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SMITH: British Open brings age and tradition

John Curry/Staff Loran Smith, new mug shot

John Curry/Staff Loran Smith, new mug shot

SANDWICH, England -- There is little about the British Open not to like, the redundancy of it all bringing emotional elevation and heightened affection to the annual experience.

There are now five Scottish venues (St. Andrews, Troon, Muirfield, Carnoustie and Turnberry) and four English (Hoylake, Lytham & St. Anne's, Birkdale and Royal St. Georges) with each of them reminding you that while dissimilar in a variety of ways -- from the nuances of the golf courses to the quaint flavor of the villages which host them -- they are all linked together by one common denominator, age and tradition.

At the U. S. Open at Congressional in June, the announcement that the national championship of the United States will be played at Shinnecock -- the first American course to host the championship in three different centuries. That would not be big news over here. Royal St. Georges is one of several clubs to host the Open in that span of time. In fact, the first time, the Open was held away from Scotland was at Sandwich in 1894 when J. H. Taylor claimed the claret jug.

There have been some heavyweight winners including Harry Vardon (1899, 1911), Walter Hagen (1922, 1928), Henry Cotton (1934) and Bobby Locke (1949). Greg Norman (1993) and Sandy Lyle (1985) won here as did Americans Bill Rogers (1981) and Ben Curtis (2003).

The James Bond author, Ian Fleming, was a member at Royal St. Georges, but there have been at least two forgettable memories in the lore the Club. A note in the Golf Journal recalls that during World War II, the greens were used as targets for mortar practice which one Lord Brabazon, a golfing aficionado, suggested was akin to "throwing darts at a Rembrandt." With all the equal rights emphasis in recent years, no longer is there a sign at the clubhouse proclaiming, "No dogs, no women."

The course has had many detractors over the years including Jack Nicklaus who has noted that the quality of Open golf courses diminishes the further south you go. In 1981, Nicklaus posted an 83 in the opening round, explained by the fact that before starting the round he learned that his son Steve had survived a violent car crash back in Dublin, Ohio. Jack rallied with a second round 66 to make the cut.

Fascination with the small villages, like Sandwich, which host the Open year to year always brings about an updraft emotionally. Sandwich is one of the cinque ports on the eastern coast of Great Britain, an ancient town where Romans held sway for 400 years. Located a few miles north of the white cliffs of Dover, Sandwich has always been vulnerable to invasion. While golfing enthusiasts don't come armed, they overwhelm the town whenever the Open championship comes this way.

You can only imagine the crowds engulfing U.S. Open champion Rory McElroy. It is a reminder of the way it once was when Seve Ballesteros was getting established. While Seve was not British, he was European and nobody embraced him like the Brits. With McElroy, who hails from Northern Ireland, he has a familiar accent and the welcomed baggage of a major champion.

He is one of the young players who seem bent on maintaining their grip on major championships. They are not backing down from any challenge which means that when Tiger Woods' left knee becomes healthy that he is going to have more to overcome than physical challenge to win majors.

As the third major of the year gets under way, there is the cynical view of who will be "Low American?" You hear it over here in the form of a question. However, it is spoken with confidence that, with Tiger ailing, the stars of professional golf are going to be those without a U.S. postal address.

Loran Smith is co-host of "The Tailgate Show" and sideline announcer for Georgia football. He is also a freelance writer and columnist.