113th British Open returns home to golf links with a past

History could be made in any number of ways at the 113th British Open Golf Championship, which returns once again this year to Scotland's Royal and Ancient Golf Club at St. Andrews.

Jack Nicklaus could win for the third time at St. Andrews - a feat no one has accomplished in the 22 previous Opens held at this tradition-steeped site.

Nicklaus's recent form has not been great, and there was some concern on the eve of the tournament about his physical readiness to play in it. But assuming he is not forced to withdraw, he should be a factor in view of his fondness for this bare and ancient course and the fact that he has invariably played it so well.

Then there's defending champion Tom Watson, a man whose form has been very good indeed. He could match ''the matchless record'' of six British Open wins made so long ago by the legendary Harry Vardon.

Scotland itself might produce a winner for the first time since James Braid won his second title three-quarters of a century ago. Sam Torrance could be the man.

England's chances are rated even more highly. There hasn't been an English winner at St. Andrews since 1939 when Dick Burton won the Open. Now in Nick Faldo England has a golfer of the top rank again, and Yorkshireman Howard Clark is also fancied in some quarters.

Most golfers would reckon it only a kind of poetic justice if Masters champion Ben Crenshaw won in 1984. ''Gentle Ben'' is known and admired here as a golf historian as well as a great player - and this, of course, is the most storied links of all. As long ago as 1691 St. Andrews was written about as ''the Metropolis of golfing.''

It is a course designed by nature, not by man. Scots had played golf there since the 15th century and in 1552 their right to do so was confirmed and preserved for all time in a special charter.

The sand bunkers were made by ranging sheep sheltering from the fierce Fife winds, and the grass was cropped by rabbits, or ''cunningies'' as the local worthies called them.

For many years citizens had the right to play the course free. Even today it is still public land and the problem of controlling spectators (and making sure they pay their entrance fees) is quite considerable.

Eight of the fairways are shared by two holes and there are seven double greens. It is quite possible to leave yourself a 200 foot putt at St. Andrews.

There are few landmarks and many invisible pot-bunkers. On a calm day it is neither a long course nor a difficult one for modern golfers, but when the wind blows it is a different story.

There are some very ferocious sand traps, all of which have names - the Beardies, The Principal's Nose, Mrs. Kruger, Sutherland, and so on.

Sutherland was named after a golf-obsessed member of the R and A who, it was said, ''spent more time in it than in his home.''

The traps at ''the Principal's Nose'' are so-called, it is said, because the contours of the ground from a distance resemble the face of a bespectacled principal of St. Andrews' famous old university.

Recently, many people have thought, the character of the course has been changed by watering.

But this year should mark a return to more ancient values. The old natural local grass has been encouraged to return, watering has been kept to a minimum, and the ''timeless excellence'' of St. Andrews as a test of linksland golf should be restored.

So who will join the roll of honor along with such names as Hugh Kirkaldy, J. H. Taylor, James Braid, Sam Snead, Peter Thomson, Bobby Locke, Jack Nicklaus?

We shall see. Thanks to television, we shall all see.

And one way or another we shall see history made again.

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