They start the 111th British Open golf tournament here Thursday. Tom Watson is abubble with confidence, chasing the rare Open-Open double. Jack Nicklaus wants faster greens, which means he's ready. Watch the straight hitters: defending champion Bill Rogers, Tom Kite, Lee Trevino, even Larry Nelson. Raymond Floyd says 50 guys can win if there is no wind. Craig Stadler is one.
To show you what these fellows are up against, we'll go in a minute to a place just over the border of sanity. We'll go to the 11th tee at Troon Golf Club, from which height it is possible to see to the end of your wits. Nicklaus did 20 years ago, and he still remembers the sight.
Every British Open golf course is an exercise ground for masochists, and none is equipped better for exquisite torture than Troon's classic links by the Firth of Clyde. O, diary, should a squall blow in off that sea, such squawling we shall see. The club crest is five golf clubs entwined by a snake, to give you an idea, over the motto Tam Arte Quam Marte, which means "as much by skill as by strength."
The Scots, so used to persevering, made golf a test of a player's will. If Troon's links seem from a distance to be flat and innocent terrain, unobstructed even by trees, closer inspection reveals the earth rising grandly and falling into deep bunkers so revelatory of the Scots' passion for punishment of even minor sins.
At 7,067 yards, Troon carries the longest hole in British Open golf (the 577-yard sixth). Yet it also has the shortest, the famed "Postage Stamp" eighth hole, only 126 yards. And as much as simple strength is a necessity here--with a back-nine 3,645 yards long, most often played into a southwest wind--still the Postage Stamp is symbolic of the skill that wins here.
From an elevated tee, a par from such a hole ought to be a snap. The slightest miscalculation, though, puts the tee shot in a bunker, from which it is possible to make 15. A German amateur, Herman Tessies, did it in 1950 when he needed five shots to escape a bunker, that escape being a line drive into another bunker.
On in 12, the poor man three-putted.
Now, let's go to the 11th tee, where hearts will break.
The Glasgow-Ayr railroad trains clack along 20 feet right of the tee. Across the tracks is a riding academy, with folks cantering about, oblivious to the golfer's rising melancholia as he takes a look at the task assigned him.
The 11th is 481 yards, par 5. These measurements most places represent a lamb soon to be dinner for the lions of pro golf. From Troon's 11th tee, the vista is so forbidding the lions carry a sack lunch against the possibility of getting lost in the gorse.
Gorse, by the way, is a word you'll hear a lot this week. The 11th has about 200 yards of the stuff on rolling hillocks in front of the tee. The narrow fairway is lined with more gorse.
Gorse is what the Scots call these little bushes that grow everywhere here. They're scruffy-ugly. They're mottled green. They have thick, twisted branches. What they do best is what the Scots themselves do best: they survive. Against the sea and wind and cold, the gorse hunker down.
They also eat golf balls. Once an unfortunate fellow's shot ends up in the stuff, escape without punishment is impossible. A good lawyer likely can get the fellow off with the loss of only one shot, but the careless deed can exact a cost of paying for years.
"I played just awful, and I wasn't sure I ever wanted to come back to Troon," said the 1962 U.S. Open champion who came here the next month and opened with a smooth 80 that included a 10 on the 11th hole.
Tell us about it, Mr. Nicklaus.
"I hit my tee shot in the gorse. I tried to chop it out, but it didn't get out. I chopped at it again. Same thing. So I took an unplayable lie. And then, my fifth shot, I hit it out of bounds." Over the railroad tracks.
This week in preparation for his 21st British Open (WJLA-TV-7 and WJZ-TV-13, Saturday at noon and Sunday at 11 a.m.), Nicklaus took another look at the gorse on the 11th. "I must be taller now, or else they've cut the stuff down," he said, smiling.
Winning three British Opens changes a fellow's perspective. Four years after his 80 here, Nicklaus won at Muirfield. His British Open record is astonishing in its consistency. He has finished second three times and third three more times. He has been worse than sixth only three times, including last year's 23rd when he opened at Royal St. George's with an 83 (and followed the next day with a 66).
"Troon's a good golf course," Nicklaus said, "that requires a substantial amount of luck to not get in too many bad places."
Watson, also a three-time British Open champion, said, "You must hit it straight here. If you hit it off line many times you won't have a chance."
Putting the men's thoughts together, it seems a good idea to drive well on this very long course. Not only does the drive in the fairway keep you out of the gorse, it diminishes the possibility that one of Troon's thousands of devilish hillocks and undulations will throw your ball into a stand of thistle.
And, of course, any day now there will come the winds that inspired the following piece of Scottish doggerel decades ago:
O'a' the links where I hae golfed
From Ayr to Aberdeen,
On Prestwick or Carnoustie and mony mair I ween,
What tho' the bents are rough and bunkers yawn aroun'
I dearly lo'e the breezy links, the breezy links o' Troon.