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Why the British Open is golf's best major

Golf returns to its roots today for the 139th British Open. The tournament and the course (St. Andrews) drips with history. From players such as Old Tom Morris to Tom Watson to the Swilcan Bridge and the Claret Jug, no major tournament has more nostalgia. Here is a look at why we look forward to the British Open every year.

Five reasons why the British Open is golf's best major

1. The courses: It takes less than five seconds to know you're watching the British Open. The grass is a greenish brown. The bunkers are mostly holes in the ground. There isn't a tree in sight, and the greens are bigger than some public parks. The wind is usually howling, and if it's not raining, then it's probably 50 degrees. And that's what they call summer. What a completely different piece of earth than we're used to in the United States.

2. The coverage: It's on early in the day. You wake up in the morning, drag yourself to the kitchen and start thinking about the day. Then it hits you: "Oh yeah, the British Open is on.'' You click on the TV just in time to see somebody named Padraig or Ian hitting out of a 10-foot deep fairway bunker. The next five or six hours is taken care of.

3. The international field: There are 156 players from 21 different countries in this year's event. There is a good chance a few international players you've never heard of will be near the top all week. No other major boasts this many foreign players, which makes it a true test of the world's best.

4. The history: The town of St. Andrews goes back more than 600 years. St. Andrews University was founded in 1413, and the track of land that is now the course was routed shortly after. The first Open was played in 1873. The buildings and clubhouse on the course are hundreds of years old. It was a challenge 150 years ago, and it's a challenge today.

5. The arrogance: We call it the British Open, but they call it The Open. The winner of the Claret Jug, which dates to 1873, is called The Golf Champion. Not the Masters Champion or the U.S. Open Champion, but The Golf Champion. It's the best golf tournament in the world because they say it is.

The home of golf

The Royal and Ancient Golf Club at St. Andrews (Old Course) is not just a public golf course in Fife, Scotland. It is considered the birthplace of golf and a destination for any serious golfer. The first written record of golf being played at the Old Course dates to 1574. The "New'' Course was built in 1895.

This is the 28th British Open to be played on the Old Course. There were eight played at St. Andrews during the 1800s alone. The last was held in 2005, when Tiger Woods won by five strokes and Jack Nicklaus played in his 164th, and final, major.

Players either love it or hate it.

"I fell in love with it the first time I ever played it," said Woods, who also won at St. Andrews in 2000.

"Worst piece of mess I've ever played," PGA pro Scott Hoch said.

St. Andrews and its links style are certainly an acquired taste. First-timers usually don't fare very well mainly because the course is so different than others in the world.

Quirks

• Seven greens are shared by two holes. Only the first, ninth, 17th and 18th holes have their own greens.

• The course can be played clockwise or counter-clockwise. It is mostly played counter-clockwise, although on some occasions it is played clockwise.

• The course is closed on Sundays (except for the Open, of course). And on some Sundays, it is turned into a park for townspeople.

• The road hole. It's the par-4, 17th hole, which forces you to actually drive over part of the Old Course Hotel and Golf Spa. Then the second shot has to be short of the green or players risk landing on a road right behind the hole, which is in play. There is also the famous road hole bunker by the green. It's the signature hole of a quirky course.

• There are no trees.

• Pot hole bunkers. Some can't even be seen from the tee. But landing in one means almost no shot at the green and, more likely, a punch-out to the fairway.

St. Andrews highlights

1873: Tom Kidd wins the first-ever British Open at St. Andrews with a two-day score of 179. The rain-soaked course was the reason for the highest two-day total to ever win a major tournament.

1970: Jack Nicklaus wins the first of his two titles at St. Andrews (and second of three British Opens overall) when Doug Sanders bogeys the final hole and forces a playoff. Nicklaus wins an 18-hole affair the next day. Nicklaus also wins there in 1978.

1984: Seve Ballesteros overcomes a two-shot deficit on Sunday to defeat Tom Watson and Bernhard Langer by two strokes and win one of his three British Opens. Ballesteros freezes out both by making par on the 17th and birdie on the 18th.

1990: Nick Faldo sets a course record with an 18-under 270 to beat Payne Stewart and Mark McNulty by five shots.

1995: John Daly overpowers the Old Course for his second major championship. He closes with 71 for 6-under 282 and appears to have the Open wrapped up when Costantino Rocca, needing birdie on the 18th hole to force a playoff, duffs a chip. Rocca, however, rolls in a 60-foot putt across the Valley of Sin. Daly wins the four-hole playoff by four shots.

2000: Woods is 24 when he wins his first British Open and breaks Faldo's course record with a four-day total of 269. All four rounds are in the 60s, and he doesn't find a single bunker during the tournament, winning by eight shots.

In case you were wondering …

• That ancient-looking stone bridge on the 18th fairway is called the Swilcan Bridge. It crosses over the Swilcan Burn, which runs from the first to the 18th hole. It was originally built because it was part of the usual route from the town to the harbor area in the Eden estuary. Now it's every golfer's photo op.

• St. Andrews locals played the course for free until 1946. Now they pay $200 per year. Guests, which account for 40 percent of play, pay about $218 per round.

• Yes, the road behind the 17th green is functional. Traffic is shut off during the tournament. But otherwise, it is used by the townspeople.

• This is actually the 150th anniversary of the British Open. But 11 times, the tournament was not played in consecutive years.

Rodney Page can be reached at page@sptimes.com.

FAST FACTS

139th British Open

When: Today-Sunday

Where: St. Andrews (Old Course), 7,305 yards, par 72

TV: Today and Friday —
4 a.m. to 3 p.m., ESPN.
Saturday — 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., ESPN. Sunday —
6 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., ESPN.

FAST FACTS

139th British Open

Field: 156 players (147 professionals, nine amateurs)

Prize money: 4.8 million British pounds (approximately $7.3 million)

Winner's share: 850,000 pounds (approximately $1.3 million)

Defending champion: Stewart Cink

Why the British Open is golf's best major 07/14/10 [Last modified: Thursday, July 15, 2010 7:50am]

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