Royal Lytham and St. Anne's, the site of the 103rd British Open, is a lean and dour golf links whose fairways thread their narrow green way between the shallow coastal sand dunes that mark the countryside of Lancashire in northern England. There last week a pair of much glorified Americans ran into some inglorious difficulties, a playoff developed between two of the most dissimilar people ever to confront each other face to face in any sport, and the new champion turned out to be a man whose looks and personality matched the golf course itself, lean and dour Bob Charles of New Zealand.
When he defeated California's plump, bumptious Phil Rodgers by eight strokes in the 36-hole playoff, Charles became the first left-handed golfer ever to win such a major tournament. He thus heartened lefties everywhere who are perpetually uneasy because the world thinks they do things wrong-way-round, and in a different way he heartened all Britannia, for he is the very model of a modern British champion.
Judged by the high-priced, highly polished, show-business standards that prevail in the U.S., British tournament golf seems as out of date as gaslight, but the British like to see the game they founded played their way. Dignity from the players, please. No hat throwing. No shouting. No dancing, no prancing. Just plain, unalloyed golf. Cool as the North Sea and slim as a two-iron, Bob Charles could hardly fit this mold more perfectly. Nor could his playoff challenger have been better cast to give what TV-oriented fans in the U.S. have come to look upon as a vital ingredient of tournament golf: showmanship. When things are going well for Phil Rodgers, he is a waltzing, wisecracking Jackie Gleason of golf. When they are not, he mopes and lets the world mope with him. When he sinks a putt he will shout, clap his hands or march around like a drum major. When he misses he is a Hamlet beset.
"A lot of the time," says Rodgers, "I even take myself by surprise. On the 10th hole of the last round I made a good chip, and before T knew I was doing it I found myself screaming, 'Get in the hole, get in the hole.' "
His stunting seemed to strike the British galleries, trained as they are in the stiff-upper-lip approach to sport, as refreshing. But when they laughed, as often as not it came out as a nervous giggle of embarrassment rather than as a hearty guffaw of pleasure.
They knew how to react to Charles. Somber as an Alp and hardly more talkative, he showed his followers the kind of implacable golf and unchangeable mien that the British had not seen since Ben Hogan won their Open by four strokes in 1953. They had called Hogan the "Wee Ice Mon" and loved him as one of their own. Now here came Charles, who really was one of their own, assuming one is willing to take the British view that New Zealand is as much a part of the homeland as Piccadilly.
Nor was it any freak happenstance that the 27-year-old Charles should hit his way past a field of famed Americans and then slice Rodgers to shreds in a playoff. By far the finest left-handed golfer ever, he had won the Houston Classic in April, had earned $20,000 on the U.S. pro tour this year (SI, May 23) and had the kind of straight, unforced game that was well suited to Royal Lytham and its narrow fairways.
The playoff became a necessity when both Rodgers and Charles finished with 3-under-par 277s on Friday, thanks to pars on the last hole. Rodgers crouched over a 15-foot birdie putt on the final hole of the 36 played that day, needing only to sink it to win the championship. He then hit such a weak, nervous putt that it stopped two feet short. With that he laughed—somewhat shakily, of course. After barely curling in the second putt, he dropped his tweed cap over the hole and rubber-legged his way, vaudeville style, off the green. Charles, who had been partnered with Rodgers, was somewhat shocked at all this. He gazed stonily at his competitor's antics, then stepped forward and rammed in his own four-foot putt to preserve the tie.
In the 36-hole playoff the next day, while his demonstrative opponent was either clapping happily or kicking his putter in anguish, depending on the situation, Charles was calmly one-putting 12 of the first 20 greens to build a seemingly insurmountable margin of five shots. But his lead shrank to one stroke when he hooked a drive out of bounds and Rodgers sank some putts of his own. Then on the 8th hole of the afternoon round, Charles broke Rodgers' last challenge. First, Rodgers rolled in a downhill 50-foot birdie putt and cake-walked ecstatically around the green. Amazingly, Charles stroked in a 30-foot birdie putt of his own. With no more than a flicker of a smile on his face he turned and walked off to the next tee, leaving his caddie to retrieve the ball and Rodgers to try to retrieve his shaken spirit. The caddie got the ball, but Rodgers never got back his composure. While Phil fumed, Charles continued to play impassive, almost flawless golf. He won the gallery over with his efficient dignity, and he won the playoff 140 to 148.
By winning, Charles not only bested an unusually strong field—Arnold Palmer was trying for his third British Open in a row, Peter Thomson his fifth championship, Gary Player and Kel Nagle their second, Jack Nicklaus and Doug Sanders their first—but an extremely tight and trying course. The rough was worse than at the U.S. Open in Brook-line, the fairways were heavily sprinkled with deep, tiny bunkers, and the greens were small and hard, requiring that approach shots land short and bounce toward the hole.