July 21, 2000
Last year, best-selling golf writer Curt Sampson set out to do a story focusing on five or six professional golfers as they tried to win the 1999 British Open at Carnoustie.
For various reasons, however, Sampson’s original approach to covering The Open didn’t pan out. Instead, he wrote an even better story, with at least five separately fascinating subplots, in Royal and Ancient:Blood, Sweat, and Fear at the British Open (Villard, $25.95 SRP).
The fact that Sampson chose to write about the British Open in 1999, one of the most compelling major tournaments in recent memory, is simply an extraordinary bonus.
First, Sampson gives his readers a history of British golf, and Scottish golfers receive the deservedly greatest focus. The triumphant yet tragic story of early Open winners Tom Morris and his son helps define what some consider the Scottish national character, viewed from a golfer’s perspective.
Second, Sampson describes the history of The Open, from its admittedly humble beginnings to today. The influence of American golfers in enhancing The Open’s status, especially after Arnold Palmer’s 1961 triumph, is detailed here nicely. Sampson nonetheless realizes that The Open deserves its major status with or without American television interest or money.
Third, Sampson understands golf and golfers. He followed five players in particular, and their British Open experience made for interesting reading.
Steve Elkington’s personality is more complex than one might have first thought. Andrew Magee’s honesty and good humor will be a revelation to many readers. Clark Dennis’s travails will sound familiar to golfing fanatics who follow the fall PGA tournaments to see if their guy makes the top 125 on the money list for the next year. Zane Scotland, the improbably named boy who marked his 19th birthday by competing in The Open in his native land, shows some of the best qualities of amateur golfers in the intense atmosphere of a major tournament.
Then, of course, there is Jean Van de Velde. His prior professional experience gave no hint of his improbable performance at Carnoustie. Sampson revisits the final round and the playoff in all their complexities, while also taking care to show why Van de Velde’s first three rounds should not have been unnoticed.
All the same, Van De Velde’s triple bogey 7 on the 18th hole at Carnoustie in the final round stunned millions of viewers.
The fact that someone could blow up a hole at The Open was not surprising. The fact that Van de Velde could blow up the last hole, eliminate a rare chance at a major tournament victory, and yet react with grace, perspective, and charm, was the real story. Sampson does great reporting here, without giving short shrift to either Justin Leonard or Paul Lawrie, the eventual winner of the three-way playoff.
Fourth, Sampson writes about Carnoustie, a prime character in its own right. Each golf course in the traditional rota for The Open has its own unique features, and Sampson touches upon them. Carnoustie receives special treatment, for the way the course reflects its town environment and for the way most golfers chose to play it in 1999. The related essay on fairness should spark a debate or two at many 19th holes.
Fifth, Sampson gives a well-rounded portrait of John Philp, Carnoustie’s golf course superintendent. Before, during, and after the event, Philp is alternatively defensive and assertive about the choices his club and the Royal and Ancient committee members made in setting up the course.
Sampson’s comments and reportage do not wholly support those who conclude that Philp was the epitome of a mad greenskeeper, bent on embarrassing the players. On the other hand, Sampson does not try to defend the Scotsman against all criticism. Instead, Philp comes across as a well-intentioned, talented man whose best efforts are nonetheless subject to uncontrollable elements–like wind, rain, and unmet expectations.
Sampson’s Royal and Ancient reveals a golf writer who’s really hit his stride. Don’t wait for the paperback edition.