It might be the most important golf tournament on earth, but as major championships go, the British Open has always been a bit of an outlier. Scots scoff at the notion that Arnold Palmer revalidated its relevance in the early 1960s after a 25-year stretch of relative dormancy. Purists point out that World War II and travel obstacles played a role in the informally reduced status, although facts are facts.
Ben Hogan won the British in his lone appearance (1953). Byron Nelson played in 1937, finished fifth, then returned just once (1955). After claiming the Claret Jug in 1946, Sam Snead was asked if he’d be back to defend his title. The Slammer replied, “If you’re not in America, you’re just camping out.”
Sixteen years would pass before Snead made the trip again. He didn’t bring a tent.
Modern times come with modern problems, and the 149th Open Championship, to be held next week at Royal St. George’s Golf Club in southern England, isn’t immune to the reverberations of COVID-19 or their effect on the competitive element. Numerous travel and housing restrictions have been enacted to ensure player safety and a good, clean event in general, the punchline being that 32,000 spectators will be allowed on the grounds each day.
Uncle Sam knows a hypocrisy when he smells one. When it comes to tour pros born, bred and brainwashed in the United States, some noses are more sensitive than others. According to a story published recently by Golfweek/USA Today — under the headline “Players angry, consider skipping Open Championship after R&A hands down strict COVID regulations” — the issue is a very real one. Never mind that just one player was quoted in the piece, under the cloak of anonymity, of course, revealing a lack of journalistic depth that can’t come close to substantiating the banner flying atop it.
Click bait and COVID. Welcome to the early 2020s.
This isn’t about the inadequacies of print media, however, but a sacred tournament, the only major canceled due to the pandemic last year. Will anyone eligible to play next week actually bail on the event because they have to stay in a tournament-appointed hotel or live in a private home with a maximum of four others in their posse? Very unlikely. Are we to believe the world’s best golfers will show up woebegone and weary, unable to fire their engines at full strength because they can’t eat at a local restaurant or drown the miseries of a first-round 77 at a nearby tavern?
Probably not. A lot of snotty Yanks like to make fun of British food, anyway.
Is the R&A overreacting? It doesn’t matter, and so what if it did? Over Here, we’ve been going maskless for at least a month, vaccinated and vindicated by a health scourge (seemingly) in the rear-view mirror. Over There, people are still struggling. The Delta variant is alive and kicking. Human beings continue to die. Pity those living in the United States who pass judgement on the powers of a sporting government and its so-called boundaries of authority.
The show will go on. The British Open will be played. History for the making, a jug for the taking, and if the man who wins that prize happens to call America home, he’ll be damn glad he made the effort, which is what athletes are supposed to do. You show up. You take the room key they give you. If someone asks you to go see the nice lady in the medical compound so she can stick that thing up your nose and make sure you’re not COVID positive, you shut up and do it. It ain’t rocket science. It’s a 72-hole golf tournament — a big deal in a very small world largely insulated from a much bigger world with much bigger problems.
Snead was hardly the first guy to cross the Atlantic and find the experience not to be worth his while. Curtis Strange, a southern boy who grew up to win back-to-back U.S. Opens, always preferred fishing in hot weather to chasing birdies in the cold. He skipped five British Opens in the 1980s; Kenny Perry made the same decision for the same reason on a couple of occasions the following decade. To a certain extent, both would come to regret the no-shows. A talented young player can spend years looking forward to competing in the game’s most prestigious gatherings, but once you’ve chosen not to, you can’t rewind time.
Having made the journey overseas to cover 15 British Opens — some difficult, all of them fun — I understand the reticence that might arise from trying to do your job to the best of your ability in conditions that aren’t nearly the same as your usual work environment. Tour pros obviously have extremely high standards. Some don’t react well to an alternative culture and let those differences creep into their performance. The best of the best show up ready to go, which means being prepared for anything and not letting a lousy bed or a creepy breakfast turn a 68 into a 73.
Jack Nicklaus arrived knowing that half the field had basically defeated itself before the first tee shot on Thursday. Tiger Woods never met a challenge he couldn’t conquer, although the biblical downpour that wiped out his Grand Slam chances during the third round in 2002 came awfully close. Ability is only as valuable as attitude allows. More than anything, greatness doesn’t care about cruddy accommodations or weather you wouldn’t wish on the kid who beat you up in the fourth grade.
An ounce of determination can define a man in any nation, so suck it up, fellas. Pack a good lunch, bring your best rain gear and be nice to the lady in the medical compound. She’s got a job to do, too.