It’s the return of an old friend, one who has been missed. Good to see you pal. Welcome back.
The Claret Jug, to give it its proper name, the most famous red wine receptacle in golf, is the slightly battered silver trophy that has been the reward for the winners of the Open Championship since 1872. As the Open is the game’s most revered event as well as the oldest of the four annual greatest prizes so the trophy is one of sport’s most historic, not just golf’s. Half the length of a mid-iron, seven inches wide at the base and fashioned by 19th-century silversmiths from 2.5 kilograms of silver, it is presented to “the Champion Golfer of the Year,” a delightfully antiquated phrase that has been used at the presentation ceremony since time immemorial and has as great an historical ring to it as the 150-year-old trophy itself.
Since Sunday 21 July 2019, the trophy has been in the possession of Shane Lowry, the burly Irishman who grasped it on that sodden afternoon at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland to the delirious delight of his countrymen. His celebrations went on for days and days.
We didn’t realise then how long it would be before another Open was played. We didn’t know that the 148th Open would not be followed 12 months later by the 149th. We didn’t know that COVID-19 was going to rampage around the world causing 4 million deaths and the disruption of many sports. There was no Open last year. It was odd for everyone except Lowry, who became the first man for three quarters of a century to have ownership of the auld jug for more than one year. We didn’t know that it would be two years before the game’s normal rhythm would return, with a Masters in April, a PGA in May, a US Open in June and, finally, an Open in July.
“I’ve always enjoyed playing golf over here. It’s a different style of golf obviously and I just look forward to the colder, windier weather. ... I really enjoy the challenge of trying to think a little more. I fall in love with trying to hit different shots versus trying to work on my swing.”
But now it has. It is only a few days past midsummer in the northern hemisphere, almost the halfway point of the European Tour’s calendar, and the golf world has gathered in Britain for a two-week festival of golf. Midway through this festival we cast a backward look at the Scottish Open that ended yesterday, one many players use as a loosener for the fourth and final major championship of the year. Last week 23 of the world’s top 60 golfers were in action at the Renaissance Club in Gullane, Scotland, acclimatising themselves to Britain’s weather, the time changes and the COVID -19 regulations imposed by the government
“I’m excited to be here,” Jon Rahm, the US Open champion, said. “Sometimes a change in golf is needed. It’s refreshing to be here where it’s not a million degrees like Arizona.”
“There’s no better way to prepare than to play,” said Xander Schauffele, ranked fifth in the world, who finished tied for second in the 2018 Open at Carnoustie. “I’ve always enjoyed playing golf over here. It’s a different style of golf obviously and I just look forward to the colder, windier weather. The greens here (at the Renaissance Club) are dramatic in undulation and slope so you might be pushed towards chipping in certain areas versus the traditional putt around the greens.
“It’s so different for Americans to play over here,” Schauffele continued. “I think that bit of adversity makes you think outside the box and tap more into your imagination. I really enjoy the challenge of trying to think a little more. I fall in love with trying to hit different shots versus trying to work on my swing.”
As well as watching events at the club that is little more than a chip shot from neighbouring Muirfield, we look forward to the 149th Open that will unfold this week at the aristocratic links of Royal St George’s, Sandwich, on the south coast of England and only a few miles from France. Readers of Ian Fleming’s novels about James Bond will note that Bond played and defeated Goldfinger, the villain in the novel of that name, in a match at Royal St Mark’s. This was thinly based upon Royal St George’s where Fleming had been captain elect at the time of his death in August 1964. It will be the 15th Open at this venue that sprawls across 350 of Kent’s acres. The Open is far from the only tournament going on at this time, but it is the one that matters most. Ladies and gentlemen, the doughty links of Royal St George’s on a pimple of England’s south coast awaits you.
What a time to be on this side of the Atlantic. “Oh to be in England now that April’s here,” wrote Robert Browning, the 19th-century British poet, but April could just as easily be changed for July. The Open comes in the middle of the summer season, a time when rowers merge on Henley, 20 miles north west of London, and bystanders in striped blazers and straw boaters cheer them on; a time when cricket is being played at Lord’s and that old ground in the centre of London resounds to cries of “howzat” and “no ball;” a time when an ivy-clad Wimbledon echoes to the sighs and cheers of a top-spun forehand or a delightful drop shot; a time when cyclists’ eyes are fixed on the stamina-sapping Tour de France just across the English Channel, and rugby enthusiasts are anxiously watching the Test matches against South Africa, the world champions, by the British and Irish Lions.
This year there was the added excitement of football’s European Championship in which England reached the final (for the first time at a major competition since winning the World Cup in 1966) and more than 30 million people, more than half the population of the UK, watched on television on Sunday evening. Had England won, there would have been a holiday on the following day. As it was they lost in a penalty shootout to a crack Italian side.
You don’t have to be British to get all this. You don’t have to eat scones and drink Earl Grey tea at 4 o’clock in the afternoon to like visiting a country that has villages named “Pishill” or “Bourton-on-the-Water” or “Moreton-in-Marsh,” though it helps. You just have to like sport, but particularly golf and particularly golf in Britain.
Justin Thomas is one who does, who embraces the experience of golf in these islands and the curiosities that make life here so distinctive. “One of my fondest memories was two years ago when myself, my dad and Kevin Kisner came for the Scottish,” Thomas said last week. “It was our first day here and we needed to stay awake. We knew that if we lay on the couch we were toast. We went to North Berwick, took some trolleys and went out and played 18 holes and then went to the pub and had a couple of pints. We really enjoyed the whole experience. You don’t often, in fact never, go to a golf tournament in the States and get in a day early and want to go play golf somewhere.”
This year the players have to deal not only with the most southerly of the courses on the Open rota as well as one of the most undulating, but one where there is always the possibility of strong winds, some roaring in from the east. Strong wind is ever present at Open courses, many of which might seem rather lightly defended on a calm day, but the one that blew in at Sandwich on a day during the 1938 Open was special even by the highest standards. The exhibition tent was blown out to sea. “I was staying in an hotel on the sea front at Deal,” Henry Longhurst, the noted golf correspondent, wrote “and I woke on the last morning with the curtains blowing in horizontally at the window. Outside the sea was swishing and roaring and boiling and dashing itself against the promenade. I leapt out of bed and saw a really splendid game blowing up.”
There are other distinctive aspects to this Open but the most relevant one this year is that players have to deal with the COVID-19 requirements set in place by the British government. They are stricter than those in the US, and this has caused a few eyebrows to be raised among visiting Americans.
“There’s definitely some concerns,” Rickie Fowler said before leaving the United States. “Guys have been talking to me or have been talking to other guys, been making calls or sending texts back and forth with some of the people with the Open … Obviously we’re all going into our own small bubbles and can’t be around other players. It seems like us as players, we’re jumping through some hurdles and dodging bullets and they’re having 32,000 fans a day at the tournament, so I don’t know.”
But the Scottish Open, one of the European Tour’s Rolex Series events, went ahead last week just as the Open will go ahead this week. On Sunday afternoon, probably in a watery sun, someone will hold up the claret jug and be named “the champion golfer for 2021.” It will mark the end of the Festival of Golf and the sense that a circle has been squared will have occurred.
Welcome back Claret Jug.
Top: Shane Lowry