Membership Has Its Privileges
Enjoying all the perks that come with being a former champion, Paul Lawrie got the 150th Open off and running
By Michael Bamberger
ST. ANDREWS — Somebody had to finally start this thing and somebody did, a former champion golfer of the year, a Scot and a new member (honorary) of the R&A.
“This is game No. 1. On the tee, from Scotland, Paul Lawrie,” said the starter, an Englishman named David Lancaster.
Lawrie stepped into the appointed place, the teeing ground where Old Tom and Young Tom once stood, where Bobby Jones and Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods stood repeatedly, where a million golfing tourists from Japan and Australia and the United States and the United Kingdom have stood. But Lawrie was about to do something nobody had ever done: hit the first shot of this 150th British Open.
It was 6:35 on a Thursday morning. The sun and the gulls had already been at work for 90 minutes. Lawrie, an unpretentious, working pro in an era when even the caddies can sound as if they work in corporate communications, had his yellow ball on a white tee. He made his familiar, rhythmic swing, one that brings to mind Ernie Els’s roundhouse action. He striped it.
Yes, the fairway is wider than a soccer pitch is long, and he was hitting a 3-iron. Still, things can go wrong. You can hit it in the burn, on the road, on the beach. It’s golf. Weird things happen. Lawrie knows all about that. He was watching when Jean van de Velde made a 7 on the 72nd hole of the 1999 Open Championship at Carnoustie. Lawrie would win in a three-man playoff, and by virtue of his victory, he has been invited to every Open since. Every shot makes somebody happy.
Everybody was happy to see this Open get underway. In this stick of words here today, as we light some mood candles here, there will be no discussion of _____ (a certain new golf league) and there will be no mention of _____ (a certain two-time winner of this ancient championship). Though we do have it on good authority that Phil Mickelson went around in even-par 72 on Thursday.
For one thing, Mickelson revealed that score to reporters upon completing his round, and the R&A website confirmed it. As for the USA Network broadcast in the United States, it did not show a single Mickelson shot. That’s a little weird. He did win last year’s PGA Championship. His name is on the Claret Jug, alongside Lawrie’s and John Daly’s (73) and Francisco Molinari’s (73). Lawrie enjoyed a 2 (driver to 5 feet) on the home hole and signed for 74. The day’s first game was in the house.
The clubhouse, the imposing R&A stone fortress, was behind him, as Lawrie finished and later when he talked to reporters. He can go to the bar there for a meal or a refreshment. Not as a player in this tournament, but as an honorary member.
“I can pop in for a wee drinky-poo,” Lawrie said. “It will be quite nice.”
Quite nice indeed!
Lawrie can also get a coveted Old Course tee time whenever he likes, and he didn’t even need the honorary membership for that. Open winners have a privilege called the “freedom of the links.” It lets you roll up to the Old Course, and six other courses in town, and play when you wish, no green fee required or accepted.
(If you’re curious: the term is green fee, no s. Old Tom Morris was the keeper of the green, referring to the whole of the golf course, as you see in the old rule-book phrase “through the green.” You pay your money, you have the right to “the green.” That is, the entire course.)
Lawrie is off on Friday at 11:36, with Min Woo Lee and Webb Simpson, winner of the 2012 U.S. Open.
I asked Simpson if he felt a certain, most likely unspoken, bond with Lawrie. Each, after all, has won the oldest national championship of his homeland.
“There is,” Simpson said. “We both won when we really weren’t expecting to, but that’s how it goes sometimes. Paul grew up on his Open like I grew up on mine. You win it, and you carry that around for the rest of your life. So we share that.”
Paul Lawrie is 53. Webb Simpson is 36. Either or both could play another Open at the Old Course — or not. You never know. No date has been announced for the next Open here. Five or more years would be a good guess.
“I came off the 1st tee and I took a few seconds just to appreciate where I was, because you don’t know in this game,” Simpson said.
There was a memorial service for Peter Alliss on Wednesday, at Younger Graduation Hall, part of the University of St. Andrews. Alliss, as a player and commentator, attended dozens of Open Championships. One of his pet phrases was that Open was always played “in sight and sound of the sea.” Simpson could hear the gulls but he could not see St. Andrews Bay as he came off the 1st tee, because of an R&A hospitality tent and other temporary structures. But the sea was there. Peter Alliss, of course, was not. Not that anybody could see.
There has been a thing going around in this week’s long and sometimes painful preamble, that a player’s career is not complete unless he has won an Open at St. Andrews. Jones planted that notion in Nicklaus’s head and Nicklaus passed it on to Woods.
“If you play one Open, anywhere, it’s a tremendous achievement,” I offered to Simpson. “And if you play one at the Old Course? That’s huge.”
“Absolutely,” Simpson said.
He was right there, when Lawrie got this 30th Open at the Old Course off and running. (Yes, running!) A yellow ball, a Wilson 3-iron, a sound swing. Come Sunday night, somebody will get a new title attached to his name, Champion Golfer of the Year. It comes with privileges, as Paul Lawrie can tell you.
Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at Bamberger@firepitcollective.com