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40 Years in the Wilderness - The British at the US Open

Incredibly, it is now 40 years since Tony Jacklin followed up his 1969 victory in the Open at Royal Lytham with perhaps the finest performance of his career at Hazeltine the following June to lift the US Open Championship. Jacklin's victory in itself was the first by a British-born player since Tommy Armour in 1927, and there have been precious few occasions since that ‘one of ours' has threatened to win golf's second-oldest major. Golf historian Michael Flannery highlights the malaise

Once upon a time, there was a great British golfer, maybe even the greatest of them all, a Jerseyman named Harry Vardon. In 1896, at the age of 26, he won the first of six Open Championships, a record that will probably never be broken. Until he was getting along in age, Harry played with only five clubs in his bag, the most lofted of which was the equivalent of a modern 5-iron. With the face laid back, he cut precise, biting approach shots to the pin, and deftly played out of bunkers in an era when they were un-raked, stony and sometimes overgrown with weeds.

In 1900, and with three Open titles in his pocket, Vardon sailed across the pond to the United States of America, a booming new golf market, peppered with expatriate Scottish professionals who preached the St Andrews Swing, mostly in a totally incomprehensible Fifeshire accent. Had the eager Yanks been able to understand and practise what they were being told, it would have been the end of their country's looming role as the golfing mega power. Flying elbows, a closed stance and the roundhouse swing of links golf produced a low hooked, rolling shot that was checked and swallowed as soon as the ball dropped on the New World's grassy parkland fairways.

PREACHING TO THE RABBITS

As fate would have it, the Yanks quickly developed not only their own game, but better equipment, and got so good, so fast, that what had first been a Scottish, and later a British monopoly, was quickly wrested away by newcomers to the golf world. Ironically, it was the British missionary, Harry Vardon, who brought enlightenment to the zealous natives. His pulpit was a coast-to-coast barnstorming tour sponsored by the A.G. Spalding Company, eager to carve out a major share in the massive, virgin American golf market.

Harry Vardon and his great friend – and fellow Open champion – Ted Ray are pictured en route to New York in 1913.

New courses hopping with thousands of golfing rabbits were sprouting (like the weeds that covered many of them) from New York to California and New Hampshire to Florida. The settings ranged from the glorious Pacific coastline, to raw Arizona ranches. In the south there were verdant palm-strewn Florida courses equipped with sand greens; in the midwest and east coast, manicured links graced with mausoleum-like clubhouses. The country's first generation of hackers, duffers and outright foozlers, was ecstatically discovering boomerang slices, duck-tailed hooks and the joys of three putting. Their common creed was: ‘If we just had the right gear, problems would take care of themselves'.

From Hackensack to Denver, ten-year-old barefoot caddies and pipe-smoking Civil War veterans revelled in the news of Vardon's tour. They were versed in every nuance of Harry's mashie – capable of more magic than Merlin's wand. They vainly searched clubmaker workshops to find lightweight woods with stiff shafts like those the Open Champion played. With his upright stance and short shafts, Vardon floated 200-yard brassie approaches off bare lies that settled down next to distant holes like spent leaves. The wondrous secrets of the Vardon grip had been minutely detailed for an avid public, and many a wrist, used to a comfortable baseball grip, needed a good rub with Sloan's Liniment after the first practice session. There weren't many golfers in the 45 states who didn't know that Harry gripped his clubs with the fervour of a man who's pulled an Anaconda out of the bag while groping for his mashie-niblick. ‘Not firm, I grip it tight', he preached to the unenlightened.

VARDON CONQUERS AMERICAN HEARTS AND CHAMPIONS

While there was no way that Harry could share the magic of his mashie with the hordes of golfing tyros, he was, nonetheless, well aware of their needs and had spent the late 1890s perfecting what he hoped would be the ultimate golf ball. The miracle pill, The Vardon Flyer, was manufactured and marketed by A. G. Spalding, who had moved into the flourishing golf market in a big way, popularising the game and virtually eliminating artisan makers of iron club heads through the introduction of drop forging to American golf. Supported by a major print campaign, ‘The Vardon Flyer', a white-painted, moulded gutta-percha ball featuring a ‘Pebble' pattern, took to the air in 1900.

Unfortunately for Harry and his sponsor, Albert Goodwin Spalding (who, in 1876 had won 47 games pitching for the Chicago White Stockings), only a few years earlier a chap named Coburn Haskell had developed the ultimate golfing medicine, a ball with a filament of rubber wrapped around a core – one that truly revolutionised golf. Mr Spalding found himself in an awkward position – not unlike a buggy whip manufacturer attempting to convince Henry Ford to buy his product as a Tin Lizzie accessory.

