Champions who have tamed a monster

COUNTDOWN TO THE OPEN: Unique test of St Andrews has produced many outstanding winners in over 100 years of event's history
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The course, the Old Course at St Andrews, is all things to all men. The famous links will stage the Open Championship for the 25th time this week, and once again will emerge as the best-loved and most widely detested of all the world's golf courses.

There will be much talk going into the championship of the current anguish of Severiano Ballesteros, of the relentless will of Nick Faldo last time round in 1990; of Colin Montgomerie and Sam Torrance; of whether Nick Price can repeat last year's victory; and of the Masters champion, Ben Crenshaw, and the prodigy Tiger Woods.

But at the end of the week when one man has achieved his immortality, the course, timeless, will remain.

The power and precision of the modern championship golfer, when the weather is tranquil and the ground soft, will devour any golf course. Then it will become a putting competition. Curtis Strange, who scored 62 round the Old Course in a Dunhill Cup match, made the game seem preposterous. As the locals might well say: "No wind, no rain, it's no golf."

Yet the Old Course has its defences. It has produced a list of Open winners that thunders out of posterity at us; J H Taylor twice, James Braid twice, Bobby Jones - surely the greatest of all golfers - Sam Snead, Peter Thomson, Jack Nicklaus twice, Ballesteros, Faldo among them. All have met its demands.

Jones, given the freedom of the town in 1958, said that if he had taken everything out of his life but his St Andrews experience, he would still have had "a rich, full life".

Pot bunkers are strewn across the course, you could say at random. Some have become antiques, such is the length and soaring flight of the modern champions' shot-making. The terrain flows and surges. It is a place of shelves and swales and deep depressions in the ground. Tees merge into fairways, fairways flow into greens. There is a lack of definition.

The hugeness of the greens provides satanic pin-positioning. There are also man-deep caverns such as "Hell Bunker" on the long 14th and the "Road Bunker" at the 17th, the Road Hole, which is possibly the finest single golf hole in the entire world.

In that bunker in 1978, Tommy Nakajima of Japan ran up a nine on the hole. Asked if he had lost concentration, he said: "No I lost count." And it was at this hole in 1984 that Tom Watson "lost" the Open. Tied with Ballesteros in the very climax of the championship, he hit his long iron approach over green and road, scrambled the ball back, and stood over a 10-yard putt for a par-four. At that moment Ballesteros, up ahead, birdied the last hole from 15 feet. Watson missed his putt.

On that same huge 18th green sloping severely from back-right to front- left, Doug Sanders missed from three feet a putt that would have won the 1970 Open. Instead it meant a losing play-off with Nicklaus. And in 1957 Bobby Locke replaced his ball a club-head away from where it should have been. He was excused - he had won by three strokes.

Back in 1933, Gene Sarazen, defending his title and thinking he needed to win back strokes, went for broke in Hell Bunker and stayed in it. He scored eight, finishing one stroke behind Densmore Shute and Craig Wood.

When Snead triumphed in 1946, he won his Open on that 14th hole. Avoiding Hell Bunker, he made four birdies on the big par-five hole. He finished four strokes ahead of Locke.

Jones demolished the field in 1927 with a first-round 68, the lowest round of that championship. He did it with his putter: holing one from 40 yards at the long fifth, and three other putts of at least 10 yards each.

And in 1955 Thomson, winning his second Open, also had a golden putter - he required three putts on only one green in the 72 holes.

One of the true champions who never did win at St Andrews was Arnold Palmer. The coming of Palmer to the centenary Open of 1960 is said to have revitalised a moribund championship. This is altogether too simplistic, and is less than kind to Locke and Thomson, the great "colonials" who dominated the Open throughout the Fifties.

A convergence of circumstance revitalised the Open. There was the development of television, which allowed the world to watch. There was the emergence of jet travel, making the transatlantic journey quick and simple. There was the end of the Ben Hogan era, with golf seeking a successor.

And there was Palmer. In 1960 he had won the Masters, then the US Open with six birdies over the opening seven holes of the last round, making up seven shots on the day with a final 65. At St Andrews he failed to equal Hogan's "grand slam" year of 1953, losing the Open by one stroke to Kel Nagle of Australia. Conservative play was never a Palmer characteristic. The 17th cost him three bogies, only one par. He went on to win in both 1961 and 1962.

Palmer's swashbuckling philosophy - "If you can hit it, you can hole it" - made him hugely thrilling to watch.

He smoked, he sweated, he hitched his pants, his shirt-tail occasionally flopped out. He liked people and people liked Palmer. He would talk to anyone - bores, drunks, self-seekers. He'd sign autographs endlessly. If he revitalised the Open, he revitalised golf. Have no fear - he'll get the nod from thousands when, silver-topped and 35 years on, he treks up that 18th fairway for the very last time this week.

The Scots, of course, have no greater insight than anyone else to the fine subtleties and keen lines along which champion golfers draw their games. But this is their game, and this, above anywhere else, is their game's place. The ancient town is "given over body and soul" to golf, and at St Andrews in Open week there is a rare magic in the air, one of the enduring wonders of sport.


Year Date Winning total

1873 Tom Kidd 179

1876 Bob Martin 176

1879 Jamie Anderson 169

1882 Bob Ferguson 171

1885 Bob Martin 171

1888 Jack Burns 171

1891 Hugh Kirkaldy 166

1895 J H Taylor 322

1900 J H Taylor 309

1905 James Braid 318

1910 James Braid 299

1921 Jock Hutchison 296

1927 Bobby T Jones 285

1933 Densmore Shute 292

1939 Dick Burton 290

1946 Sam Snead 290

1955 Peter Thomson 281

1957 Bobby Locke 279

1960 Kel Nagle 278

1964 Tony Lema 279

1970 Jack Nicklaus 283

1978 Jack Nicklaus 281

1984 Seve Ballesteros 276

1990 Nick Faldo 270