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Reflections on the Open Championship

By: Blaine Newnham


For me, the best three or four hours of sports on television each year is the final day of the British Open. I'm up at 6 a.m. on the West Coast, hoping for wind and rain across the Firth of Forth, or Clyde. I don't want to see perfect conditions or perfect swings. The script is Shakespeare, not Hollywood.

We've traveled a lot in France, and love the style and grace of the place. I remember urging my wife in 1999 to watch the final, triumphant walk of Jean van de Velde, to see how a Frenchman acts defeating the British at Carnoustie. And three hours later we were exhausted by the drama that unfolded before us and van de Velde's demise.

I had the opportunity to report and write on many of the major golf tournaments. Unfortunately, only three of them were British Opens, although one of them was ten years ago at Royal Birkdale. My wife remembers sticking coins in our flat's only heat source and running out of money as temperatures dipped near 40 and wind and rain savaged everyone.

I remember Justin Rose holing out on 18 and the roar that emanated from the huge throng surrounding the closing hole. We spent a week in Southport, a workingman's English seaside resort. I took the train to nearby Royal Birkdale. What could have been better?

I had done my first British - or the Open Championship - in 1986, at Turnberry, where the weather was wretched until the final day when Greg Norman won his first major. My last was entirely different, a week at sun-baked St. Andrews in 2000 when Tiger Woods was playing the best stretch of golf ever seen.

Why do I like the British more than the U.S. Open, the PGA and even the Masters? Partly because it is in Europe, I guess. But mostly because it is different with bigger crowds, bigger courses, better beer, and especially the sense that real people are watching the tournament, not just those rich enough or lucky enough to get tickets.

Unlike the Masters and even the U.S. Open, getting a ticket to the British is not difficult or that expensive, although the Euros domination of the dollar makes it more expensive for us than it used to be. Or ought to be. Anyway, kids 16 and under are free. There are special rates for seniors.

It isn't a lack of interest in the tournament that makes the tickets available. Rather it is that the courses are so much bigger and exposed than our courses, allowing many more spectators to attend the event. Royal Birkdale, in particular, is a wonderful place to view a tournament. The course is for the most part below you. Spectating from atop a dune is delightful.

I most be honest in saying that while Birkdale is one of the very best viewing courses, St. Andrews is one of the worst. The double greens keep the fans on the boundaries of the course which itself is very flat. You can't beat the village of St. Andrews for bringing you to the essence of golf, but the course is better played than watched.

The challenge of attending the Open Championship is finding a room, as the courses are somewhat remote. For the Open at Turnberry, I stayed in a small room rented for the occasions by a couple of school teachers in Ayr, just south of Prestwick. The road into Turnberry was barely two lanes.

The British fans don't seem bothered by the traffic. They love golf, and act like it. I don't remember hearing any "You the man" shouting going on. Better yet, they understand the random nature of links golf, and appreciate those who can work a ball off a knoll and onto a green. Or deal with a 50-yard putt off a fairway that isn't any slower than the green.

If you could walk the fairways of one course it would probably be Augusta National, if not Pebble Beach. Surely, they are more picturesque than Carnoustie. The Masters is the Masters, a kingdom assailed by a few of us only once a year, if at all. The U.S. Open is hot, sweaty, contested, the American championship.

But The Open is golf as it was played in the beginning, on land that hasn't changed and in front of people who haven't changed much either. It might seem odd to relish putting on rain gear in July to watch play on fairways that look as if they hadn't felt moisture in a decade. But I do.

The Open isn't about exact yardages and distance control and thick rough along framing the fairways. Sometimes you can't even see the fairways. It isn't about lush green grass. Sometimes the courses are brown. It isn't about par when the wind and rain might make it irrelevant, too.

I enjoyed talking golf with British fans, especially at one of the outdoor beer gardens. I enjoy a Guinness. From the coast of England you can see Ireland.

"Ever been there?" I said to one Brit. "No, but I've been to Las Vegas," he answered.

And I've been to Birkdale.

Blaine Newnham has covered golf for 50 years. He still cherishes the memory of following Ben Hogan for 18 holes during the first round of the 1966 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. He worked then for the Oakland Tribune, where he covered the Oakland Raiders during the first three seasons of head coach John Madden. Blaine moved on to Eugene, Ore., in 1971 as sports editor and columnist, covering the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. He was to cover five Olympics all together - Mexico City, Munich, Los Angeles, Seoul, and Athens - before retiring in early 2005 from the Seattle Times. He covered his first Masters in 1987 when Larry Mize chipped in to beat Greg Norman, and his last in 2005 when Tiger Woods chip teetered on the lip at No. 16 and rolled in. He saw Woods four straight major wins in 2000 and 2001, and Payne Stewart's birdie putt to win the U.S. Open at Pinehurst. Blaine plays golf at Wing Point Golf and Country Club on Bainbridge Island, Wash., where his current index is 12.6. In 2005, Blaine received the Northwest Golf Media Association's Distinguished Service Award. He and his wife, Joanna, live in Indianola, Wash., where the Dungeness crabs out-number the people.