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Open evolves since last visit to Portrush

The buildup to the 1951 British Open at Royal Portrush centered around Bobby Locke’s quest for an Open three-peat

PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland – The buildup to the 1951 British Open at Royal Portrush centered around Bobby Locke’s quest for an Open three-peat. At least that was the buzz in golf outside the United States. In America, no one much cared.

After all, there were only four Americans in the field at Portrush, and the most prominent among them was an amateur. This dearth of entries from the States was typical from 1946, when the Open resumed after a six-year absence during World War II, through 1960, when Arnold Palmer made his British debut. Palmer’s runner-up finish at St. Andrews that year, followed by back-to-back victories at Royal Birkdale and Royal Troon, reignited his compatriots’ interest in crossing the Atlantic. There will be 47 Americans competing at Portrush this week.

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The Claret Jug, which goes to the winner of the British Open, sits beside the 5th green at Northern Ireland’s Royal Portrush, site of this week’s 148th Open.

© GOLFFILE/THOS CAFFREY
The Claret Jug, which goes to the winner of the British Open, sits beside the 5th green at Northern Ireland’s Royal Portrush, site of this week’s 148th Open.

Several factors contributed to American disdain toward the British Open during the 1950s. Foremost was the calendar.

The 1951 PGA Championship at Oakmont ended on July 3. The British Open at Portrush was held July 4-6. Similar schedule conflicts were common most years during the 1950s and up until 1972, when the PGA shifted to what would be a 46-year August fixture. For American pros, opting to stay home for the PGA was a no-brainer.

Moreover, the $17,700 PGA purse at Oakmont was nearly four times greater than the £1,700 on offer at Portrush (roughly $4,700 in U.S. dollars). Sam Snead earned $3,500 for his 1951 PGA victory. Meanwhile, the Open winner, Max Faulkner of England, received £300 (about $835 U.S.). Faulkner later acknowledged taking home an additional £200, thanks to betting on himself at the local bookmaker.

The prize disparity reflects the aftereffects of World War II. America was experiencing a booming post-war economy while Great Britain, deeply in debt and struggling to rebuild its manufacturing base, endured high unemployment and other hardships. Gas rationing, for instance, didn’t end until 1950, and sugar rationing lasted until 1953.

Traveling to Europe by air didn’t become commonplace until the early 1960s. Before that, a pro golfer’s trek to the U.K. was a time-sucking and money-losing proposition, at best, made even less appealing because upon arrival, golfers had no guarantee of actually competing for the Claret Jug. Before 1963, there were no automatic exemptions, meaning that all 148 entrants in 1951 had to play two rounds of qualifying, Monday and Tuesday at Portrush’s Dunluce Links and nearby Portstewart Golf Club, with 98 advancing to the 72-hole Open, contested Wednesday through Friday, with 36 holes on the last day. (The field was limited to 100 players, but those who tied for 100th place in qualifying were out of luck. There was no provision for a playoff.)

World rankings began to figure into the exemption equation in the 1980s, and international qualifying was introduced in 2014. Today, there are 28 categories of exemptions, accounting for 110 players in a field of 156 at Portrush. The remaining 46 made it via a series of 12 qualifying events in 10 countries, plus traditional British home qualifying in the form of 13 regional tournaments in late June, followed by four one-day, 36-hole final qualifiers on July 2.

The British Open essentially has been a Scottish affair throughout its history, with only 52 of 148 Opens contested in England or Northern Ireland. (Sorry, Wales.) It’s hard to know what prompted the R&A to experiment with Portrush in 1951, other than the fact that Northern Ireland was enjoying a comparatively peaceful, if not prosperous, post-World War II coexistence with Britain. In any case, it was hailed as a great success.

“This year’s Open Championship will long be remembered as one of the most successful ever held,” the British magazine Golf Monthly pronounced. “It had so much to commend it; it ran so smoothly. A British-born champion emerged; it was played on a truly magnificent links – perhaps the finest test of all our great courses – there were encouraging performances by young players and tremendous enthusiasm was shown by vast crowds. Indeed a happy first appearance in Ireland and at Royal Portrush.”

By the time a return to Northern Ireland would come due, political strife and violence had intensified, and the R&A justifiably demurred. Even after the Good Friday Agreement ended “The Troubles” in 1998, nearly a decade passed before Northern Ireland began to enjoy the social and economic “peace dividend,” easing fears that an Open would be an inviting target for militant “republicans” (those seeking a break from Britain and to unify with the Republic of Ireland).

Yet a return to Portrush remained problematic, given the increasing infrastructure and hospitality demands of major championships in the past five decades. The Dunluce Links at Portrush were deemed universally fit to present an Open-worthy challenge, but there were doubts about the venue’s ability to accommodate TV, traffic and commerce. Much of the credit for resolving those issues goes to Wilma Erskine, Portrush’s indomitable club secretary.

Erskine convinced Portrush members of the benefits of hosting the British Senior Open in 1995-99 and the Irish Open in 2012, which drew a record 126,505 spectators. That 2012 turnout prompted Peter Dawson, the R&A chief executive whose close-to-the-vest demeanor belied his progressive worldview, to get behind Portrush’s bid for the Open.

Erskine had an easier time selling members on a reconfiguration of the Dunluce Links, which entailed the construction of two new holes and freed enough acreage to accommodate the “tented village” for retail and dining, the TV production compound, corporate hospitality, an expanded practice range, as well as the mammoth horseshoe grandstands surrounding the 18th green (formerly No. 16).

