Sam Torrance, with his boxer's nose and brawling game, is at the epicenter of golf in the kingdom. The whole of British golf runs through him, as it ran through Old Tom Morris, Harry Vardon and Bernard Darwin or, in more recent years, Tony Jacklin, Bernard Gallacher and Mark James, the threesome that preceded Torrance as European Ryder Cup captain.
Torrance, 47, earned his place at the core by qualifying for 29 consecutive British Opens; by accepting party invitations by the fistful; by showing up the morning after, ready to play and often playing well; and by winning 21 European tour events, six of them in the British Isles. It is true that he never won in the U.S. and never won a major, but nobody in the home countries cares about that. To the British way of thinking, there is one major, the Open Championship. That and the Ryder Cup are important. That's it.
There was Torrance on July 16, attempting to gain entry into his 30th Open. On that day he was playing in the second round of the 36-hole qualifier on a bumpy, craggy course called St. Annes Old Links, down the road from Royal Lytham. In the first round Torrance shot a 68, four under par, and as he headed for the second 18, a polite gallery of 50 came along with him. It was a lovely sun-drenched day, and Torrance was in a chipper mood. He walked by a gorse bush and listened to its seeds popping like popcorn kernels in a microwave oven.
By the time Torrance played the last few holes, his gallery had swelled to 300, including a man pushing his son in a wheelchair down the middle of the fairway. Torrance shot a 71, decent but not close to being good enough to qualify. Now steaming and silent, he signed scorecards and old Ryder Cup programs by the St. Annes clubhouse—rambling, shabby, perfect—and then placed his big black tour bag in the back of his big black BMW and said, "I'll go home and watch on the telly. No point in me staying here." About the end of his British Open streak, he offered nothing more than a shrug.
Playing alongside Torrance at St. Annes was a 34-year-old Scottish teaching pro named Stuart Callan. Callan was making his annual attempt to qualify. In 10 previous tries he had never succeeded. He is married, the father of two young boys, and on a budget. He was spending his nights at the Sisters of Mercy retreat home in St. Annes—�10 ($14.27) a night—and driving by day with a borrowed ERC driver, his own Ping out of commission with a crack.
Callan was playing with Torrance for the first time, but he had been following him all his golfing life. Callan grew up playing a course outside Edinburgh called Bathgate, where Bernard Gallacher also played, and for a while Callan had the course record, a 64, until Torrance showed up one day in 1992 and toured the place in 58 shots. Now Callan was standing beside the Scottish star at St. Annes as they prepared to play their second shots on the par-5 home hole, easily reachable in two.
Callan had opened with a 70, but he was five under for his second round and figured he needed one more birdie to have a shot at qualifying. He took a long drag on his cigarette and stared down the shot, much the way Torrance used to. Callan was swinging well. For two rounds he had felt Torrance's long, beautiful rhythm infecting his own game. However, this crucial swing was short and quick, and the result was a bad pull-hook. Somehow, he pitched out of the bunker and onto the green. Somehow, he holed the subsequent 25-footer. "The divine intervention of the Sisters of Mercy," he said.
His 66 earned him a playoff berth, five men competing for three Open spots. On the second extra hole, from deep grass off the green, Callan holed a 45-foot chip for birdie, using his putter. He was in. He would play in his first Open. It was divine, all right. By that point Torrance was long down the road, his model rhythm along with him. For the rest of the week Callan would have to play on memory. He would have to close his eyes and recall the famous Torrance tempo and the 70 and the 66 he had shot playing alongside him.
Peter Alliss, the ABC and BBC commentator, was gathering bits of information about the qualifiers. He was not running to the press tent looking up their statistical records or conducting interviews or sending out minions to gather intelligence. Alliss—born to sit in a well-upholstered armchair, one might say—has never been one to run anywhere. He stumbles upon his facts in conversation, tucks them away in the crammed notebook of his brain and uses them in the conversation that is his announcing manner.
He loves the stories of qualifiers. They remind him that the great mid-July championship is a true open, that any golfer can play his way into it. The stories are also useful for filling airtime on Thursday and Friday, days when Alliss has many hours to occupy, days when the qualifiers are certain to be around and the leader board is a meaningless stew.