Loran Smith: British Open a great experience

SOUTHPORT, England – The west coast of England is where you can bump up against fact and lore that sometimes serves as a reminder that some things in life should be forgettable.

 

Take Liverpool for example. For all its pluses historically, it is also where ships brought slaves into the harbor on a stopover before crossing the Atlantic for the Americas.

Visit the slave museum in Liverpool and you comprehend how repugnant that dastardly business came to be. However, you can find something good to appreciate.

Liverpool, after all, was the hometown of the Beatles. Their music, unlike the slave trade, leaves you feeling good.

This area of the United Kingdom is not exactly a slice of heaven except for three very outstanding golf courses: Lytham and St. Annes, Hoylake and Birkdale, and the last being the venue for this year’s Open championship, which begins Thursday.

Birkdale lies between Liverpool and Blackpool, the latter the traditional vacation haven of blue collar folk.

Birkdale has had some electric moments. Johnny Miller won his only Open title here, overtaking the dashing Spaniard Seve Ballesteros in 1976. A passionate mutual admiration society with British golf fans and Seve had its beginning at Birkdale.

Other Birkdale champions have been Peter Thompson (twice), Lee Trevino, Tom Watson, Padraig Harrington, Mark O’Meara, Ian Baker-Finch and Arnold Palmer. All worthy champions and multiple major winners, except for Baker-Finch. His game left him after winning at Birkdale in 1991.

Royal Birkdale is distinguished by its overpowering white club house which, a British golf aficionado once said, makes it appear that a giant ship washed ashore and never went back to sea. Birkdale lies among sand hills, which gives the course character. It is a very popular venue with the British, who like to remind you of the many “other” courses in this area which compare to a test match in cricket—worthy and challenging— like Fairhaven, Ainsdale and Formby, golfing jewels tucked away into the landscape.

These courses, unknown to many, are highly regarded by the British golfing connoisseur. The late Furman Bisher, sports columnist for the Atlanta Journal, made it standard in his annual crossing of the Atlantic to cover the Open championship to search out these hidden gems to make his day—a morning round of golf before catching up with the action at the Open in the afternoon.

Furman greatly enjoyed Muirfield, for example, but also had equal affection for North Berwick, one of the most pleasant courses you can play in Scotland. When he made his way to Birkdale, Furman expressed enduring affection for the layout, but also gave equal importance to playing Formby and Ainsdale. Bisher loved golf with undying passion. He had a left-handed uppercut swing that brought him frustration and joy in equal doses.

Yet, he revered the game and took the greatest pleasure in walking in the footsteps of Bobby Jones at courses where the later won the British Open, two of which were on England’s west coast. Jones other title came at St. Andrews.

For years, I covered the Open championship with Furman, starting in 1978 at St. Andrews. Furman began going over a year earlier—in 1977 when Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson staged their duel in the sun. Nicklaus shot 66-66 in the last two rounds but lost to Watson who scored 66-65.

In the 1980s, the Open was the grandest of experiences. You could secure bed and breakfast accommodations with a family for 10 pounds a night, or about $15. A “cooked breakfast” in the U. K. is as good of a meal as you could find at the Ritz and remains a highlight of the championship for me.

By the end of the week, you felt you had become part of the family. If you had a guest badge and offered it to the hostess, she reciprocated by inviting you to have dinner with the family on the weekend. You could not enjoy greater hospitality.

In the mornings, you could play golf at courses like Old Prestwick, North Berwick and Formby and then spend the rest of the day at the tournament where you learned to appreciate golfers who could bump and run the ball and play when “freshening winds” heightened the challenge.

When you went to bed, you slept in the coziest atmosphere under an eiderdown which made the sleep, especially when you were the beneficiary of a single malt nightcap, so restful that you felt that a week at the British Open added at least a year to your life.

 

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Thu, 2017-09-21 4:07pm

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