Quarantined, Revisiting Opens of Yore

In a week when we couldn’t make our way down a padlocked Magnolia Lane, homebound golf fans had to settle instead for memory lane.

Our guides were familiar broadcast voices, many of them — Pat Summerall, Ken Venturi — long stilled. Golf Channel re-aired the 1986 Masters, the Rosetta Stone of major championships that revealed the Sunday strengths of Jack Nicklaus and the comparative frailties even among Hall of Famers in the generation that followed him. Jack was winning too over on CBS, which gave us the epic ’75 Masters, in which he helped Tom Weiskopf and Johnny Miller add to what would ultimately be a combined seven silver salvers. More recent Masters tournaments were also dusted off: ’04, when Phil Mickelson broke his duck and Ernie Els’ heart, and ’19, when an approaching storm moved up tee times and saw Tiger Woods secure his fifth green jacket by Sunday lunchtime (his first jacket was pretty much sealed by Sunday lunchtime too, but that’s another story).

The retro weekend broadcasts — in addition to the Masters YouTube channel, which contains every final round dating back to 1968 — were a welcome fix for quarantined golf junkies who are otherwise denied until November by the COVID-19 crisis. But for me, two streams diverged in a locked down New York City apartment, and I took the one less clicked upon, at least in April. I opted for the only major tournament we know for certain won’t be played this year.

The Open Championship website has every official film since 1970 — Jack won that year too, of course — and it’s a delightful reservoir of the quaint and the quirky. In my quarantine viewing I elected to skip more recent Opens that remain reasonably fresh in the mind, despite the ample wine intake necessary to stomach small town British food those weeks. It’s earlier Opens, those from the ’70s and ’80s, that offer beguiling glimpses of a time when even major golf was less corporate, and pleasant reminders of players long forgotten because they’re either dead or just not brand-building on InstaGrift.

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Greg Norman at Turnberry in 1986.

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The Ghosts of St. Andrews

Doug Sanders died today. I wrote this almost five years ago after watching Sanders walk the range of the Old Course during the 2015 Open Championship.

This is a town for ghosts. Some of them are even dead.

You’ll see and hear them aplenty if you wander around the Old Course, this fabled spit of land where golf has been played since the 1500s and which this week hosts the Open Championship for the 29th time.

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The Humbling Of Ernie Els

Four years ago today, Ernie Els saw his Masters hopes effectively end before he even reached the second tee thanks to a six-putt from short range on the first. It was a moment that said much about the struggles of Els the player, but much more about Els the professional. I wrote this in the aftermath

Major championships are golf’s most unforgiving coliseums, exposing every weakness and insecurity in order to identify and then celebrate the player most worthy of a victory that both defines and elevates a career. But only on Sunday evening. And only for one player.

For the rest of the competitors, majors usually bring varying degrees of misery, battles against expectations they can’t meet, elements they can’t control or demons they thought vanquished. Especially at the Masters, which began Thursday in Augusta, Georgia.

Ian Woosnam’s struggle this year was clear-cut: At 58, the diminutive 1991 champion is too enfeebled to play a course measuring a daunting 7,435 yards. He shot an opening-round 82, 16 strokes worse than leader Jordan Spieth and just one stroke better than last place, occupied by a 16-year-old amateur from Costa Rica.

Bubba Watson’s battle was against the only thing more unpredictable than the volatile two-time winner himself: the weather. He was close to the lead early, but the blustery winds—assisted by his fickle focus—saw him slump to a 75. His play was poor enough to spur a Twitter spike for the hashtag #PrayForTed, popular among golf fans who follow Watson’s petulant criticism of his caddie Ted Scott with an almost Talmudic devotion.

Then there is Ernie Els, a four-time major winner and one of the finest golfers of his generation. Els wrestled only himself. And he lost.

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Golf Behind Prison Bars

The first article I ever wrote for Golf Magazine, published in the fall of 2003, was about my visit to Prison View Golf Course, built by inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, once the most infamous lock-up in America. The warden at Angola then was the unctuous Burl Cain, who used the same tone of voice whether musing on shooting prisoners or shooting armadillos. He later resigned facing allegations of corruption.

