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.

Screen Shot 2020-05-06 at 10.50.02 AM
Greg Norman at Turnberry in 1986.

Like “Mr. Lu,” who lost by a shot to Lee Trevino at Royal Birkdale in ’71. Lu Liang-Huan is a mere footnote today, but he was good enough to win titles across four decades. Or Brian Barnes. The 1975 Open film opens with the late legend arriving on the beach at Carnoustie via hovercraft that ferried him across the Firth of Tay from St. Andrews (a reminder that the complete absence of hotels in Carnoustie was still preferable to the monstrosity now sitting behind the 18th green).

Or Jack Newton.

He was one of two talented 25-year-olds who made an 18-hole playoff that week at Carnoustie. Tom Watson won, the first of eight majors. Newton also finished second to Seve Ballesteros in the 1980 Masters, but he’s little-remembered now, his career having been cut short at age 33 when on a rainy night he walked into a plane propeller on the runway at the Sydney airport.

Ballesteros, who would have turned 63 last week, features in so many of the old Open films, as though they were poignant home movie reminders of his brilliance. The summer of ’76, when at age 19 he chased Miller around Birkdale for four days before finishing second; the ‘car park champion’ at Lytham in ’79; the conquering matador at St. Andrews in ’84; the sublime fifth and final major back at Lytham in ’88.

Seve’s are moments not easily forgotten, but the Open films are rife with many curios that have been. Maurice Flitcroft, the unemployed crane operator who gatecrashed a qualifier in ’76 and shot 121. Guy McQuitty, a professional who qualified at Turnberry in ’86 then shot 95-87, a stout 42-over par for 36 holes. He won honorable mention in the official film for not living up to his name and hailing a cab after day one.

That same Turnberry Open saw an utterly imperious Greg Norman at the height of his powers, quite unlike the luckless figure we see so often in Masters movies. He shot what might be the finest round ever played on Friday that week, three-putting the last for a 63 in weather so foul one wouldn’t even send Brandel Chamblee outdoors in it. That was back when players routinely hit 2- and 3-irons into 450-yard holes, and fairway woods into the par-5s at Augusta National. A bygone era indeed.

That library of old Opens will get many more visits before we finally enjoy the 149th edition 15 months from now. So too will that Masters channel on YouTube, sustenance for another seven months. Sitting at home over the last week, we didn’t get to see if Tiger could defend, if Rory could complete the career grand slam, if Gary Player would boast about outdriving 80-year-old Nicklaus in the ceremonial tee shot. But we will in November, pandemic-permitting.

Until we see another major, we make do with memories. What should have been Masters week was marked by what golf has lost in 2020. But it was also an apt time to revisit everything, and everyone, that shaped and sustained it in the years thus far.

Published at Golfweek.com, April 12, 2020.

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