Many of the American golf tour's near-great players have avoided this 110th British Open championship, preferring the comfort and economy of home to the tradition and challenges of the Royal St. George's course.
Two young Texans, both gentle golfing souls with a sense of history and a sensitivity to place and lore, now are very glad they came.
Bill (Buck) Rogers and Ben Crenshaw, close friends and competitors since their college days at Houston and Texas, respectively, today led an attack on par at Royal St. George's on a nearly ideal day for scoring. At the midpoint of this championship, Rogers holds the Open lead at 72-66 -- 138, one stroke ahead of Crenshaw (67) and dogged first-day coleader Nick Job (69), an Englishman born here in Kent.
In all, 22 players broke par of 70 on the 6,829-yard links, softened by frequent showers as Thursday's winds subsided to today's zephyrs. England's Gordon Brand set a course record 65 (helped by a hole in one) on his way to a tie for 10th at 143, while Jack Nicklaus, infuriated by the worst round of his career to start the tournament (83), battled back to make the cut of 150 with a flawless 66 that matched Rogers for second-best round of the day (a course record until Brand's round later in the day).
When Rogers and Crenshaw, both big money winners known for their perchant of finishing second, look for their serious competition, they will be forgiven for ignoring Job who, according to London bookies, is still a 100 to 1 shot. They also may minimize the chances of young German Gerhard Langer (67) at 140 and Sam Torrance (69) in fifth alone at 141. However, muscle is gathered a stroke further back at 142 with the quartet of Tom Watson (69), David Graham (71), Tony Jacklin (71) and Mark James (70).
In fact, the only name player to miss the cut was Craig Stadler. Meanwhile, gentlemen such as Lee Trevino (67), Johnny Miller and Ray Floyd at 144, as well as Bruce Lietzke at 145, are very much in the hunt.
Rogers was a lucky leader, indeed, despite his bogeyless round in which he needed only one saving par putt and missed a half-dozen makeable birdie putts inside 20 feet. Rogers, you see, almost came all the way to Sandwich to get disqualified on the first hole of the first round: he came within one minute of catching the first Concord back to Texarkana.
"I was dead sure my tee time was 9:45 a.m.," said Rogers, a consistent check cashier and straight driver, but winner of only two tour events in seven years. "But it was 9:25. If I'd stuck to my normal practice routine way over at the driving range I'd have been dead." Instead, for no apparent reason, Rogers went to the practice putting green early and, one minute before his tee time, was spotted by an alert English reporter who raised the alarm. Rogers sprinted to the tee through the crowd and drove while his two partners were already long gone down the fairway.
"That coulda been beautiful, couldn't it?" asked Rogers ruefully.
It's appropriate that Rogers and Crenshaw, who fully appreciate and savor this championship, should have a chance to win one of golf's four majors while a couple of dozen of their rich young peers are either taking a week's vacation or playing the Quad Cities Open in Coal Valley, Ill. For instance, Rogers, Crenshaw, Jacklin and Jerry Pate, and their wives, are staying here in a mansion once owned by Lord Kitchener."Biggest place I've ever seen . . . bigger than Texas," said a grinning Rogers. "I never saw such a giant snooker table.
"There's just too much to be learned and too much to be gained not to come over here."
What Rogers also has learned is that British links "suit my game, because the No. 1 priority is straight driving." And Rogers was No. 3 in the 1980 stats for driving accuracy on the tour. So far, he has missed just three Royal St. George's fairways and, as a consequence, doesn't find the thinking man's layout tough.
If Rogers has the lead, it is Crenshaw who has the attention and affection of the British public. Last year, when he finished third after finishing tied for second the two previous years, Crenshaw groaned -- much to Britain's delight -- "I don't know if I can live without saying I won one British Open."
That sounds ludicrous unless you know Crenshaw. Perhaps no golfer, and almost certainly no great golfer, ever has been so obsessed with the history of his game, or wanted so badly to be a part of it. Yet Crenshaw has the game's most exasperating history of near misses in the majors he wants most. He has finished second in all four of them at least once. And won none.
"Yup, I think I try too hard and get too tense," said Crenshaw who, again today, made bogeys at two of the last three holes.
"Don't know . . . maybe I put too much pressure on myself to win the tournaments I know so much about," added the man who browses antique shops for golf histories and already has one of the world's largest collections.
"I can't be out there thinking about where Walter j. Travis beat Blackwell in 1902 with his Schenectady putter. Or looking for the place where Henry Cotton hit a recovery shot in his 65 (in the 1932 Open). It's time to forget that," said Crenshaw. "This is for real. We're countin' all the shots this week."
Certainly, Crenshaw seems uniquely in tune with this place. He spent a fortnight before the Open touring Scottish links and pursuing his other ardent hobby, bird watching. "I was a sharp-shinned hawk up there," said Crenshaw, who has been disappointed by the absence of the larks of Royal St. George's.
"All I've seen is a bunch of swifts and swallows," said the man who pursues birdies on the course with perhaps the deadliest putter in the game. Today, Crenshaw sank birdie putts of approximately 40, 17, 15, 11 and two feet.
"'Bout average," he reckoned, with a grin.
The chief casualty of Royal St. George's on Thursday, when a London daily was prompted to write the headline, "Sandwich Proves Inedible," was, of course, Nicklaus. This morning, when he appeared at the first tee, he was given an enormous ovation, one man yelling, "It's only a game, Jack."
"I think they cheered because they were surprised that I showed up," said Nicklaus. Perhaps it is symptomatic of the modest reputations of the top five leaders in this tournament, but Nicklaus, even 11 shots behind, stubbornly refused to poor-mouth his chances.
"I've been 12 and 13 shots behind in tournaments at some points and gone on to get to the lead," said Nicklaus, "though I don't remember if I actually won. If I shot two more 66s, what would that be? Yeah, 281. Well, I don't think par (for four rounds) will be broken here this week, at least not if the wind keeps blowing. So, somebody around 281 might find themselves right in the middle of the tournament."
Such self-confident, and downright defiant, thinking is just what typifies Nicklaus. It also is just the sort of charismatic forcefulness that those two appealing blond buddies -- Rogers and Crenshaw -- never have demonstrated on a golf course.
Having a sense of history is one thing. Making history is another. That second, and far more difficult task is what now confronts those fine friends, but sometimes not so fierce competitors from Texas.