It all began in 1860 when the golf clubs of the world - which then encompassed the whole of Scotland - were called upon to send their best and brawest to compete for the Challenge Belt, to determine the Champion Golfer of the Year. They were professionals, men who made their living from the game, known and respectable caddies, keepers of the green, men of good character, vouchsafed by gentlemen as the best golfers in the land. Now it is changed, as Yeats said, 'changed utterly, a terrible beauty is born'.
They gathered at Prestwick then, on the links land that stretched all the way along the seashore from Ayr to Troon and beyond. Tom Morris from St Andrews had carved 12 holes out of the links land at Prestwick to form the first course in the West of Scotland. The course had been 10 years in the making and an Open Championship was a dream shared by many of the big gambling men who were members of the new found Prestwick Club. These were men whose restless energy had brought about the industrialisation of Scotland and created an agricultural revolution. They worked hard and they played even harder. Some were landed gentry, their wealth as old as the land from which it was won. Some were of the new found wealth from the smelters and factories that blighted the landscape. Some were sporting swells for whom golf was simply another opportunity to easy money.
Together they created the embryo of what would grow and develop into the greatest of all individual sporting events, the Open Golf Championship.
This year's gathering is at Troon. Royal Troon's golf course is contiguous with Prestwick links. Troon Golf Club came into being in 1880 when George Strath from St Andrews laid out 12 holes, but it was not until 1923 that it hosted its first gathering for the Open Championship. By that date Willie Fernie had expanded the course to 18 holes and a series of Greens Committees had applied themselves to making these 18 holes as penalising as possible.
It is the bunkers of Troon that are most punishing and it is bunker play that will make or mar the men of this years gathering. The Postage Stamp, the 123-yard 8th hole is one of the most renowned holes in golf and quite encapsulates the whole tenor of Troon. Without the grandstands and the crowds of the Open, the little green of the 8th hole does indeed look like a postage stamp from the elevated tee - a little oasis in a desert of long grass bending and waving in the wind off the Atlantic.
To the well struck wedge it is receptive and certainly a birdie opportunity. It can be played safe for there is green enough to hit and hold on. But to the bold and brash, given to the slightest error, there are bunkers surrounding the green that gather the ball up with voracious appetite. Bunker play will be crucial to this year's gathering.
Ernie Els is indisputably the best bunker player around at this time. He is also a proven links champion who has shown that he can hold his own against the vicissitudes of links play. Like his compatriot, Retief Goosen, it is impossible to exclude Els from the likely list of successful contenders.
Certainly, if the winning formula of recent times at Troon holds this year, it will not be a European who holds up the Claret Jug on Sunday. Arthur Havers, an Englishman, won in 1923 when the Open contenders first gathered at Troon, narrowly preventing Walter Hagen from retaining his title. Since then, the South African, Bobby Locke, won in 1950 and Americans have won in all of the five gatherings at Troon since. One suspects that South Africa will be again pre-eminent this year.
Of the American brigade, Phil Mickelson must be considered the Major champion on form. He is certainly a likely top-10 candidate but it would be foolish to ignore Tiger Woods as the American most likely to succeed. It is clear that Woods is not playing at his best, but he is nevertheless playing well enough to have won once in his 11 outings this year and finish in the top-10 six times. Having gone through 2003 without a Major title, Woods is not likely to let 2004 pass barren. He will be up and focused for Troon.
Of the British troops, much will be made of Montgomerie as he continues to pretend that he is a local lad and Royal Troon is his home patch. Harrington will be hopeful as usual and put on a spirited show as only the Irish can. Darren Clarke will almost certainly swashbuckle his way into the top-20 and Lee Westwood will come and go over the four rounds like summer sunshine. Luke Donald has the necessary accuracy, the consistency and now the experience to win at Troon. At odds of 100/1, he is the better of the long odds bets.
Of the Continentals, the best of the long odds on offer is Levet, fresh from his Scottish Open win at Loch Lomond, at 150/1. Garcia, at 14/1 is the likely Continental leader as well as the highest placed of the European Tour contenders.
Phil Mickelson was the last in the run of first time Major winners when he took the Masters in May. Goosen underlined the end of an era in June at Shinnecock. The gathering at Troon will almost certainly throw up another seasoned campaigner - Troon is that sort of place for there is less of the lottery about it. Look for the accurate driver and the shot maker who can keep his cool. Yes, it looks like Luke Donald the more I dwell on it.
|| 16 - JULY 2004