By: Robbie Vogel
In the same way that we are with quick-service burgers and reality television shows, Americans are overrun with self-important professional golf events.
The Masters, obviously, is the Masters. The U.S. Open ranks as our country’s highest championship, while the PGA ostensibly crowns the world’s finest professional golfer. All of these majors are always played in the U.S.
Two of the four “World Golf Championship” events take place in the States, with a third held in nearby Mexico. Every March, The PLAYERS tags along into the major conversation like a little brother forced to play automatic goalie in a game of street hockey and the PGA Tour stretches its season and ever-evolving playoff structure across most of the lower 48. And this without even mentioning the Ryder and Presidents Cups, the world’s two biggest team events, whose lone common competitor is the Red, White, and Blue.
But for one week every year, even the staunchest Chevy-drivin’, Bud-swillin’, Roman-candle-launchin’ American golf fan is compelled to pry his gaze away from his own navel and peer across the pond, as the world’s most important golf tournament happens in a British town whose population is dwarfed by that of the student body at Alabama. [Editors Note: Roll Tide]
Any way you slice it, The Open Championship (only Americans and those mocking us call it the British Open) rules the golfing world. It’s the oldest tournament in the sport, first contested in 1860 at Prestwick in Scotland. In fact, The Open is so ancient that the traditional 18-hole layout had yet to come into vogue, so competitors played three rounds across 12 holes.
Golfers from around the world see winning The Open as the ultimate prize in the sport – it’s the Masters, U.S. Open, and PGA all rolled into one event and held sacred by most everyone outside the Kardashian sphere of influence. To witness the reactions of Spaniard Seve Ballesteros, South African Louis Oosthuizen, and Swede Henrik Stenson upon capturing their Opens is to see men who know they have conquered the golfing world.
Stenson, in particular, offered a telling quote after his 2016 Open win at Troon: “It’s going to be massive for golf in Sweden with this win.” How often, outside of every time Hideki Matsuyama tees it up, do you see one golfer breathe life into the sport in his home nation? Irrespective of who wins, The Open Championship is so revered that bringing home the Claret Jug can alter the course of the game within an entire country for decades to come. A feat which could never be accomplished by returning home with a Wannamaker from Bellerive.
It’s no wonder the victor is given the title of Champion Golfer of the Year, full stop.
Of course, one reason that the Open deserves so much acclaim is for its rota of links courses. No two are alike, and yet all share certain characteristics that immediately distinguish them from anything that casual fans see when they turn on the PGA Tour on any given weekend. Televised golf in America parades through a succession of mostly forgettable layouts: shaved green carpets framed by slightly shaggier rugs and surrounded by pearly white pillows. Adjectives you’ll hear players use to describe your basic TPC East Nebraska include flawless, true, soft, gettable, and fair.
Open Championship courses, by contrast, present competitors with a new set of descriptors: twisting, stunted, heaving, blind, baked-out, furry, pot, and freshening. The penultimate modifies the bunkers, while the last applies to the breeze, which always seems to ripen in mid-morning, as you’re working through your third cup of coffee and about ready to watch a few country club American kids with names like Marley and Madison get ejected into the North Sea.
And speaking of coffee, we’ve come to the most fundamental difference between the Open and every other important event, and why it holds such a special place in the hearts of so many Americans who worship at the First Church of Acushnet: the time it’s played.
Yes, West Coast majors offer Americans an ideal viewing scenario, with primetime golf coverage on the East Coast and a Sunday night finishing time that makes TV execs swoon. But once a year (or several, depending on how closely you follow the European Tour), it’s nothing but a pure treat to set an alarm for the dead center of the REM cycle, carefully roust yourself from bed (thus eliciting only a mild grunt from a sleeping companion), pour a tall iced coffee, and settle in to watch golf as we rarely see it played. Nary a tree in sight. Waist-high fescue billowing in the wind. Fans scrambling up and down precipitous dunes pitted with irregular tufts of native grass. Walmart-sized fairways. Postage stamp greens. Hardpan short grass rolling directly into centerline bunkers that were seemingly dropped randomly into the landscape, until you mishit a drive, or the wind is up, and suddenly that sand looks like the Sarlacc pit.
We’re bludgeoned week in and week out with outrageously talented golfers showing off their greatest, most repeatable skills: driving the ball long and straight, hoisting it high into the air, and getting it to stop and come back on the green. Pro golf has by and large come to resemble professional darts, a comparison that has been made by many others before me. But the Open Championship, with its vagaries of temperature, wind, precipitation, and all manner of ground obstacles, gives the world at large, and the American golf fan most significantly, a window into the way the game was once played, and ought to be again.