The course layout won’t be the only thing unrecognizable to players from 1951.

When Faulkner won, there were no grandstands at Portrush, no restraining ropes and few scoreboards. An estimated 8,000 spectators roamed the grounds for the final 36 holes on Friday; 215,000 are expected at Portrush this week.

Trappings of the game were different, too. Faulkner, daring to dress in bright colors, was a fashion disrupter. The USGA and the R&A had different specifications for golf balls, with a smaller, lighter “British ball” in play at Portrush. It would be five months before the two ruling bodies agreed to outlaw the stymie, the practice of leaving one’s ball on the green when it impeded an opponent’s putting line. Two years would pass before golf appeared live on nationwide TV in the U.S. It was another decade before the “Caucasian only” clause was stricken from the PGA of America constitution.

Considering attitudes of that era, it’s noteworthy that Egypt’s Hassan Hassanein, fresh off a victory in the French Open, competed at Portrush. Here’s Golf Monthly’s description of Hassanein: “He has a finely moulded figure, a graceful swing, hits the ball hard; smiles continually… The wet weather at Portrush was against him as he needs to wears thick spectacles. At Troon last year, the first coloured man to play in the championship, he finished 16 strokes behind Locke, at Portrush he was twenty-three [actually, it was 22] strokes behind Faulkner.”

This week, 26 nations will be represented in the British Open. In 1951, players from 10 countries outside the U.K. were present at Portrush. Golf Monthly’s Frank Pennink was prescient in his assessment of Peter Thomson, a young Australian playing in his first Open. “A score of five over fours (293) – equaling that of Locke – is a remarkable effort for a lad of twenty,” Pennink wrote. “He could become one of the youngest champions ever for his swing is as sound as it is graceful.”

Three years later, Thomson won the first of his five British Opens.

While all eyes were on South Africa’s Locke, America’s Frank Stranahan, known as much for his eccentricities as his golf game, delivered a three-peat as low amateur, at T-12. It was Stranahan’s fourth impressive finish in five Open starts – including a tie for second in 1947 at Hoylake (two years before the R&A began awarding the silver medal for low am). Pennink asserted that Stranahan “played better golf than them all up to the green. The putts simply would not drop… He certainly hit the ball the farthest; consistently thirty yards beyond Faulkner with whom he played on the final day.”

Finishing second, two shots behind Faulkner, was Argentina’s Antonio Cerda, whom Pennink called “the complete golfer, armed at every point.”

Cerda was the second consecutive Open runner-up from Argentina, following Roberto de Vicenzo in 1950 at Royal Troon. Cerda finished top 10 in the next six Opens, including co-runner-up (with Dai Rees, Stranahan and Thomson) to Ben Hogan at Carnoustie in 1953.

“A great artiste, this Cerda,” Pennink wrote. “… At the tenth he played his one bad iron shot in the last round; it left him a steep, downhill lie, with the ball in deep rough. He played a wedge shot with such perfect touch that it pitched on the one place possible for it to run gently to some six feet from the pin. I had thought he would do well to find the green at all.

“When it is remembered that he was almost the last player in the field and had to play in a steady downpour over the last six holes, the splendour of his great effort (70) can be truly appreciated.”

Of course, it wouldn’t be a British Open without players moaning about the luck of the draw. There was a stiff breeze the morning of Round 1, giving way to a “gentle zephyr” in the afternoon, when Faulkner played. Thursday morning was dry; the afternoon wave had to contend with heavy rain.

“In that respect, Faulkner had the luck, but it should not be allowed to detract one whit from his triumph,” Pennink wrote. “He has always been acknowledged as a great shot producer of the ‘shut face’ variety, and I never attributed his last round ‘fade-outs’ to a faint heart; but rather to the carelessness springing from an irrepressible joie de vivre.”

Locke, the putting wizard who was defending titles won at Troon and Sandwich (Royal St. George’s), wasn’t so fortunate.

“Although Locke would be the last person to seek for an excuse beyond the one that he was not good enough, his failure to bring off the hat trick needs some explanation,” Pennink wrote. “We have said, if he had reversed starting times with Faulkner that he might well have been leading the field after the first two days. Whilst it was his putting that saved him on the windy Wednesday morning – twenty seven putts only – it was this department which let him down thereafter.

“He told me that he did not like the spots where the holes were cut; they appeared to be on ridges. This was as near to a good-natured complaint as ever passed this great sportsman’s lips. … Small wonder then, with his major weapon out of gear, that the rest of his game was below its usual standard. It lacked bite, and he was very often short with his second shot at the 400 yard holes. Yet he tried to the very last stroke, and, if anything is certain in golf, it is that he will regain this title which he so gracefully lost.”

Which he did, the next year at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, by one shot over Thomson, and again in 1957 at St. Andrews, where he interrupted Thomson’s run of four Open victories in five years.

So much was different the last time Portrush hosted the Open, but one of Pennink’s observations about Locke has a familiar ring:

“Pity it is, however, that he still plays so slowly – he invariably finished his round three holes or more behind the couple in front. Without, of course, being the intent, it has the effect of spoiling the chances and the enjoyment of those behind.”

Dave Seanor has been a sports journalist since 1975, including a 13-year stint as editor of Golfweek magazine. He has covered golf in 25 countries, including the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. Email: daveseanor@gmail.com