The British Open's big winner - a fickle course

The late, legendary baseball showman Bill Veeck was driving along Maryland's Eastern Shore some years ago, observing a flock of ducks rising from a marsh. He got to lambasting those who contend that duck hunting is a sport.

"It won't be," mused Veeck, "until the ducks are armed, too."

So it was at the British Open golf tournament that concluded earlier this week at the Carnoustie Golf Links in Scotland. Routinely, golf courses are nothing but meek expanses of grass that easily give up extraordinarily good scores to the professional golfers who have all the advantages.

Too often it is barely sport because the courses aren't armed. But Carnoustie was. It was a sight for delighted eyes, those pro golfers being reduced to base language and rotten dispositions because the course was allowed to offer resistance. The fairways were narrow, the grass in the rough tall, the greens hard. Nature cooperated with wind and rain.

Prior to the four-hole playoff, the best anybody could shoot over four days was a six-over-par 290.

One of the top players in the world, David Duval, limped to a 79 one day and griped that "if the average player had to play out there, he'd probably quit the game." He misses the point. Duval and his buddies aren't average players. They're the best players, and Carnoustie was better than them.

They should stop whining and get out on the practice tee.

Phil Mickelson, another pouting American, missed the cut and said, "I wish I hadn't come." Tiger Woods was unhappy. Defending champ Mark O'Meara was unhappy. Los Angeles Times writer Thomas Bonk let himself fall under the spell of the players, writing that conditions "transformed golf's oldest major championship into an exercise in dumb luck."

That's not true. What happened was the course, this time, was set up to allow it to compete rather than succumb. Never forget that these old and storied courses have had to face the indignity of giving up lower and lower scores, not because players have gotten better but mostly because the equipment has: vastly improved clubs and far more lively balls.

Then there's the much improved nutrition of the players and the physical training. Plus, time was not so long ago that US competitors had to take ships to cross the Atlantic to play in the British Open. Now the Concorde hops.

Only Tom Watson showed some semblance of class when he confessed, "Bobby Jones said golf wasn't meant to be a fair game." The only problem with Watson's comment is the implication that this year's British wasn't fair.

It was.

Tall grass in the rough is of no moment if tee shots are hit straight.

Tricky greens don't matter if quality approach shots leave short putts.

The travails of the burns and the traps and the bunkers and the trees are inconsequential if proper golf shots are hit. The wind? Come on, guys, allow for it, like sailors. Rain? Bring an umbrella and towel.

Notice that the winner, Paul Lawrie, had no complaints. The winners never do.

Paul Lawrie? There's not a more obscure name in pro golf. One ranking list had him 159th. His story is magnificent. He started the final round 10 strokes behind and apparently out of contention. Late that same day, he became the first Scot to win the British Open in Scotland since 1931. It was the biggest golf comeback in a major tournament since Jackie Burke Jr. came from eight strokes down on the final day to win the 1956 Masters.

The winner should have been an equally obscure Frenchman, Jean Van de Velde. His world ranking was 152nd. He played sensationally for 71 holes, then needing only to have a double-bogey six on the 72nd and final hole to win, he shot a triple-bogey seven. He hit a poor drive, clanked a shot off the grandstand ("I didn't hit a very good shot"), botched a wedge that sank into a bog, took a penalty shot, hit into a bunker.

If ever c'est la vie was the applicable phrase, this was it. Said Van de Velde, "There are worse things in life." True. But to have just authored the worst collapse in the history of sport is at least a "lowlight."

Meanwhile, there sits proud Carnoustie, in the mist and the memories. And the delicious truth is that Carnoustie, armed and dangerous, was the victor and a worthy one at that.

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(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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