But the show had to go on. The Vardon Flyer's official launch was Harry's barnstorming tour – the first by a household name professional in the history of American golf – watched by tens of thousands of spectators, fatally bitten by the golf bug. Over a period of three months, Harry Vardon, playing against the best ball of the pro and club champion, on courses he had never seen, travelling immense distances on primitive transport, played over eighty matches and won all but four! According to newspaper stories, Vardon's perfectly-placed drives, playing with a gutty ball that was only slightly livelier than a dead mouse, averaged around 230 yards. On his way home, Harry stopped off to contest the United States Open being played at Wheaton, Illinois, where he picked up the $200 winners purse after a 2- stroke victory over his fellow Open Champion, friend and great rival, J.H. Taylor.

THE END OF DOMINATION BY EX-PAT PROS

It was a tremendous performance by the great master, one that signalled the virtual end of domination by ex-pat English and Scottish pros in the United States Open Championship. In 1911 and 1912, with no top British pro present, a talented young Philadelphia lad named John McDermott won the US Open, convincingly beating the Scottish brothers, Alex and Macdonald Smith. But, as everybody knew, next year not only Harry, but his mate, Ted Ray, the pipe-smoking heavyweight slugger and fellow Open champion, would be in town, so bye-bye trophy.

The story of the 1913 US Open at Brookline, Massachusetts, has been told too often to bear repetition. In a brilliant display of nerves, courage and golf – under un-relenting pressure, rain and soaked fairways – Francis Ouimet, a 20-year-old sporting shop clerk and fine amateur golfer, thrashed the invincible British duo in an 18 hole playoff. It was the greatest upset in the short history of American golf and the beginning of the end of British dominance in international golf. From 1914–18, during the ‘War to End All Wars', golf in the British Isles and France came to a virtual stop.

When the war was over, Europe's greatest international competitors – Vardon and Taylor at 48 and 47 years old, were past their prime, while their fellow Open champions, Ted Ray and Arnaud Massy (who had kept his eye in shape hurling grenades at Verdun) were both 41.

THE FEATHER THAT BROKE THE CHAMPION'S STREAK

In 1920, Vardon and Ray returned to the United States to play another series of exhibition matches (they only lost one in 1913), with a secret agenda which was to see if one of them could lift another United States Open Golf Championship title. The chances were slim. Having sat out four war years, the rusty British duo lacked practice against top competition, which was emphatically not the case of their colonial cousins. More telling still, was the emergence of Walter Hagen, Mike Brady, and the young brilliant amateurs Francis Ouimet, Bobby Jones and Chick Evans. American golf had improved beyond belief since their tour six years earlier.

Worse yet, as the New York Times headlines screamed, Harry was hurt. Vardon, who had celebrated his 50th birthday on board the White Star liner Celtic, egged on by Ted Ray, his bon vivant boozing buddy, and Jim Barnes (who would win the US OPen in 1921) had joined in a pillow fight with the other passengers and suffered a severe sprain to his right thumb. Ray (probably nursing a raging hangover) and Vardon, nursing a heavily bandaged hand (described by the press as ‘crippled'), were met at the dock by their agent, who shared the glad tidings that their first match would be played that afternoon.

From left to right. Tommy Armour, Francis Ouimet, and the redoubtable Vardon in action

Did the Jerseymen give up? Plead injury? Cancel the match and tour? Not on your Nellie. This was a generation when golfers were men who gritted their teeth and played through pain. The thought of travelling with an entourage of physiotherapists, mental trainers, club fitters and testosterone consultants, would have sent them howling to the nearest bar. They simply got on with it. Let's be honest. Can you really picture any of our pampered pros today having Vardon's guts? Of course you can't. Hit on the big toe with a pillow, he'd be cloistered somewhere in a private clinic chewing pain-killers while watching his agent prepare a lawsuit against the chicken farmer responsible for the culprit feathers.

GENERATIONS OF GENTLEMANLY LOSERS

Now we're getting to the heart of the disastrous British record in the United States Open. Post-Vardon and Ray, British golfers simply didn't have a winner's mindset – the toughness it takes to play in America in the toughest of tournaments. First there's the matter of distances. From St Andrews to Sandwich, it's 550 miles. That's about two-thirds the way across Texas. Yet American pros regularly piled into jalopies with tread-bare tyres, boiling radiators and suspensions like ox carts, to drive from Texas to Illinois, or North Carolina to California; pooling gas money, sharing crummy $2.00 motel rooms and living off hamburgers, Cokes and beer. And every single one of them was convinced that he had the game it took to get the lion's share of prize money.

