The British Open was scheduled to take place next week at Royal St. Georges Golf Club at Sandwich, England. Thanks to the coronavirus, the championship has been canceled but is rescheduled for the same venue in 2021.
If you are familiar with the history of this event, then you may be aware that the Open, as the British say, began in 1860 at Prestwick and was dominated for the first dozen years by Old Tom Morris, his son Tommy Morris Jr. and Willie Park Sr. One year, 1865, a fellow named Andrew Strath broke the Morris/Park stranglehold on the tournament, but the cast of champions did not proliferate until 1873 when the championship moved to St. Andrews.
The history of the Open is a fascinating study in that it was exclusively British for years. Scottish professionals began crossing the Atlantic in droves to teach in the U.S., which led to a 10-year stretch of American domination in the Walter Hagen, Bobby Jones era.
For three decades, the championship rotated among three courses: Prestwick, St. Andrews and Musselburg. In 1892, the Open moved to Muirfield and two years later to Sandwich and St. Georges.
Sandwich is an endearing and becoming town about the size of Madison. It is one of the original Cinque Ports on England’s east coast, which were developed for military and trade purposes. You can find medieval buildings about the town along with kempt gardens and a casual lifestyle that makes you want to pull up a chair and stay a little longer.
My first open at Sandwich came about in 1981 when Bill Rogers won. It had been 32 years since the championship had been hosted by Royal St. Georges. The last time was when South African, Bobby Locke, won in 1949.
The championship eventually took place on four Scottish courses and three British layouts. It is held on nine courses now, five in Scotland and four in England. As often as the Royal & Ancient Golf Club, which manages the tournament, could work St. Andrews into the rotation, they have given more than a cursory effort to pull that off.
Early on, I found that there was something special about the game’s oldest championship, but the flavor of Scotland was exclusive. There is no greater passion for the game than in the land of single malt whiskey. It is a clean, charming, neat and compelling country with farms and fields giving off pure beauty and makes a statement for the work ethic and good living. Obesity is extinct in Scotland where everybody loves the grand ol’ game of golf. While England holds passionate respect for the Open, golf in Scotland has a coveted edge.
You can take the “Flying Scotsman” out of Kings Cross in London for a bracing five-hour ride to Edinburg and enjoy a plethora of stimulating scenes including fields and streams that attract accomplished artists, Hadrian’s wall and villages you would like to stop and explore. When you get into Scotland, you often see a lonely golfer bundled up and playing alone, pulling his trolley behind him. Even in bad weather.
As much as we identify the Scots with the purity of the game, I have a special affection for the championship when it is played at Royal St. George’s. It was there in 1981 that I was hosted by an English family with a warm and fulfilling friendship resulting.
Mo and Jasper Knight, hosts for every Open held at Royal St. Georges in my time, once lived in Sandwich in a cottage, which was but a few doors from the Red Cow, one of the popular pubs in the town.
There are excellent courses near Sandwich, two in particular that are eminently popular with British golfers — Prince’s and Deal. Playing Deal one day, the bearded Jasper joined our playing group in a sports coat, flannel shirt and a tie. He looked as if he had stepped out of an old Tom Morris painting. He brought along his small Jack Russell terrier, which seemed to know golf course etiquette. He never came within arm’s length of anybody’s swing or barked at an inappropriate time.
Dogs, if well behaved, are usually allowed in British pubs, but St. Georges has had a ban against canine entry for years. Another ban didn’t keep the club from gaining “Royal” distinction as would likely be the case now. Women were not allowed in the clubhouse, let alone apply for membership.
For years, there was a sign at the carpark, which exclaimed, “No dogs, no women.” The membership has reversed its antiquated rules. Women are now allowed in the clubhouse and also may join the club.
Presumably the infamous sign has been removed from the property but man’s best friend still has to wait in the carpark.