James Lawton: From Old Tom to Tiger, 150 years of the Open have brought intrigue, passion – and glory

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It was entirely to be expected that no place on earth this week could have rivalled the readiness with which the old grey town accepted that if Tiger Woods is flawed as a man he remains, almost certainly, unsurpassable as a golfer.

In the long run of history, that is, and where do we better look for perspective on a strictly golfing matter than at the very home of the game – and the seat of an alternative religion?

Terrible denouncements of sin have been launched from local pulpits and barely a mid-iron from the 18th green here five centuries ago a Protestant martyr preferred to submit to the flames than surrender his principle. But golf, they have long understood in the linksland, is a broader church where redemption is just a sublime drive and a chip and a putt away, and rarely have the authors of such deeds been celebrated more fervently than in these last few days.

It may be that in his astonishingly complete victories here in 2000 and 2005 the Tiger announced himself as the supreme performer in the 150 years of Open play, which started in Prestwick in 1860 and are being celebrated here this weekend. However, on Thursday when the young Ulsterman Rory McIlroy announced his potential to become one of the great characters of golf's oldest and richest tournament, it was as though every gentle breeze whispered the name of one of the champions who invade the memory each Scottish and English summer.

The Morrises, Senior and Junior, winners of eight of the early Opens, Arnie Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Ben Hogan, Tom Watson, Lee Trevino, Seve Ballesteros, Greg Norman and Sir Nick Faldo...they jostle each other in the power of their games or the relentlessness of their natures or both.

Which was the best of them and the greatest of the contests? There could be no superior debate over a single malt and water from an old barrel and there was one in a pub on Market Street the other night that burned as enduringly, but less conclusively, as the fire which took six hours to extinguish the martyr.

Maybe there might have been a consensus for Tom Watson if he had made good on his extraordinary promise to win at Turnberry last year – 32 years after he beat Jack Nicklaus in the "Duel in the Sun" which not only gave him the old Claret Jug but a piece of the great man that, most good judges including the Golden Bear, believed was never again quite replaced.

There were great serial champions after Tom Senior and Tom Junior but sometimes a man could come, like Caesar, and see and conquer and forever be remembered for the scale of his impact. That was Ben Hogan at Carnoustie in 1953, a man of such nerve and confidence that some would never have looked beyond him when they came to judge the greatest of the champions.

Bobby Jones, the father of the US Masters, the first American golfer to rival the demi-gods of the baseball diamond and the gridiron and the ring, took so much back across the Atlantic from his wins at Lytham and St Andrews and Hoylake in 1926, 1927 and 1930; he created a slow-burning mystique for the tournament that was given its most significant momentum in 1961, when the barrel-chested and barrel-armed Arnie Palmer won the first of his two titles at Royal Birkdale.

Suddenly, it was an American vogue, playing a game on land cut from the sea which might have been created on another planet, and the champions from across the Atlantic made a hierarchy of their own. They came tumbling out of a box crammed with characters that would have spiced any Hollywood script.

Sam Snead, hard-drinking, tough-minded. He might have been played by Jimmy Cagney, perhaps while wearing high-heeled shoes. Walter Hagen, the man who said every golfer should take time to smell the flowers, would have made a good part for Jimmy Stewart, drawling philosophically. Al Pacino could have done a decent job depicting Lee Trevino, who hustled on Dallas public courses, sometimes playing with a Coke bottle, and needing to wash out his shirt in his cheap motel room every night. Trevino's low drives ripped through the coastal wind. He arrived in a new, strange environment and captured it for a little while so boldly he threw a rubber snake at Nicklaus.

What Watson threw at Nicklaus in Turnberry was, however, something of more lasting significance. It was a statement of defiance, and brilliance in the wind, and of all the multiple-winners it was the man from the mid-West who perhaps adapted most easily to the new conditions. He played his way around Turnberry with marvellous technique and skill, but it was the way he thought through every shot, and then executed it so perfectly, which drained the fight out of golf's most natural-born winner.

Later Nicklaus said: "It was an unforgettable battle and when it was happening I knew I would never forget. Both Tom and I agreed that such golf was what we born to do, head-to-head, man-to-man, it was a day when you just had to give the best of everything you had. Both of us did that and Tom was the better man."

Nicklaus found himself in a time warp last year when he sat at home and watched his old adversary come so close to making a story that fascinated and beguiled the world of sport so far beyond the fairways of golf. When the 59-year-old was all played out, and the admirable if unglamorous Stewart Cink, prevailed, the mourning came not so much from sentiment but the loss of something which would have put new life into the stride of every man who thought the best time of his life had long come and gone.

It would have been Watson's sixth Open win, coming 34 years after his first and when it was over he shook his head and apologised and said, "The old geezer couldn't do it." He couldn't win, certainly, but he made another contribution to this ritual of sport and life which each year insists that it cannot be missed. The roll of honour and emotion is so massive that if you mention a hero, or even a tragedian like the traumatised Frenchman Jean Van de Velde who seemed to lose possession of his mind for a few haunting minutes at Carnoustie in 1999, another comes bounding into sight, trailing glory or shedding the opportunity of his life.

In the late forties and fifties the men were Bobby Locke of South Africa and Peter Thompson of Australia; between them they colonised the wind-scoured edges of the old country. Before them came the urbane Englishman Henry Cotton – a role for David Niven, maybe – and then after the opening march of the Americans, Greg Norman grabbed the first of his two Opens, a collection so slight it mocked the scale of his talent. When he won his first, in Turnberry, he was so delighted he returned to the 18th green in the dark, cradling the old jug.

Yesterday we had the continuation of the classic situation of the Tiger fighting to show that he had fought through the worst of his crisis, that he was becoming strong again at some of the old familiar places, and the crowd who had earlier refused to pass judgement on the turmoil of his private life warmed in the wind to the prospect of an entirely different kind of assessment – one about the ability of a great golfer to regain his nerve in the most demanding of conditions. He made bogeys on the first two holes and you could feel a shiver going through the galleries.

It was the other side of the Open glory, the shadow falling across the sun that glinted so bright along the shore.

No-one inhabited that kind of light more dramatically, or joyously, than Seve Ballesteros when he won at Royal Lytham in the brilliance of his youth in 1979, when so many successful shots had never been outrageously improbable, and then returned, nine years later when the shadows were beginning to creep in, to beat the fine Nick Price with all of the old charge and flamboyance.

Now we await the last twists of another story with all the old impatience. It is a habit you can pick up over 150 years of a certain quality and intrigue.

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