THE TOWN IN UPROAR
Contributor: Lewine Mair
The locals are a bit like the bunkers in the way they seldom let people off lightly. In their case, they act as the custodians of their beloved links and, the moment they have word that The R&A or the Links Trust are planning changes, they do not hesitate to make the outside world aware of it.
Indeed, when the Road Hole Bunker was having the equivalent of a face-lift ahead of the 2015 Open, all hell was let loose, with the captain of the old-established New Club advising the world’s press, “The Town In Uproar!”
Most of the adjustments to the course are linked to the extra yards which have sneaked into the game via new technology. However, it has to be said that Nicklaus, the first of the famously long hitters, was famously long well before the ring of metal woods changed the sound of the game. Back in 1961, when he broke the insert in the face of his persimmon driver as many as nine times, this eventual winner of a record 18 majors described his attack on his tee shots as follows: “Oh boy! Was I ever strong in those days! Could I bust that ball.”
In 1970, in one of the most iconic images of the 29 Opens to have been played at St Andrews thus far, Nicklaus removed his yellow sweater as he approached the tee of the downwind 360-yard 18th and, armed with his favourite persimmon driver, proceeded to hit through the green. His downhill approach chip was not the easiest but he duly secured his birdie for the 72 which won him the playoff from Doug Sanders.
In 1995, a chocaholic by the name of John Daly came to town. “Wild Thing”, as Daly was called, and the genteel folk of St Andrews forged an unlikely but instant bond. The locals marvelled at drives which touched down at around the 300-yard mark, but still more did they appreciate the American’s touch and feel on and around the greens.
Though a rule for how many clubs a player may have in the bag came into existence in 1939, there has never been anything to cover chocolate muffins. Daly’s caddie was said to have taken 10 onboard at the halfway house on a Sunday when his man went on to defeat Costantino Rocca in a four-hole playoff.
Next came Tiger Woods, who won at St Andrews in 2000 and 2005. He was 10 years younger than Daly and, on average, a few yards shorter. Woods it was who summed up the situation as well as anyone. “Because of his long swing, John can carry it past me on the fly but, on a firm fairway, I hit a lower ball and turn it over a little bit.”
No one, of course, would want to rule out the shorter hitters for this summer when Zach Johnson, who won at St Andrews as recently as 2015, was at the time in a lowly 160th position on the PGA Tour’s Driving Distance statistics with an average of 282 yards. Yet there is no question that, this time around, all eyes will be on Bryson DeChambeau, who in the last couple of years has turned himself into a long-hitting machine with clubs to match. In the week after the 2021 Ryder Cup, he was hitting over 400 yards on his way to finishing in the top eight in the World Long Driving Contest. How will such feats marry with the demands of the Old Course? Almost certainly, the locals will be in two minds as to whether to see this golfing gorilla as friend or foe.
Seve Ballesteros, when he was interviewed shortly before he died from cancer, was as Jones in moving the townsfolk with his description of his victory of 1984 as “the highlight of my career”.
Nicklaus’s assessment of a player needing to win at St Andrews if he is to be remembered, was maybe a little harsh when so many fine golfers have failed on that score. Yet, if there is an element of truth in the great man’s words, Collin Morikawa would be a fitting “Champion Golfer of the Year” in July.
Down at Royal St George’s last summer, the man whose shot-making and winners’ speeches flow as divinely as each other, set an example to sum up everything people would want for our game over its next 150 years.