When golf becomes high drama

It’s never too early to start thinking about the Open Championship — the British Open as we know it in Canada.

This is especially the case when the Open returns to the Old Course in St. Andrews, Scotland, the home of golf. I’ll be there when the Open will be held for the 26th time at St. Andrews, and the prospect is already thrilling me.

St. Andrews, of course, is known as the auld gray toon by the sea. The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews was founded there on May 14, 1754, when 22 self-proclaimed “Noblemen and Gentlemen, being admirers of the Golf,” met and organized the club. The R&A’s headquarter building stands sentinel over the links that are open to everybody — for golfing, for walking the dog, for taking the healthy air.

During the year the Old Course, which, by the way, belongs to the town and not the R&A — the R&A is simply one of the clubs whose members play there — is closed on Sundays. Golfers need a rest and so does the Old Course. Next week the Old Course will be open on Sunday, when the champion will be declared.

My first memory of an Open there is from 1970, when Jack Nicklaus took off his sweater on the fal tee during his 18-hole playoff against Doug Sanders, and drove through the back of the green. The hole is only 357 yards, true, and the ball was running on the hard and fast green.

That was Nicklaus — showing his championship stuff. But why was Nicklaus even in a playoff? I also remember poor Doug Sanders standing on the 18th green the last day of regulation play. He faced a three-foot putt to win the championship.

He had taken his stance when he noticed a fly over the ball, and bent down to swat it away. At that moment, golf lore has it, Ben Hogan was watching the Open from his home in Ft. Worth, Texas. Hogan is said to have leaned toward his television and said, “Set up again, Doug, set up again.” But Sanders didn’t go through his putting routine again. He just stood up and took his stroke. Sadly, he missed the putt. Who can forget the sight of a chagrined and shocked Sanders? He must have known at that moment that his chance to win was all but over.

He now had to face Nicklaus in their 18-hole playoff. Nicklaus won. To this day Sanders is often asked about the putt he had to win the Open. People wonder if Sanders, long one of the most flamboyant golfers in the game — what with his short, fast swing and proclivity for dressing in, oh, tangerine shoes, socks, slacks and shirt-whether he still thinks of that missed putt. “Only every day,” he will say. “Only every day.” He flashes a rueful smile as he speaks.

St. Andrews does strange things to golfers. New Zealander Simon Owen was leading the 1978 Open at the Old Course with three holes to play. Owen had a difficult task ahead as he played his way toward the town that looms larger and larger the closer one gets to the final green; and he was also playing with one Jack William Nicklaus, who was chasing him for the title.

Inevitably and inexorably, the tide turned. Owen bogeyed the 16th hole against Nicklaus’s par, and then bogeyed the 17th hole — the famous Road Hole where the deep, small sandpit known as the Road Bunker “eats into the very vitals” of the green. So said the transcendent English writer Bernard Darwin. Nicklaus parred the hole and went on to win his second Open at the Old Course.

Then there was 1984, where Tom Watson went through the 17th green with a pushed 2-iron and bogeyed the hole. I was following Watson and looked down to the 18th green as Seve Ballesteros holed from 15 feet for birdie, then punched the air once, twice, three times. The then brilliant Spaniard won the championship.

In 1990 it was Nick Faldo coming through, playing clinical, meticulous golf. He had total control of his golf ball all week. Five years later Costantino Rocca famously flubbed a chip shot to the final green but then, outrageously, holed from 60 feet away at the front of the green to get into a playoff with John Daly. Daly won, but Rocca’s shot sticks in the mind, as does his reaction; Rocca fell to the ground and pounded the turf, beside himself with exhilaration for the moment.

The Old Course in St. Andrews is golf as high drama. Nowhere does the game present more compelling theatre. Read all you can about the Open, the Old Course, and St. Andrews. Savour the coming days and the championship itself. There is no finer week in golf than when the Open comes to the Old Course.