. I can’t find my ball. It’s gone. I’m thinking, ‘I don’t know about this links golf.'”

Watson won the 1975 British Open at Carnoustie. And he may have won in 2009 at Turnberry, but his second putt, an eight-iron, on the 72nd hole, fell just off the green, took a vicious bounce and ended in thin grass. He needs a simple closing draw to win. Instead, his bogey meant a playoff, and Watson, 59 and served, was doomed. Stewart Sink won.

Watson came to the press tent and said, “This is not a funeral.” The golfer learns, over time, to accept the good and bad bounces in any golf life.

After Tom Doak graduated from Cornell University in 1982 with dreams of becoming a golf course architect, he took a summer job at the Old Course in St Andrews. Doak, now a prominent architect (and Renaissance course designer), has been studying golf links ever since. In a recent interview, he noted that older golfers often do well at the British Open. Greg Norman was 53 when he finished tied for third in 2008. Darren Clarke was 42 when he won in 2011, and Phil Mickelson was 43 when he won in 2013.

Doc said Lynx Golf is not about smashing the driver by letting go of the youth. When Tiger Woods won the Royal Liverpool in 2006, he bumped the driver just once over the course of four days. The greens on the British Open courses are usually flat and slow, especially so, compared to the greens at, say, Augusta National. There is less stress on the situation and the game within the game which favors young eyes and young nerves. The thing that most associates with golf bonuses is the ability to read the wind, bounce and how your ball is flying with an iron.

“In golf, you have to bowl the ball both ways, depending on what the wind is doing and where the pin is,” Doak said. “You have to know what the ball is going to do after it lands.”

It takes cunning, skill and the acquisition of golfing wisdom – all of which will come in handy whether you’re playing the British Open or a casual match with a friend in the long dusk of a British summer. Sometimes, open fans end their day of golf with dinner for nine (or more) on close links by the seashore. Greater Liverpool has a bunch of them. Every open british place does.

With night golf on those courses, you may also see golf officials, equipment reps, sportswriters, and codes, Jim McKay among them. McKay, better known as Bones and baggage-taking Justin Thomas, was Mickelson’s chariot when Mickelson won at Muirfield a decade ago.

McKay, like millions of other female golfers around the world, can never get enough of the game. This is the actual game, not its politics, nor its business opportunities. As a golfer and caddy, McKay knows that success in golf requires a certain kind of golf magic, the ability to make the golf ball do as you please.

He recently said that playing golf “is like standing 50 yards in front of a hotel and having to mark through the window which floor you want your ball to go through”.

Caddy as a poet. Golfer with options.

John Updike once wrote that Linux Golf represents “freedom, of the wild and windy kind.” On some level, the Royal Liverpool winner will understand that. The winners of all of these dinner matches will, too. Yes, the French Open champion will take home $3 million this year. But he would also have a winner’s trophy, a claret jug, on which his name would be etched in perpetuity for a year.

Do you know how much Woods earned for his Holick win in the summer of 2006? Improbable.

But many of us remember Woods crying in the arms of a can. We remember Woods embracing the pitcher in victory. We remember the clouds of brown dirt announcing his shots, his ball flying, his clubhead spinning.

“Hit it, wind,” Woods would say, now and then, to his airborne ball, as if the wind could hear him, and perhaps it could.