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To tell the truth of it, blunt and straight, you do not become a part of golfing history by winning the Thunderbird Classic, the Buick Open and the Cleveland Open, even when the first-prize money adds up to $48,000 and you do it all in a period of four weeks in one of the most successful and rewarding streaks of golf a player has ever produced. Two weeks ago Tony Lema had just accomplished these things and was trying to decide whether or not he should go to the British Open. He had announced publicly that he was going, but privately he was vacillating. "First he is going and then he isn't," his wife Betty complained. "I don't know and, believe me, neither does he. Tell me, are other golfers like normal people?"
At the last minute abnormal Tony made up his mind. He finished in the Whitemarsh Open late Sunday afternoon, announced, "I just want to see how they operate things over there," and began a mad dash for that most famous golf course in the world, the site of this year's British Open, St. Andrews. Five days later he had found out that the way they operate things over there suits him fine. He had also won the Open with a brilliant display of nerve and intelligence, won over the dour Scottish galleries and won himself something he never had before, a historic championship.
His victory was more of a rout than a win, and the way he achieved it tells a great deal about Tony Lema. It had been said in the previous week in the U.S. that it would be very difficult for a golfer to play at Whitemarsh and still have a real chance to win the British Open. Arnold Palmer—at a point when he was still going for the Grand Slam—felt it would be all but impossible to win at St. Andrews, because the long flight and Wednesday starting time would give U.S. golfers only two practice rounds in which to get acclimated to the much different conditions of British golf. Lema was in an even worse position, for he had never played a round of golf in the British Isles, much less at St. Andrews. "Believe me," he said before he left, "I'll take a close look at the course on Monday and Tuesday. I may even take notes." As a rule, Lema is not a note taker—"If I had to carry a notebook I would quit the game," he has said—and he scorns repeated practice rounds on a course, even before major tournaments. "One reason," he says, "is that I have very good depth perception. I can usually tell how far I am from a target even if I have never played the course before." He is, in short, a fast study where learning a golf course is concerned.
So, far from being worried, Lema arrived in Scotland in his normally buoyant and confident frame of mind. He also arrived to be greeted by one Tip Anderson, the caddie Arnold Palmer had used while winning two British Opens and finishing second another time. Palmer had suggested that Lema hire him, and Lema had. ( Lema also had the now-famous putter Palmer gave him two months ago. It provokes Lema to be asked about the putter. He smashed his own—as golfers sometimes do—after some misadventures in the Oklahoma City Open, and ended up liking an old one of Palmer's. Lema has putted superbly since getting it, but will thank you to remember that the man waving the putter has something to do with the ball going into the hole.)
Lema soon learned that he was not going to have to take any notes about the course, for Tip Anderson was all the notes any man would need. The bookies, who had installed Jack Nicklaus as the 7-to-2 favorite and Lema second at 7 to 1, had not reckoned with Tip. Meanwhile, Nicklaus, who was also a newcomer to the course, had been following his usual practice of pacing off distances and writing down landmarks, eventually observing that he could not carry enough scorecards to mark down all the bunkers.
The Old Course at St. Andrews is not actually difficult. Cranky is a good word for it and, as with anything temperamental, it can wreak havoc on occasion—and the occasion is often. It presents an enigma which the players who are attracted to it from all over the world never quite fathom. The course is shaped like the upper body and head of a serpent. It stretches out from the first tee beside the forbidding Royal and Ancient clubhouse and the bleak, gray city of St. Andrews, first away from the sea—but never far—and then toward it again. The fairways are pockmarked with the most obscure and vicious bunkers and are flanked with tough whin and rough grass. There are seven enormous double greens that roll with swells like an ocean as a storm subsides. There are other hazards, too, including a railway line running alongside a large part of the course. Diesel and steam engines clatter and toot all day, and jet aircraft from the nearby Royal Air Force station at Leuchars thunder through the sky above. But the biggest challenge to skill and forbearance at St. Andrews is something else—the wind. When it comes shrieking ashore from the North Sea golfers who expect to shoot 68s are glad to get 78s. "The great difference between St. Andrews and a U.S. course," said Jack Nicklaus on Tuesday night, "is that a large portion of the game here depends on luck. If you play a good shot in the States you are rewarded. Here it doesn't necessarily happen that way. But who is to say? This is where the game started. Maybe we changed it."
Three significant things happened during the first round on Wednesday. First, Lema drew an early tee-off time and found himself playing in a stiff wind, but no worse than that. Second, at the urging of his caddie, he played without his wedge, deciding to hit low pitch-and-run shots into the greens. Most American pros would as soon tee off at the Masters in bathing trunks as play a tournament without using a wedge, since they like the club for everything from 120-yard pitch shots to stirring their iced tea. No one knows what psychological torment it cost Lema to take Tip's suggestion, but he did, and he managed to shoot a good one-over-par 73. About the time he was finishing, Nicklaus was teeing off, and the third thing happened. The wind changed from a gale to a near hurricane. Nicklaus had talked about luck at St. Andrews, and now this was the worst kind. As the wind reached its furious crescendo, with gusts up to 65 mph, Liang Huan Lu, a Hong Kong pro who weighs only 124 pounds, was blown on his back as he yelled, "Typhoon!" The Royal and Ancient's club secretary, Brigadier Eric Brickman, D.S.O., rushed to keep the press tent from becoming airborne, while out on the wild 9th hole players were being showered with salt spray from the sea. Nicklaus, who got a tee shot up into the wind and drove the 381-yard 18th hole, came in with a 76. "I putted awful," he said. "My eyes kept watering. The sand kept getting in my eyes, and the wind kept blowing me over."
In addition to the wind, the course was also hard and fast. Fortunately, the tournament committee was careful to sec that the greens were not cut too short. "If we had had them cut down," said Committee Chairman Gerald Micklem, "it would have been impossible." Equally impossible in these conditions would have been the American ball, and the American players turned gratefully to the smaller British one. At one time Lema said he would like to be playing with marbles. "If we had played with the big ball," exclaimed Jack Nicklaus, "I doubt if we would have finished."
The second day it continued to blow hard, and Nicklaus went around in 74 strokes, which was not bad, considering that 40 of his shots were putts. It was the most putts for a round that Nicklaus had taken since turning pro. Chagrined, he spent two hours practicing his putting in the late afternoon, by which time Lema had come in with an excellent 68 and taken the tournament lead.
Tony was unmistakably inspired. He had openly admitted that he felt at St. Andrews like a new boy at school, one who was not at all sure he belonged. But the spectators were warming to him, and these were spectators who don't warm easily. Lema had shown in several tournaments that he had the nerve to play for big money, much more than he could win at St. Andrews, where first place is worth only $4,200. He had won five times that with a single putt. But now he was playing for something less tangible, and he sensed it in front of his big Scottish gallery.