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Wednesday, July 10, 2013
The Open played on unique stage

By Farrell Evans
ESPN.com

In 1953, Ben Hogan played in his one and only Open Championship. When the stoic Texan won that year at Carnoustie, he became the only player to ever win the Masters, the U.S. Open and the Open Championship in the same year.

This was the crowning achievement of a career that had been threatened by a horrific car accident in 1949. Through years of balking at making the journey across the Atlantic, Gene Sarazen and Bobby Jones had warned him that his career would not be complete until he won golf's oldest championship.

By 1953, the U.S. had replaced Europe as the center of the golf universe. Most of the best players in the world were now Americans. And in just 20 years, a little invitational conceived by Jones in Augusta, Ga., had become one of the most venerated stages in all of sports.

Ben Hogan
Ben Hogan played The Open only once -- and he won in 1953 at Carnoustie.

The Open Championship, or the British Open, as many Americans know it, had been seen by many American players as the one major you could miss, the only grand slam event not on American soil. The concerns that Hogan had about playing in the tournament -- the cold and windy conditions, the food, the costly travel expense and the quirks of links golf -- were the same squabbles that American players continued to have through the years about the championship.

"The tradition of this tournament doesn't mean anything to me compared to the States," Scott Hoch said at Royal Birkdale in 1998.

Hoch called the Road Hole at St. Andrews "awful" and "against the rules of golf."

"Where else do you not get to drop off a paved road?" Hoch said. "I'm not one who believes that just because it's tradition makes it right. If it applies everywhere else in the word, it should apply there."

Most players weren't as candid as Hoch. Instead of complaining about the Open venues, they just didn't go or try to qualify.

As a kid in the 1980s, Jack Whitaker's voice on ABC was, for me, synonymous with the championship. The erudition and literary flourishes that Whitaker brought to his essays instructed me on how to think about this far-away tournament that I had to watch early in the morning on the east coast.

It was a history-laden affair, old-fashioned and proper in a way that made me feel left out in rural central Georgia. This feeling was confirmed when I learned that a British scribe had called Lee Trevino's swing "agricultural."

Whitaker's eloquence, the BBC and the links courses that let players hit some of the run-up shots I knew from the WPA courses I played as a boy were my primary connections to this championship. And the player, seemingly straight out of a P.G. Wodehouse story, trying to hold on to his cap in a 20 mph wind in cold rain in knee-length fescue.

These were the inspiring images that lured me back to our floor model Zenith TV year after year for this spectacle across the pond.

Claret Jug
The travel and the changing conditions is all done for one reason -- to hold the Claret Jug.

Coming of age in Greg Norman's prime in the mid-1980s, it was a relief to see him win the '86 Open Championship at Turnberry. But it didn't feel like that victory made up for the disappointments he had that year at the Masters and the PGA.

Over those years, I must have watched Seve Ballesteros dozens of times in his all navy blue outfit hit his approach at the 16th hole from a temporary parking lot in the '79 Open at Royal Lytham and St. Annes. It was always a recording, but it felt live to me every time I saw it. At last year's Open at Lytham, I visited the area where he hit that shot to save his first Claret Jug.

Now after covering a few Open Championships, those early images stay with me. They endure as the tournament has endured for 142 years. What bothered Hogan in '53 about the championship still troubles players in the 21st century. It's the most unpredictable golf of all the four grand slam events. It doesn't always identify the best golfer in the field.

If the 2002 Open had been played in perfect conditions and not in the wind and rain at Muirfield, Tiger might have equaled Hogan's run of three consecutive wins in one year at the Masters, the U.S. Open and the Open Championship.

Only the Open could have produced two consecutive 42-year-old champions: Darren Clarke (2011) and Ernie Els (2012).

American players often try to acclimate themselves to the conditions by coming over early for the tournament, either playing events in Europe or going off on their own excursions to see some of the venues on the nine-course Open rotation. But nothing will prepare them exactly for what they will experience once the event begins a week from now.

Attitudes about the tournament have evolved some since Hogan was at Carnoustie in '53. In Hogan's day, it could take as long as week aboard a large passenger ship to get to Europe. Now the players can get across the pond in a few hours from several airports across the country.

In more modest financial times on the PGA Tour, it was a very expensive trip. Most players didn't typically bring their caddies or families. It's still a more costly venture than the average tour event, but the trip doesn't set these millionaires back as much as it did as recently as the 1980s, when purses were a pittance of what they are now.

Players splurge for the Open Championship for the same reasons that led Hogan to Carnoustie 60 years ago: the history and pageantry of the event.

For me it's still the allure of Jack Whitaker's voice, the swashbuckling Seve in navy blue and the run-up shots that let you land a 7-iron 20 yards in front of the green.

The Champion Golfer of the Year. Its proportions are boundless. Someone will know this feeling anew come next weekend.