Celebrating a rich and full history
Contributor: Lewine Mair
We can only imagine the atmosphere in St Andrews as the town celebrates the 150th staging of The Open, the oldest major of them all. Even before the turn of the year, the rising excitement was putting people in mind of a Jack Nicklaus comment of not too long ago: “If you’re gonna be a player that’s going to be remembered, you must win at St Andrews.”
The Open, which began in 1860 at Prestwick, was a prestigious affair from day one. The Earl of Eglinton donated a handsome championship belt, a Prestwick member by name of Ogilvie Fairlie took charge of the organisation, and a trio of ready-made stars graced the early years. Namely, Willie Park Sr, the first winner, Tom Morris Sr, and his son, Tom Morris Jr. The media of the day waxed lyrical about all three but, when Young Tom won the championship belt outright for his hat-trick of victories from 1868-1870, things fell silent.
For want of a trophy, there was no championship in 1871. And though Morris Jr won for a fourth time the following year, the Claret Jug was not ready for presentation until the championship made its switch to St Andrews in 1873. Here, though many might assume that the event would have been up there with all of the most important Open dates the links have known since, it started with a whimper as opposed to the proverbial bang.
For a start, there is no indication that the body of writers who celebrated events at Prestwick bothered with the trip to Fife. What is more, there is a sneaking feeling that when Tommy Kidd, a local caddie-cum-manservant was pronounced “Champion Golfer of the Year” following scores of 91 and 88, they would have been congratulating themselves on having stayed at home.
Only the representatives from the Fifeshire Journal, the St Andrews Citizen and The Field were apparently in a position to give a first-hand account of why those scores were so high. While the day itself was generally held to be “perfect” for golf, the Journal made reference to how the links had been dappled in puddles after heavy rain earlier in the week. A salient point, this, in that a penalty shot attached to taking a drop from casual water in those days and no one knows how many of Kidd’s shots were of the penalty variety.
Whilst deciding that Kidd still had much to learn, the Fifeshire Journal nonetheless described their parishioner as a worthy winner: “He has already proved himself to be an excellent player and distinguished himself in many singles and foursomes, and the honour thus gained here will consequently begrudged him the less, although he has won it with a high score.”
If a 91 and an 88 are light years removed from the figures we will see at the top of that now familiar yellow leaderboard this July, so too is the £11 prize money with which Kidd returned to his home in Rose Street.
Not all the changes in the last century and a half have been in the same believe-it-or-not league. For example, though the Old Course in its 2022 Open guise of grandstands and extended teeing areas might be unrecognisable to Old Tom Morris, were this “Keeper of Greens” from 1864 to 1903 to reappear, the bare links would be as an old friend.
In truth, so much did things remain the same across the first 100 years or so that, when a young Nick Faldo was preparing for the 1978 championship where he would finish in a share of seventh place, he relied on “three tightly handwritten pages of notes and maps” which had been penned across three decades by Gerald Micklem.
The latter was a leading English amateur in the 1940s and 1950s and still prominent in the game across the 1960s both as a selector and, in 1968, as the Captain of The R&A. “His accuracy was astounding,” said Faldo in his autobiography. “Every pot bunker was precisely where he said it would be, every gorse bush, every hump.” The advice which went with those notes was that a player could ill afford “to get mad” at St Andrews: “You must be willing to accept exactly what you get … don’t try to fight it; try to understand it.”
When Faldo, who has three Opens under his belt, won at St Andrews in 1990, he was still thanking his lucky stars for those Micklem notes which, sad to say, went missing long ago.
On much the same principle as farmers prefer not to name the animals they must one day take to market, you wonder if generations of players at St Andrews would have had an easier time of it if the bunkers had gone incognito.
As it is, the backgrounds of such as Hell Bunker (on the 14th hole) and the Road Hole Bunker are so indelibly forged in the lore of the links that almost every visitor will expect the worst. Hell Bunker’s reputation, for instance, did not exactly take a turn for the better when, in 1995, Nicklaus, a two-time winner over the Old Course, took four to make his escape en route to a 10.
As for the grim tales associated with the 17th hole’s Road Hole Bunker, they are up there with the stories of Carnoustie’s Barry Burn in the way they can invade a golfer’s often fragile mind. Though Tommy Nakajima won 48 tournaments in Japan, he is markedly better known for what happened in a five-minute visit to the hazard in the 1978 Open. Only two shots off the lead at the halfway stage of the championship, he caught the green in two, only to putt into the bunker’s sandy depths. It was not until four shots later that he was back on terra firma before departing the green with a nine.