Sporting legends are often condemned to a middle age in which they’re judged against the macro numbers posted during the flush of youth. For Tiger Woods, those past accomplishments cast a lengthy shadow—15 major championship victories, 82 PGA Tour wins, 11 player of the year awards, to cite but a few. Micro numbers matter in as much as he still signs his name below one on a scorecard. Saturday’s micro-moment at the PGA Championship was disheartening if measured against the Woods who won the Tour’s Vardon Award for best scoring average nine times, yet still heartening in the context of Woods today.
A 79 left Woods in a tie for 76th place at Southern Hills, occupying the bottom rung of a leaderboard that he has been atop when it mattered four times. There are ample statistics that explain how he came to be there—dead last in strokes gained tee to green, dead last in strokes gained around the green, making five consecutive bogeys for the first time in his majors career—but there are no metrics for how he came to be here competing at all.
In their more reflective moments, it must rankle the triumvirate of Messrs. Waugh, Whan and Slumbers that the most compelling drama in golf over the coming months is likely to occur outside the ropes of their respective major championships. The 58 days between Tuesday at Southern Hills and Thursday at St. Andrews will be contentious and do much to shape the sport’s future landscape, and will leave many industry executives yearning for the halcyon days of Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf, when the influence of oil money in the game was considerably less toxic.
Back in 2015, a college coach told Golf Channel reporter Ryan Lavner that within five years Bryson DeChambeau, who had just won the U.S. Amateur, would either be No. 1 in the world or in a straitjacket. That DeChambeau currently occupies neither position isn’t to say that both are now beyond the realm of possibility. It simply varies by the week which outcome he seems to advance toward.
The Open Championship has long been a bonanza for bellyaching by professional golfers, regardless of where the game’s oldest major is contested. British weather is too fickle (accepted as fact by all but disputatious Scots). British food is too lardaceous (“Do you have any vegetables that aren’t fried?” a former editor once asked a waiter. Answer: “No.”). British water pressure makes showering feel like being peed upon (if only the water were that warm). And that’s all before the capricious linksland bounces that short-circuit the minds of those accustomed to hitting a golf ball through the air and seeing it stop in proximity to where it landed.
This year’s Open at Royal St. George’s should have been this year’s Open at St. Andrews, but because last year’s Open at Royal St. George’s didn’t happen, this year’s Open at St. Andrews has become next year’s Open at St. Andrews, while last year’s Open at Royal St. George’s becomes this year’s. One thing hasn’t changed: the griping. What has changed is that it has commenced much earlier than usual.
The asterisk is sport’s scarlet letter, an otherwise benign symbol that when appended suggests a specific achievement is, at best, diminished and, at worst, outright tainted.
Some asterisks are warranted, of course. The name of Mark McGwire* should never appear without one. But not all asterisks are used to denote accomplishments earned by dishonorable means. Some are deployed more as a means to highlight quirks of fate or the foibles of others.
My personal favorite belongs to a horse called Foinavon, which won Britain’s Grand National, in 1967. Every other horse running was involved in a pile-up at the 23rd fence (of 30), providing the jockey riding Foinavon – a long-shot that had been trailing badly – ample time to navigate the melee and cruise to a 15-length victory.
Too frequently these days, asterisks are just churlish attempts to detract from high achievement for the sake of cheap debate. Like the one some critics gleefully attach to Roger Federer’s lone victory at Roland Garros in 2009 because he didn’t beat Rafa Nadal on his way to the trophy. Similarly junky efforts are occasionally evident in golf too.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The 148th Open Championship was foreshadowed with ample focus on what divides the people of this island —politics, religion, reactions to Rickie Fowler’s wardrobe — so it was only appropriate that a man who embodies many of the traits that unite them should emerge as Champion Golfer of the Year.
Only his exquisite command of a golf ball distinguishes Shane Lowry from any Irishman you’d get from central casting. He is a dry wit, is fond of a pint, is colorful with his language, is devoted to his family and is a stranger to the gym. He looks like a man more likely to be guarding the Claret Jug than having his name engraved on it, but he’s undeniably a man you’d want to be drinking from it with.
When Darren Clarke steps to the tee at Royal Portrush at 6:35 a.m. Thursday morning and gets the 148th Open Championship underway, he will become the first Northern Irishman to fire a shot here and have it universally welcomed.
That observation may be trite, but whistling past the graveyard is a common personality trait among those of us who grew up in Northern Ireland during what we euphemistically called ‘the Troubles.’ And Thursday will be just the latest in a series of days that once seemed so improbable as to be barely worth the dream.
Two golfers I met this year remain lodged in my memory as 2018 sees itself out, but you won’t find their names in an accounting of FedEx Cup points or on Ryder Cup team rosters.
I met Mark Hensby for dinner in Scottsdale last February. He was four months into a well-documented suspension from the PGA Tour that left him feeling frustrated, angry and anxious to resume his career. In July, I sat beneath the R&A Clubhouse in St. Andrews with Vicente Fernandez, who had traveled from his home in Buenos Aires and successfully qualified for the British Senior Open at the age of 72. He was charming in his old-school manners, thankful for one last shot at golf’s most iconic venue.
They could not be more opposite in disposition, Hensby and Fernandez, but golf has a way of acting like connective tissue to link otherwise wildly disparate people and places. Hensby and Fernandez were two guys who just wanted to play golf.
While last week’s debut of Trinity Forest represented the most-talked about new venue on the PGA Tour this season, next year that role falls to Royal Portrush Golf Club in Northern Ireland, which hosts the 148th British Open. That won’t be so much a debut as a revival, since the club was founded in 1888 and hosted the Open on the only other occasion that it left Great Britain, in 1951.
Geography isn’t the only way in which Royal Portrush represents a break with tradition. Most golf clubs in the U.K. and Ireland are run by an all-powerful secretary, and at elite “Royal” clubs that position has typically belonged to a gruff Brigadier General type, a dizzying combination of bluster and dandruff. Not at Royal Portrush, however.
When you’ve had a season like that of Justin Thomas, it can be difficult to determine the most important metric amid such heady success. Unless you’re his dad.
Mike Thomas can recite chapter and verse on the accomplishments that are expected to earn his son the PGA Tour Player of the Year award: the five wins, the first major victory at the PGA Championship, the FedEx Cup title, record-setting rounds (59 at the Sony Open, 63 at the U.S. Open), the Arnold Palmer Award for topping the money list, the 3½-1½ record in his first U.S. team appearance at the Presidents Cup.
The 2017 season has brought an avalanche of accolades for the 24-year-old, but none of those tops his old man’s list of what matters.