History and 'the Open'

There's nothing certain in golf. But as the British prepare for the Open Golf Championship at Muirfield, near Edinburgh, July 17 through 20, there is one thing that is virtually assured:

The winner of this tournament will be Hall of Fame material.

The links at Muirfield have been used for the Open -- the Brits themselves never allow themselves to admit it is "the British Open" -- at intervals for almost a century. But only once in all that time have they produced a run-of-the-mill champ. That was in 1935 when a quiet, solitary club pro from an unfashionable course in Surrey, Alf Perry, unexpectedly licked all the big names of golf.

Otherwise the list of winners at Muirfield reads like a roll of honor -- Harold Hilton, Harry Vardon, James Braid, Ted Ray, Walter Hagen, Henry Cotton, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, and Lee Trevino. Each of these men has had a profound effect on the history, development, and playing of "the greatest game of all," reaching out far beyond their lists of tournament victories or statements of money won.

Why this should be so, I do not know. But maybe it is that Muirfield demands discipline, technique, character, and respect in about equal quantities.

It is a seaside course with inland qualities. All the hazards are visible. There are no hidden holes. As Herbert Warren Wind once wrote, "muirfield's great quality is its frankness -- its honesty." There it is, dunes, fairways, sand bunkers, and high rough . . . and probably the wind and the rain as well . . . and all the player has to do is to play it a shot at a time, perfectly.

It was here that Trevino chipped or pitched into the hole from off the green three times to "steal" the 1972 championship from Tony Jacklin. In 1966 only one man could wrest a birdie 4 from te 528-yard 17th on the final day -- Nicklaus, the eventual winner. Seventy years before only one player had stayed relentlessly in the fairway all the way -- Harry Vardon, the most respected and perhaps the greatest name in golf.

Not a pretty course, not even a charming course, Muirfield nevertheless has a certain majesty. It is as heavily overlaid with history and tradition as it is mined with bunkers.

Unlike St. Andrews, which is a public course, Muirfield is a private club. It belongs to the Honorable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, whose records go back to 1744 and who set out the first Rules of Golf.

There is no par score for the course, no par for any particular hole. Honorable members are expected to paly each other level. Only twice a year are handicaps used, when the two main club competitions are played, and then these handicaps are allotted to each player by the club captain according to his best judgment.

There are no watered fairways either, except by nature. And no watering of the greens, except by hose and by hand after nature has played its part. This is great golf at its starkest.

Yet American players love this course. Jack Nicklaus, as we all know, named his own course in America after it.

Fifteen of the top 20 players in the rankings of the experts here are American, led by two-time winner Tom Watson, Nicklaus, Hale Irwin, and Trevino.

Seve Ballesteros, reigning champion, leads the European and overseas challenge. He is ranked second to Watson.

Isao Aoki of Japan has moved up the rankings after his recent performance in the US Open. High up, too, are Ben Crenshaw, Larry Nelson, Gary Player, Graham Marsh, and David Graham, both of the last two being top Australians.

Among Britons the top-ranked is Sandy Lyle, the young Scot who led Europe's Order of Merit in 1979. He comes in at 15. But he has not had a good season by his own best standards and before he rates with the very best will need to sort out his game.An enormous hitter, Lyle has temporarily lost his consistency.

Nick Faldo, British PGA champ, will certainly make a good showing. He, too, has great power. And young Ken Brown, "the beanpole man," will undoubtedly do well.

One wishes it possible to have high hopes for Tony Jacklin, in his youth the best golfer Great Britain had produced for a quarter of a century. But after the great Muirfield robbery by Trevino, Tony lost his marvelous control on and around the greens and has never yet recovered it.

My own hunch is that the championship will be fought out on the final day between nicklaus, Watson, Ballesteros, Trevino, Crenshaw, Player, Aoki, and Graham.

I think that class will triumph yet again.

And my own tip-for-the-top has to be Crenshaw. Gentle Ben is a fine golfer. But for me the clinching argument is that he knows more than any other player about the history of golf and has a deeper love and respect for that history.

At Muirfield you're not just playing in the Open, you're playing a part in history as well.

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