Keeping Score

Yank takes English lessons at British qualifier

NOTTINGHAM, England – My road to the British Open is going to be a long one. It already is, in fact.

First, I boarded a six-hour flight from Pittsburgh to Reykjavik, where I had just enough time to use the water closet (translation: men’s room) and catch a Pokemon (just to say I did it in Iceland). Iceland? I scored a $400 airfare to London on Wow Air, and that meant a stop in, wow, Iceland. 

Mike Van Sickle

Mike Van Sickle

Then I took a 2½-hour flight to London, where I hopped a couple of trains for three more hours, north into the Midlands. The highlight of the rail leg was a quick glimpse of London and the Millennium Bridge. My first thought was, Cool! The bridge from Harry Potter!

A 30-minute ride in one of the black, old-school cabs completed my trip as I finally checked into my hotel near Nottingham at 5 p.m. Friday, having left Pittsburgh at 6 p.m. Thursday. This all leads to Tuesday’s long day: 36 holes of qualifying at Notts Golf Club for the Open at Royal Birkdale.

My first English frustration came in the shower that night, as the lights went out after one minute. Strangely, I had to swipe my key card near the door to even turn them on. The outage happened again the next morning, too. What was going on, I asked the front desk?

“Umm, the key stays in the slot to keep the lights on, and then you take the key when you leave.”

Oh, it’s an energy-saving method. That’s brilliant. I felt a bit dull for not picking up on that. I plead jet lag as a defense, plus being a first-time U.K. visitor.

Late Saturday morning, I grabbed an Uber ride to the golf course to book a tee time and practice. I spent only 15 minutes chipping before Martin, the assistant pro, came up and asked if I fancied a game because he was heading out to play. An opportunity to see the course and get advice? Perfect. A member who was a scratch player also joined us.

One thing about Notts, also known as Hollinwell: It’s not just in Nottingham. It’s actually considered part of Sherwood Forest. Yes, the Sherwood Forest. I noticed some odd rock formations on a hill behind the second green, and Martin asked, “Do you believe in mythical stories?” Before I could offer an enthusiastic, Yes, he said, “Because Robin Hood and his merry men used to sit up there on those rocks.”

Maybe they did. If they come back here Tuesday, they’ll see me make birdie, but on this day, I pounded two drives deep into the heather and was not one of the merry men.

I learned about the Hollinwell name midway through the round. Just off one of the tee boxes, we came to a stream that formed from a natural spring. I watched Martin and the member walk along some stone steps to the creek’s edge, grab a measuring cup attached to a metal chain nailed to the ground and take sips of crystal-clear spring water. I didn’t want to be an American “taffer,” so I followed them and filled my empty water bottle.

The water may have helped. My game looked severely jet-lagged on the front nine, but I scored four birdies on the back. We finished our round to mixed applause and razzing from a group of members sitting on wooden benches around a few tables just off the 18th green.

While Martin went in to the bar to grab us some pints, I introduced myself. Martin returned with drafts of Beck’s – my favorite – and laughed when one member told me, “If you qualify Tuesday, don’t miss your time at Royal Birkdale.” Everyone laughed except for one gent, who was hanging his head.

This poor man was then goaded into retelling his sorrowful tale of qualifying for the 1970 Open at Muirfield, only to mix up his Thursday and Friday tee times. He arrived at the first tee Thursday to find that he was late. Stunned, he asked, How late am I? Five hours late. So, he was out of the tournament. And that would be the only time he would qualify for the Open.

The head pro joined us and sat down with another member, but after a few moments, a loud crack interrupted. The wooden bench on which they were sitting broke, and they tumbled backwards, heels to the sky. An uproar of laughter followed as the prone pro proudly pointed to the pint that he was holding, still half full. “I didn’t even spill a drop,” he said. 

Martin was kind enough to offer me a ride back to my hotel. At his car, he barked, “Other side there, Yank.” I had walked straight to his driver’s-side door, which is on the right in the U.K. I guess you could say that I’m still learning English.

I told Martin that my hotel was in front of a rotary. He laughed and informed me that they’re called roundabouts on this side of the Atlantic. When he dropped me off, he asked what I had planned for tonight.

Tonight, I said, I’m double-checking my tee time.

Mike Van Sickle is a Pittsburgh-based professional golfer who played in the 2016 U.S. Open at Oakmont and leads the Buckeye Tour Order of Merit. His father, Gary, contributes regularly to Morning Read.

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