A Sporting Chance: Golf's Uphill Battle
It's "Open" season in Scotland and the natives are busy polishing their Mashie-Niblicks and Brassies while practicing with their blanks on the links.
Now ordinarily, one might think that sentence describes crazy Scotsmen going out on some exotic hunting expedition.
Not so. "Open" season in Scotland can only mean one thing; what passes for summer has arrived and the British Open Golf Tournament is on.
A word about the weather at the breathtaking seaside links course Carnoustie where the world's oldest golf championship is to be played. The Tayside Coast of Scotland this time of year features the most unpredictable weather patterns imaginable. One part of the course can be bathed in bright sunshine while another part is experiencing gale force winds and driving rain.
The morning golfers in the tournament can enjoy wonderful conditions with low scores and little trouble navigating the undulating hills and gullies that are the hallmark of a links course. But it is just as likely that afternoon golfers will find conditions 180 degrees opposite of their AM compatriots. They're liable to step on to the first tee with a 30 mile per hour wind blowing their hat off along with a cold, stinging rain slapping their face and end up having their shots blown into one of the numerous "pot bunkers" laid out in devilishly clever patterns all over the course or into the tall, seaside grass that challenges the player's patience as well as ball hunting abilities. Once the ball flies into the "stuff," you better pray you can find it so that you can avoid the two stroke penalty for a lost ball. Then there's trying to play it if you can find it which can be equally problematic.
The attraction of watching The Open has always been that us duffers enjoy watching the big boys weep in anger and frustration at the monumental unfairness inherent in the game - just like we do at our local park district course except there isn't the most prestigious championship in golf on the line nor are we apt to be losing a couple of hundred grand if we stub the club into the ground and send a flyer about 40 yards at right angles to the tee box.
But we've all seen it. Even the pros do it. Be on the lookout for it this weekend at Carnoustie. The perfectly struck ball that takes one bounce too many and scoots a little too far, ending up in the 6 foot deep pot bunker behind the green. The beautiful drive that hits a small depression at the wrong angle and shoots into the tall grass lining the fairway. The scintillating 3-wood from the fairway that is taken by a gust of wind and flies into one of the little "burns" or creeks that criss-cross the picturesque Scottish countryside.
Golf is a game invented by the devil, with courses designed by sadists and played by generally luckless people whose stoicism in the face of absolute catastrophe would be pathetic in any other context. But because the game is golf, we admire the restraint and self control of the player when his 40 foot birdie putt hangs on the edge of the cup and refuses to go in. Situations that normally would call for self mutilation are met with a tight smile and perhaps a barely audible oath breathed into the air. That's the ideal anyway - not that any of us ever achieve such olympian heights of sportsmanship and gentlemanliness. But for the professional that would be (don't say it) "par for the course."
This is the way "gowf" has been for nearly 600 years. James II of Scotland, in an Act of Parliament dated March 6, 1457, had golf and football banned because these sports were interfering too much with archery practice - which I guess James believed was more important than chasing a rock around a field full of rabbit holes. Why he would think war more important than getting in an extra 9 holes before the sun goes down I couldn't say. Almost certainly, that's how golf evolved; a stick, a rock, and a hole. And the Scots, being an eminently practical and gracious people, then invented the mulligan and the scorecard. The mulligan because everyone deserves a second chance. And the scorecard just so they'd have something to talk about at the pub after the match.
The modern incarnation of The Open, the way it is played on the links courses of Scotland requires an entirely different set of skills than when it's played on the manicured, relatively flat courses in America. The player can hit a perfectly straight shot from the tee but have it end up on the side of one of the gentle undulations that are part of the charm and deviltry of the links course. Rarely will the player have a shot where the ball is not either slightly above his feet or below them. This means that the professional golfer, who practices his swing over and over again thousands of times, is forced to alter that swing ever so marginally in order to get the ball on the right flight path. The result can sometimes be amusing as the player is off by a hair in his swing and the ball shoots to the right or left, way off target.
Aye, but that's just the rub-o-the-green say the Scots. Indeed, the greens themselves are a challenge in that they are usually dried out husks and hard as a rock what with the constant wind. At times, it's like putting on a parking lot, so quickly the ball will roll. But the pro deals with all of this and then some with a shrug and a "we'll get 'em tomorrow" attitude that comes in handy when rolling into the clubhouse after shooting 8 or 10 over par.
Tiger Woods has won the last two Claret Jugs, symbol of the open champion for more than 130 years. After finishing second in both the Masters and US Open Championships, Tiger is due. Although he has not played well as of late, no one doubts that when he tees it up for a major championship like The Open, the beast comes out to tame the toughest of courses. Tiger's rock solid mechanics and patient course management will likely have him in contention all the way through the 4 round event so that come Sunday, it's a good bet Woods will be kissing the jug once again.
But before he does, I will guarantee he'll wish they filled the darn thing with hemlock so that he could put himself out the misery he and all golfers will experience touring the links at Carnoustie.