Snead returns to the British Open

Sam Snead won’t win the British Open at the Old Course in St. Andrews, Scotland this week. That’s no surprise, since at the age of 88 he’s not competing. But Snead has already provided plenty of entertainment at the fascinating links in the medieval town this week. For one thing, he regaled the press with stories of the first Open he played here, in 1946. Oh yes, Snead won the championship.

“I came over on the train, and we came along beside the golf course and I looked at it and it did not look like it was in very good shape,” Snead, whose swing is still an example of impeccable balance, said. “I looked at the fairway, and it did not look to me like it had ever had a machine on it.

I heard that they used sheep to cut it. I didn’t see anybody, and I finally said to a guy sitting beside me, ‘What abandoned golf course is that?'”

“Abandoned golf course?” The Old Course, where golf has been played for who knows how many centuries? The place that people discuss in reverential tones, afraid the ghosts of golf might strike them down should they speak ill of it? The Old Course, known as the home of golf? Sacrilege, my friends, sacrilege.

But, in fact, Sad was in good company. Bobby Jones disliked the place when he first saw it, but came to deeply appreciate it and won the 1927 British Open here. Jack Nicklaus’ father thought the course was, well, a cow pasture, when he had a look at it while his son was playing the 1959 Walker Cup at a nearby course. And let’s be clear: The links hardly looks like a conventional course — green and soft it isn’t.

Snead offended the fellow with whom he was sitting in the train. Why, how could he feel that way about the Old Course?

“Oh boy, he jumped about four feet in the air,” Snead said of the fellow’s reaction to his nasty observation. “‘I will have you know it is St. Andrews,’ he told me. You mean they are having a tournament here? ‘Aye, the championship,’ he said.”

But never mind. Snead came to appreciate the place and to even like the seven double greens that he once called absurd. He got off to a bad start the final round when he double-bogeyed the short par-four hole, but recovered and won by six shots. And now, 54 years later and somewhat mellowed, Snead is willing to speak of the Old Course in those aforementioned reverential tones.

“Once I got on the golf course I respected it more each time I played it,” Snead said. “It’s a course where every time you play it you respect it more.”

Before the 2000 British Open, Snead came to participate in a four-hole event prior to the Open itself, along with 21 other Open champions. That event was much anticipated by the people gathered at St. Andrews — people who seem to intimately know the ins and outs of golf.

But nobody knows the game here more than Snead. He’s seen it all, even played with Tiger Woods when the Open favourite was six years old. He observed that everybody has been saying that Woods goes at the ball so hard that his body won’t be able to take it. “But they’ve been saying that since Tiger was six, and it hasn’t hurt him for 20 years. I don’t think it will hurt him for another 20.”

Meanwhile, Snead will be watching. It’s wonderful to see him at the Old Course, so many years after he won here. “I’ll just have a coke or something and watch the boys go past,” he said. “I enjoy being here and I will always cherish this course here for the rest of my life.”

Cherish it. That’s what most every golfer comes to feel about the Old Course, even those who despise it at first. “An abandoned golf course?” Hardly.