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July 14, 2013

Loran Smith: Anticipating wind, water and memories

Golf’s third major of the season takes place this week at one of the classic venues of British Open competition. But there is a different feel to this tournament no matter which course is up in the rotation.

You feel the wind, often accompanied by rain, coming off the ocean. All British Open courses are links courses that lie near the sea. Everything is old, sage, seasoned, weathered and charming.

Even when you have been here for decades, you experience a rekindling of gripping emotions that remind you of when hickory shafts were as standard as hot tea in the land of our forebears.

Mustachioed men played in plus-fours, ties and sports coats, hitting balls off the tee at the prodigious length of 175 yards — even with the wind.

Oh, the wind! What a wonderful feature to this championship.

When you hear the British fans speak of a “freshening breeze” coming about, you know the competition just got tougher. When the seagulls loiter overhead and you see the wind whip them about as they hang aimlessly aloft, it brings appreciation to this notion: In no golf competition is club selection and execution into the breeze more challenging than when the championship is played in Scotland, the long-recognized home of the game.

Weather patterns, however, have changed over the years. I can remember the 1978 Open at St. Andrews, when thermal underwear, sweaters, and a winter sports coat made you also wish for hand warmers. It was akin to November football conditions. Today you are comfortable, more often than not, with a long-sleeved shirt, sweater and summer sports coat.

At Birkdale one year, a heat wave descended on the country. People, especially visitors from other lands, were scrambling to find short sleeves, putting away their sweaters and wind cheaters. That became the “uncomfortable” Open. You never expect that in Scotland, which is hosting the tournament for the first time in three years, the last two having been played in England at Sandwich and Royal Lytham.

That old line suggesting there are times when you can experience the four seasons in one day is apropos of Scotland. There is an abundance of daylight in the summers in the United Kingdom — 17 hours or more — and so you can play golf as late as 10:30 in the evening. This allows for a lot of tee times in a day at the Open championship, which is why weather can be such an unrelenting factor.

A player might get in his opening round under benign conditions in the first round and have the weather do an about-face the next day, giving him a break in the weather both rounds — wind and the elements in the afternoon of the first round, with those conditions falling in the morning during the second round. That can be unfortunate for some competitors who wind up in the “wrong” time of the competition, but usually the players of championship caliber find a way to manage the conditions.   

Arriving here for the Open championship brings about a bittersweet circumstance. For years, I came to the tournament knowing my friends Furman Bisher, longtime columnist of the Atlanta Journal, and Denis LaLanne, golf writer for the French sports daily L’Equipe, would be here for the competition. Almost daily, especially early in the week, we would find a gem of a course nearby where we could get in a quick round before going to the championship, writing a column and finding an arresting pub for dinner — fish and chips, perhaps, and several pints of lager.

You can only attach yourself to this experience and atmosphere at the Open championship.

Coming here alone for more than a half-dozen years (both Bisher and LaLanne retired some time back), I am saddened about the absence of my friends. It is a downer not to see them in the giant press tent. Bisher crossed the Atlantic past his mid-80s, and I believe he would have continued indefinitely had the Atlanta Journal-Constitution continued underwriting his expenses.

He was seriously affected by the Scottish influence. You would find him out on the course, bracing the wind and rain just like the Scots, eschewing the warmth and comfort of the press tent. Bisher, who died at 92 still writing columns, had a native’s attachment and loyalty for the Scottish national game. His writing showed that.

I wish that he and LaLanne were still like the breezy weather at the Open.

Always hanging around.

Loran Smith is a contributing columnist for The Daily Citizen. You can write to him at loransmith@sports.uga.edu.

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