Some players who make the field in the Open Championship do so by their world ranking, last year's finish in this tournament or a few various other exemptions - but most play their way into the British Open through local or national qualifiers at various courses around the United Kingdom. It is similar to the procedure that the USGA uses for the United States Open.
On Monday, I had the privilege of playing the Littlestone Golf Club in New Romney, which hosted an Open qualifier within the past couple of weeks.
When the USGA conducts its local and regional qualifiers for the U.S. Open, the courses are top notch and the best in our country and most take place at private clubs throughout the U.S. My expectations of Littlestone were similar based on it hosting such an important event.
Let me describe the Littlestone Golf Club for you. This course is a classic British links variety. The clubhouse is old and fairly modest. The parking lot is rather small. There are no motorized golf cars, just trolleys or pull carts as we know it in America. The practice range consists of about a dozen stalls with artificial mats. A warm up range bucket cost 1.5 pounds (approximately $2.50 U.S.) for about 30 old and soiled balls.
The setting at Littlestone is "brilliant,"an often used British phrase. This links course winds up and down the British coast along the English Channel, creating a comfortable breeze that blew throughout the day. Littlestone's fairways were not irrigated and they were parched, spotty and burned out in many areas. The fairways were guarded by links style fescue grasses and pot bunkers.
The greens were slow by American standards, although our caddies swore they rolled 11 on a stimp meter a couple of weeks ago when the course hosted the Open qualifier. The cost to join Littlestone is 1,100 pounds per year, which equates to $1,833 U.S. dollars. The caddie fee is 50 pounds, including the gratuity ($83 U.S. dollars).
Over the years, Littlestone has entertained some of the top names in the world of golf at its Open qualifiers. I couldn't help but think that Americans would not tolerate a course such as Littlestone. The playing conditions were not what we have come to expect from our courses on our side of "the pond." However, let's remember where we are and not forget the way the people in the U.K. approach golf. Maybe their way is the way golf was meant to be played. After all, they've been playing this great game a lot longer than we have.
I would guess that the annual maintenance budget at Littlestone has to be near $100,000 U.S. dollars. That's the key difference I'd say between American and English golf courses. We've created high maintenance standards, which have resulted in outlandish budgets for our courses. And agree or disagree with our expectations, America will never turn back. However, the British hold the line because golf was invented here and their view of golf has not changed for centuries.
As I mentioned, several holes at Littlestone border the English Channel. My caddy, a pleasant chap named Mick, pointed out a huge piece of concrete about 100 yards off the coast near the 17th hole - a 185 yard, par three. He explained that this was part of a dock that was used to tie up the U.S. boats in the Normandy invasion, many of which were launched across the English Channel from New Romney.
The dock later broke loose from the shore and floated to sea. I couldn't help but think of the courage and bravery of the men who left that dock headed to Omaha Beach. There's no such thing as a bad day on the golf course, but thinking about such events really frames your day in a proper perspective.
Also during the round we saw a small steam engine toting eight open air passenger cars on a nearby railway. According to Mick it is "the world's smallest passenger railway" encompassing a 15-mile stretch from Dungeness to Hythe.
Truth be told, the overall experience at Littlestone Golf Club was great. It was another retro British golf round, which reminded me that this is what golf in the U.K. is all about. Every true golfer needs to play a few rounds like this to gain a real understanding of the game.
On the way home, we experienced a unique bit of the local culture, though not the way I'd recommend. I was with Allen Wronowski, PGA President, and Derek Sprague, PGA Secretary. Allen is from Phoenix, Md. and Derek hails from Malone, N.Y. Sprague was driving, which is no easy task when you drive on the opposite side of the road and steer from the passenger's side. About 15 miles from Canterbury, Sprague clipped a curb and one of our front tires went flat. We then found ourselves stranded on the English country side with a rental vehicle that had no spare tire.
We were able to pull the van into the driveway of a nearby farmhouse, where we met Peter Southern, a very nice English gentleman who owned the farm. Four and a half hours later, a recovery truck (wrecker) showed up and took us back to Canterbury. As we departed Southern's farm he remarked, "I am embarrassed for my country. This was a bit of a sad situation." Gotta love the English!
Parking is limited at the hotel, so I held a parking spot while Sprague backed in the van with the flat tire. In was doing so, I had to turn away Paul Casey, top English golfer driving a BMW, from the same parking spot. When he saw our flat tire, which hopefully gets repaired tomorrow, we traded a few good natured barbs.
After Casey found out about our debacle he joked and said, "Well, you boys lost some valuable drinking time, but seems you can make that up in short order!"
Many players including Casey, Camillo Villegas, Matt Kuchar and Hunter Mahan are staying at our hotel in Canterbury. Joining us is Tim Finchem from PGA Tour and many other golf officials from around the world.
I knew we'd have a great adventure this week, little did I know it would start off quite this adventurous. It was a quirky day, to say the least!
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