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.
Courses are the currency of golf, yet the reality is that most of them are of no value.
To be fair, every course is loved by someone. They anchor communities, commerce, childhood memories, friendships. But from the standpoint of architectural merit, most are products of the Xerox school of golf course design, exhibiting only a faded sameness that you’ve seen previously, and in sharper focus.
Great golf courses are living works of art, so it’s fitting that notions of what constitutes greatness are as subjective as in any other art-form. What is loved by me, may be loathed by thee. Courses – and opinions thereof – are the one thing all golfers share, and the best of them are reminders that the real charm of this game has nothing to do with the PGA Tour or its stars. It lies in the land we walk (or, more often these days, drive).
There are a few elements essential to the character of a major championship.
It starts with the field. If the world’s best consider it optional, it’s not a major. Injuries or indictments are the only acceptable excuses for a player’s absence.
A weepy Jim Nantz retrospective helps too. Granted, his tendency to wring tears from even the most banal Tour stop has cheapened the currency, but viewers must be persuaded that they’re catching glimpses of a significant tournament between the commercials and fluffing of CEOs.
But nothing contributes more to the sense of a major than the golf course. The venue was a vital character in the plots of 2018’s majors. Augusta National, Shinnecock Hills and Carnoustie were not incidental to the action.
Which may explain why – so far, at least – this major feels decidedly minor.
For much of its 31-year history, the Senior British Open delivered better quality venues than champions. For every Gary Player there was a Bruce Vaughan, for every Tom Watson a Tom Wargo. But even Vaughan won at Royal Troon and Wargo at Royal Lytham.
The tournament has grown in stature since becoming a major on the PGA Tour Champions. The fields are deeper and the faces more recognizable, but this is still an event where old men can chase fading dreams over a celebrated, rumpled links.
When that links is the Old Course in St. Andrews, which hosted the Senior Open for the first time last week, there are plenty more dreamers than the 156 spots in the field can accommodate. Even the old are not immune to the lure of the Old.
David McLay Kidd was at the pinnacle of the golf course architecture world a decade ago when he realized that his work was winning more awards than fans. He grew weary of hearing bruised golfers say they wouldn’t hasten back.
“Owners want me to build these things but when I consider my end user — the average golfer is my retail client, no matter who gets in the middle — he’s not having that much fun,” Kidd says. “That’s a recipe for failure. I had to figure out where I came off the path and my way back to it.”
On March 7th Golf Channel airs a movie about the legendary Seve Ballesteros, which has me flashing back to this little memory of him that the St. Andrews Links Trust asked me to write for its magazine two years ago. Scanned from the printed issue since no digital version exists. Which is how Old Tom preferred things there.