The strangeness of the tournament probably was caused by the place and the weather. British Opens are infinitely more normal in Scotland. But Royal Birkdale is in England.
Southport lies on the sea a bit closer to the docks of Liverpool than the old cotton patches of Manchester. In character, Southport combines Atlantic City and St. Petersburg, the dunes and scrub around the roller coaster mixed in with the Victoriana of a rather elegant retirement resort. Huge homes, antique shops and rare book stores are also part of Southport. Everything has seen better days, of course, like the Empire itself—and the heat wave drew vivid attention to this fact. It seemed to be another time in history, as the golfers, led by the Nicklaus family, gathered on the lawn of the massive Prince of Wales Hotel every evening in search of a breeze while the hotels and restaurants ran out of ice, then water, then ice again. The windows refused to open and dust formed a filter over the late-setting sun.
Brush fires had never been a part of the British Open before. In all, there would be six, the first on Monday, a practice day. The largest and most dangerous flared during the opening round of the tournament when a cigarette touched off flames in the gorse, wildflower and buckthorn near the 1st fairway and behind the 2nd tee.
The fire threatened the grandstand at the 18th and caused a 30-minute delay in play as smoke rose over the course. Momentarily, it seemed to be a possibility that the whole tented village would go up, taking all those unnecessary Pringle cashmeres with it, not to mention the hit of this year's exhibition, a $2,000 Canadian sealskin golf bag, an item that looked so peculiar most any American golfer would not know whether to stick a club inside it or give it a platter of Tender Vittles.
Most of the talk at the 105th British Open was about the "imbalance" of the Royal Birkdale course. Even under conditions that might have been considered normal—the gale winds Arnold Palmer won in back in 1961—it is not a layout cherished by anyone. Not the players, the press or perhaps even the Royal and Ancient. It is difficult to warm to a course whose design has been changed so often, and which now has wound up with a peculiar par of 34-38—72 (it was a par 73 when Lee Trevino won five years ago). The first 12 holes are fairly similar par-4s and par-3s, either long or short caverns among the dunes. And all four of the par-5s are held back until the final six, with the prevailing wind usually helping on all but one of them. Thus, par for the last six holes was generally thought to be 3 under, at least, with the competitors hitting 230-yard five-irons and praying for the right bounce.
Proper British Open weather is that which the British like to say is "unfit for anyone but a dog or a Scot." The only sign of it was in Friday's third round when the welcome rains came and it got cool for about five hours. Both the weather and the Spaniard made Johnny Miller feel "soggy." But before and after that it was a case of slowly watching the golf course die.
Somebody said the Birkdale greens resembled camouflage jackets. Nicklaus couldn't get a feel for the brown spots, for the speed of them. The fairways were a mottled green and yellow and the cracked earth created an unusual number of ground-under-repair areas. The players spent half their time dropping balls over their shoulders, free of charge.
It was the ground-under-repair rule that led to the embarrassment of the U.S. Open champion Jerry Pate, who was playing in his first British Open. Years from now, when people look at the record book and see his rounds of 73-71-87, they are likely to think that he caught pneumonia the third day. Jerry Pate will remember it as the time he caught a "case of the R and A" and missed the cut.
His trouble really began in the second round when he was very much a contender. After his tee shot at the par-5 15th, Pate was in ground under repair, hopeful of getting the gimme birdies on the road home that might even give him the lead. In ground under repair, normally, the golfer is allowed a free drop two club-lengths from the area, no closer to the hole. But a rather militant R and A official on the scene told Pate he had to go 60 yards backward to a special drop area in high grass, an act which of course would deny him the opportunity to reach the green in 2, and thus blow the birdie he wanted and needed.
"Is this ground under repair?" Jerry asked nicely.