State Road 66 in West Feliciana Parish ends at Louisiana’s most famous gated community and newest golf course. For those who built this scrappy track 59 miles north of Baton Rouge, it really is the end of the road: Prison View Golf Course is part of the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, America’s largest maximum-security prison and for many years its bloodiest.

Prison View opened to the Angola staff in July, and when a no-frills clubhouse is added this winter, the public will be welcome, too. “I think a lot of people would love to go to a maximum-security prison and play golf,” says warden Burl Cain, who would not be out of place in Cool Hand Luke. A sign in his office reads, If the warden ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.

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Golf at Prison View in Louisiana.

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A Royal & Ancient Pest

Maurice Flitcroft, the greatest gatecrasher in the history of golf, died 13 years ago yesterday. I interviewed him many moons ago. This story ran in the July 2001 issue of the long-lost Maximum Golf magazine. 

The British Open has spawned a century and a half of legends, from Old Tom Morris to Young Tom Watson to… Maurice G. Flitcroft?

While he never come within shouting distance of the Claret Jug, Flitcroft occupies a special place in Open history. Indeed, the 71-year-old retiree from Barrow-in-Furness, England, may be the greatest hacker in the history of any major. He’s certainly the most determined.

The 1976 Open saw the emergence of two remarkable players: One was Severiano Ballesteros, then a 19-year-old phenom who held off Johnny Miller at Royal Birkdale for the better part of four days before finishing in a tie for second to the flaxen-haired American. The other was Flitcroft, then a 46-year-old crane operator.

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The legendary Maurice Flitcroft, who died March 24, 2007.

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Waiting Out The Unknowns, Hoping For Better Days

Schedules are sacrosanct in golf. Each season rotates around the immovable cornerstones of the calendar — springtime in Augusta, summer amid wintry weather on a British links — and each week is identified not by its dates but by its PGA Tour stop. Valspar last, Match Play this, Valero next. There are schedules within schedules, the roll call of tee times that lines up the action and the broadcast listings that bring it all home.

The abandonment of the Players Championship began (at least) 11 desolate weeks without Tour play, severed our tethers to the schedule, and left both fans and players adrift.

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Ballybunion & Bill: A Love Story, Kind Of.

Almost 20 years ago, I went to Ballybunion, County Kerry, to write about the ‘Clinton Cult’ that had sprouted in the village, where the world’s only statue to America’s forty-second president had been erected. This story was published in the now-defunct T&L Golf in 2001.

William Jefferson Clinton recognized a good omen when the afternoon sun finally broke through the slate gray skies as his motorcade neared Ballybunion Golf Club.

It was September 5, 1998. Back home, the impeachment drama was reaching a crescendo: The president was just three weeks removed from admitting his affair on television to a rapt and revolted nation; only two days earlier he had been denounced as “immoral” on the floor of the Senate by Joseph Lieberman. Yet the sexual shenanigans holding his fellow Americans in thrall were proving to be of little consequence in rural Ireland.

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Bill Clinton gets a pointer from the legendary Christy O’Connor Sr. during his first round at Ballybunion Golf Club in 1998.

Sweeping along the freshly resurfaced laneways of County Kerry, the president saw hedgerows lined with colorful billboards declaring ‘Ballybunion Welcomes Bill Clinton’. In the town itself, the Stars and Stripes seemed to hang from every window, with twelve in particular conspicuously fluttering atop a rundown nightclub. “That was such a special day for me,” Clinton would later remember. “Every little Irish village I went through on my way to Ballybunion had people in the streets, and all their stores had been repainted. It was just so beautiful and so unbelievable.” 

Even the name proving so inescapable at home was discreetly excised from the celebrations, as Monica’s Hair Salon became, for one day, the President’s Shop, hawking coffee mugs and T-shirts. “Beautiful,” sighed Maria Finucane, the local who has organized the Ballybunion International Bachelor Festival for twenty years. “The village will never look so good again.”

To an embattled American president fighting for his political life, the little Irish village was indeed a blessedly benign sight. Of course, he was oblivious to the forces that even at that moment were hard at work to use the presidential visit for their own purposes. In particular, he had yet to meet the wily Irish huckster who, though Clinton didn’t know it, was attempting to turn the First Golfer into Ballybunion’s own Local Hero.

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