Royal St. George's is a world of grass and sky. To compare it to any American golf course is pointless. It is a creation, and an experience, entirely unto itself.
The first impression that a great British links, such as this one by the English Channel, makes upon an American golfer is that the place is unspeakably ugly and fit neither for the eye nor the game of golf.
An American judges a golf hole by its beauty and by its definition. That is, it should be a specific place, self-contained. The Augusta National, Bobby Jones' 18 chapels carved out of the Georgia woods, is, perhaps, the extreme example.
A British golfer judges a seaside links hole by its barren, forbidding severity and its lack of definition. If you can tell where you are going, or what you are aiming at, then it's not an outstanding hole.
American golf courses are enat, well trimmed, like the Versailles gardens. Even the rough is regulation. British links are utterly wild. The notion, dating to the earliest 19th Century links, is that you take a marvelously unkept stretch of dunes land, hitch up the team and drag the smallest conceivable landing area for the drive, then clear the smallest possible landing area for the green.
The idea is to guide the golf ball through the wilderness, flying it from one safe landing area to another. That those clear areas are grotesquely bumpy and hard -- meaning that a perfect shot can carom freakishly into the undergrowth -- is, to British minds, the essence of sport. American golfers, Hale Irwin being a contemporary example, are so outraged and fundamentally upset by this British affection for the arbitrary and unfair that they often loathe coming here.
The American notion of golf, one that produces great uninhibited talents, daring play and unbeatable scores, is "let 'er rip. Tear the guts out of the course. Tee it high and let it fly." It is a distinctly new world perspective that is optimistic about the notion of progress and trust nature, if not as a friend, then at least as a benevolently indifferent companion.
The British concept of golf is defensive. Keep it in play, survive disaster, recover from adversity. It is a weary, philosphical old world approach that is long on wisdom, short on results. Nature is seen as an implacable and unbeatable enemy that can be endured and kept temporarily at bay.
American pros play in short sleeves and associate their game with warmth and heroic derring-do.
The British play in sweaters, caps and long underwear and think of their game the way monks supposedly revere their hair shirts.
The charm of Royal St. George's is the charm of minimal art. The dogwood and azaleas, all tended to the limit, try to attack you at the Masters. Here, as you trudge through the dunes, trying to figure out where you are, why you're here and where you're going, you must acquire a taste for the beauties of life among the long grasses.
The smell here is not of the salt sea, although odd signs on the course say "to the sea" lest one become totally disoriented. The nose knows nothing but the rich scent of grasses and wild flowers.
Instead of towering trees or lakes or steep precipices, the essence of pleasure at Royal St. George's is an acquired taste for bees and butterflies dancing in a stnad of wild lavender clover.
In American golf, the horizon and, consequently, the sky, play little or no part. The unit jof measurement is one golf hole, surrounding by trees, hills or whatever. The horizon would interfere or distract.
At Royal St. George's, the sea, the cliffs of Ramsgate and even the distant, tempting hint of the coast of France are always as close as the next rising dune.
The golf course -- the greens, tees and traps -- is a minor part of larger mural. In America, the land exists to emphasize the golf holes that are crafted into its heart. In Britain, the golf holes are an almost ephemeral part of a lasting landscape. Let Royal St. George's lie fallow for one year, you sense, and no one would know it had ever existed.
"Our courses are built without one puff of smoke," say the British proudly, meaning that they have used no bulldozers, no buzz saws, no earth-scorching.
Where Americans attack the land, turn it to their hand and their purposes, the Britisher, with almost Zenlike stoicism, resigns himself to what exists and, by an act of mind, turns it into a pleasure.
To an American pro, the greatest contempt he can show for these odd, ugly-duckling British shrines of golf is to say, "Go to the British Open and shoot at clouds." That means that, on a links, there are no targets, or very few. So seldom can you see the flags that, on more shots than not, the target is the third knob from the left or, literally, a drifting cloud.
That, to Americans, is unsettling, like built-in bad hops. Or wind.
Yes, wind. It is central to British golf that the golf ball, and, therefore, the golfer, are defenseless against the elements. The wind rules; the player merely uses the wind as best he can, like a tacking sailor.
While American golf soars, emphasizing the long, majestic shot, the ICBM approach, the golf on this island emphasizes the modesty of a bouncing ball.
"The freshest element here," says Tom Watson, who loves links golf, "is studying a bouncing ball. In American, we'll do anything to build a shot to avoid a bounce because a bounce is inherently unpredictable. Here, a rolling ball is more dependable than one up in that wind."
As the final round approaches in this 110th British Open, the two men in second place behind American Bill Rogers are Bernhard Langer and Mark James. The West German and the Englishman agree on one thing: They hope Sunday is lousy -- wind, rain, and cold. "We live with bad conditions," said Langer. "We should be able to cope with them better than Americans."
Therein is contained a world view, and, perhaps, a kernel of contempt. It insults Europeans that for the past 11 years a few American pros, hardly half the full U.S. contingent, have taken a week from their Palm Springs-to-Miami life style to win the British Open.
Although they'll never say it, the golfers of Europe don't know how the Americans do it. The fact, perhaps, is that, as a brisk change, golf on these chilly, invigorating dunes is a stirring challenge and an enticement.
However, an American player, or even spectator, who labored on these links long enough would soon adopt an old world droop of the shoulders. These links, perhaps like their troubled island, are a place to visit and appreciate. And then leave.