The gentlemanly game was fine when playing at home – but not against the Yanks. From the 1920s through the 1940s, American champions came from the caddie yards where they honed their short game. They were ready to carry double twice a day for 20 bucks and then risk the lot on a single drive, putt or hole. They were masters of the scrambling recovery, and unlike the Brits, who philosophically wrote off a dubbed shot, never stopped trying to get a stroke back.

Brought up in a meritocracy, and not the stifling social structure of Britain, each and every American pro believed that he could make his golfing dreams come true. There was no hidebound tradition to fight, no golfing dogma that couldn't be challenged, no establishment other than that of the moneyed, conservative country clubs, which could impose codes and strictures. Vardon and Ray, set their own rules, negotiated their purses and took on and beat all comers. Vardon even challenged the establishment dress code, wearing knickers when golf professionals, by tradition, were expected to wear long trousers. In retrospect, it's not surprising Harry did so well in America where, with his independent character and generous nature, he was a fish in water. Perhaps it was the complexity of his private life that kept him from making a permanent move across the pond, like so many other British pros.

The 50-year-old Harry Vardon and 43-year-old Ted Ray were the Old Guard, made of sterner stuff than today's lot – champions who acted like champions. In 1920, after years of idling motors, as a test ride they took on the former US Open champs, Alex Ross and Walter Hagen in a 36 hole best ball match. With a professionally crafted three under par, the British duo won handily, 3&2. In the Open, however, Vardon reverted to his chronic miserable putting and Ted Ray was able to snake away the title by a single stroke strokes. Incredible as it seems, this was to be the last true British victory in the US Open for 50 years!

The British golfing malaise spread to the Walker, Ryder and Curtis Cups. Over decades, time and again (with rare exceptions) the British team was thrashed by the United States. It seemed like the misery would never end, but it finally did – in an unexpected and spectacular manner. The year was 1970; the place, Hazeltine Golf Club in Chaska, Minnesota. The hilly 7,151 yard course was characterised by narrow fairways, blind approaches and small fast greens – not exactly everybody's cup of tea. And then there was the wind and bitingly cold weather. Dave Hill, asked how he found the course, famously replied, “I'm still looking for it.” What did it need? “Eighty acres of corn and a few cows.”

SAINT GEORGE FROM POTTERS BAR

Despite having been the winner of the Jacksonville Open Invitational in 1968, the man of the hour – more swinger than farmer – was virtually unknown in America, a curly-haired pro with a charming smile, playing out of Potters Bar in the Midlands. The conditions at Hazeltine appeared to have been made for his game, which was so sharp when he hit the New World shores, he probably could have broken par at Pebble Beach playing barefoot with only a five iron. Tony Jacklin was on a roll. In 1969, he had become the first British player for 18 years to win the Open Championship and the world was his oyster.

During four days of appalling playing conditions at Hazeltine, Tony simply decimated the competition, winning by seven strokes over Dave Hill, who was the only other player in the field to manage par or better. To put his superb performance in perspective, Gary Player, Tommy Aaron, Bobby Nichols, Jack Nicklaus (who had an 81 on the first day) and Arnold Palmer, all finished 20 or more strokes behind him! It was the first victory by a British-born player in the US Open tournament since 1927, when Tommy Armour, who had moved to the States in 1920, took the title.

Armour, who became a naturalized US citizen in the early 1920's, was, himself, an indomitable scrapper, scaling the ranks from Private to Major in the Tank Corps during World War I. As the result of a mustard gas explosion, he permanently lost sight in his left eye and had metal plates in his head and left arm. But, fierce concentration, a winner's mentality and brilliant iron play skills brought him not just the US Open title but, in 1931, the greatest of them all, the Open Championship.

Following Jacklin's victory in the US Open, hopes soared. Could this be the signal for a new era of British champions? It wasn't to be. Two factors put paid to millions of dreams. The first was the irrepressible Lee Trevino. In 1972, on the 17th hole of the final round of the Muirfield Open Championship, with Tony Jacklin safely on the green, ‘Super Mex' casually slapped at his ball, which bounced and rolled into the hole. It visibly shattered the British golfer's nerves, who three putted, finished the tournament in third place, and never again won a major. In many ways, what happened in 1973 was worse still. Jacklin finished at the top of the UK money list, and thanks to endorsements, prize money and business deals, was suddenly wealthy. For the young man from a working class Midlands family, monetary success and early fame were poison to his golf game. It didn't fall apart, but simply dribbled away. The sparkle and intense will to win that had accompanied his brilliant play since 1967, simply vanished.

MONTY,THE BRIDESMAID

Over the 40 years post-Jacklin, less than a handful of British golfers have made a serious run at the US title. One of these was Nick Faldo. In 1988, at the Country Club in Brookline (where the British decline had begun, 74 years earlier), Faldo shot a fine six under par over four rounds, only to lose in a playoff to Curtis Strange, 71 to 75.

Another almost successful Open challenger, renowned for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, is Colin Montgomerie, the nation's perennial bridesmaid. In the 1994 US Open at the Oakmont Country Club, Monty played four rounds in 4 under par to make it into a three-way playoff. A spluttering staggering, simply dismal 78 saw him eliminated from the final playoff, eventually won by Ernie Els. Ten years later, seemingly undiminished by losses that would have crushed lesser mortals, Monty, playing his ‘A Game' on the Winged Foot West Course, was only a stroke off the pace at the end of the second round. A 75 on the third day should have taken him out of the competition but, incredibly, scores ballooned and to his astonishment, he found himself tied with Ian Poulter, Steve Stricker and Vijay Singh for fourth place – only three strokes off the pace.

On the 17th hole of the final round, Monty canned a masterful 75-foot putt, to be in perfect position to wrap up the title. All that remained was to par No. 18. The leader at 285, Geoff Ogilvy (who claims kinship to Robert the Bruce), was sitting in the clubhouse when Monty and Jim Furyk arrived on the 18th tee. The Aussie had showed his class and iron nerves with a chip in from off the green on the 17th, and then holed a downhill six footer on 18 to cling to leadership. The Sassenachs – Jim Furyk and Phil Mikelson and Scotland's pride, Colin Montgomerie, all professionals with decades of experience competing at the highest level of competitive golf– confidently strode to the 18th tee. Each knew that a bogey would force a playoff with Ogilvy.

Mickelson, looking for his third straight major championship, was up. Phil missed the fairway with his drive, bounced a shot off a tree and ended up double bogeying the final hole. Jim Furyk missed his five-foot bogey putt. Even the most doubting Thomas suddenly felt that Monty's years in the wilderness had finally come to an end. His drive, perfectly placed down the middle of the 18th, left British mouths dry, and hearts hammering. It was all set up now.

Monty was faced with a straightforward, relatively short approach shot: “I switched from a 6 to a 7, he later said. I thought adrenalin would kick in. I usually hit the ball 10 yards further in that circumstance. I caught it slightly heavy and it went slightly right. It was a poor shot, no question about that, and I put myself into poor position.”

It was worse than poor – it was pathetic – reminiscent of the 1986 Scottish side, accused of doping in the World Cup. ‘What were they taking, one disgruntled sportswriter asked, Valium? Geoff Ogilvy, incredulous, watched from the clubhouse as Furyk bogeyed and Mickelson and Montgomerie each took a six on the par-four 18th hole. “I think I was the beneficiary of a little bit of charity,” he observed.

DOES BRITAIN HAVE THE GHOST OF A CHANCE?

One thing's certain: At 43, Monty can't be compared to Ted Ray at the same age and not even with Harry Vardon at 50. Montgomerie, all things being equal, somehow lacks that indefinable quality of luck and conviction that has enabled lesser golfers to snatch big prizes from under his nose. So let's not count on him to make a comeback in the US Open. Who does that leave as the torch bearer of British hopes? Or more to the point, is there a golfer in Great Britain capable of beating Woods, Stricker, Geoff Ogilvy, Jim Furyk and Phil Mikelson on a course as tough as Pebble Beach?

The answer, emphatically, is yes. Top prospects, include Paul Casey, Luke Donald, Ian Poulter and – after his win with a phenomenal last round 62 at Quail Hollow – Rory McIlroy. All have a great chance. But, barring injury and the unexpected, Britain's greatest hope surely has to be Lee Westwood – long overdue for his first major, and still smarting at the way he closed out the TPC. At 36, packing 200lbs on a muscular six-foot frame, Westwood has the power, stamina and experience to take on the challenge of Pebble Beach. He also has 14 years of professional tournament competition and an outstanding record in the Ryder Cup. Since 2008, Lee has had third place finishes in the Open, US Open and PGA Championship, and this year came within a stroke of winning the Masters. And, on a course that demands pin-point positioning off the tee, if Lee can restore his reputation as one of the finest drivers of a ball in the history of the game he will surely put himself in contention to win.

And he would be a fitting successor to Jacklin. The boy from Worksop might just be the mean and lean golfer Britain has been dreaming of for 40 years; the one with the guts and the determination to finally bring home the US Open bacon.

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine

 






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