Royal Lytham and St. Anne's, the site of the 103rd British Open, is a lean and dour golf links whose fairways thread their narrow green way between the shallow coastal sand dunes that mark the countryside of Lancashire in northern England. There last week a pair of much glorified Americans ran into some inglorious difficulties, a playoff developed between two of the most dissimilar people ever to confront each other face to face in any sport, and the new champion turned out to be a man whose looks and personality matched the golf course itself, lean and dour Bob Charles of New Zealand.
When he defeated California's plump, bumptious Phil Rodgers by eight strokes in the 36-hole playoff, Charles became the first left-handed golfer ever to win such a major tournament. He thus heartened lefties everywhere who are perpetually uneasy because the world thinks they do things wrong-way-round, and in a different way he heartened all Britannia, for he is the very model of a modern British champion.
Judged by the high-priced, highly polished, show-business standards that prevail in the U.S., British tournament golf seems as out of date as gaslight, but the British like to see the game they founded played their way. Dignity from the players, please. No hat throwing. No shouting. No dancing, no prancing. Just plain, unalloyed golf. Cool as the North Sea and slim as a two-iron, Bob Charles could hardly fit this mold more perfectly. Nor could his playoff challenger have been better cast to give what TV-oriented fans in the U.S. have come to look upon as a vital ingredient of tournament golf: showmanship. When things are going well for Phil Rodgers, he is a waltzing, wisecracking Jackie Gleason of golf. When they are not, he mopes and lets the world mope with him. When he sinks a putt he will shout, clap his hands or march around like a drum major. When he misses he is a Hamlet beset.
"A lot of the time," says Rodgers, "I even take myself by surprise. On the 10th hole of the last round I made a good chip, and before T knew I was doing it I found myself screaming, 'Get in the hole, get in the hole.' "
His stunting seemed to strike the British galleries, trained as they are in the stiff-upper-lip approach to sport, as refreshing. But when they laughed, as often as not it came out as a nervous giggle of embarrassment rather than as a hearty guffaw of pleasure.
They knew how to react to Charles. Somber as an Alp and hardly more talkative, he showed his followers the kind of implacable golf and unchangeable mien that the British had not seen since Ben Hogan won their Open by four strokes in 1953. They had called Hogan the "Wee Ice Mon" and loved him as one of their own. Now here came Charles, who really was one of their own, assuming one is willing to take the British view that New Zealand is as much a part of the homeland as Piccadilly.
Nor was it any freak happenstance that the 27-year-old Charles should hit his way past a field of famed Americans and then slice Rodgers to shreds in a playoff. By far the finest left-handed golfer ever, he had won the Houston Classic in April, had earned $20,000 on the U.S. pro tour this year (SI, May 23) and had the kind of straight, unforced game that was well suited to Royal Lytham and its narrow fairways.
The playoff became a necessity when both Rodgers and Charles finished with 3-under-par 277s on Friday, thanks to pars on the last hole. Rodgers crouched over a 15-foot birdie putt on the final hole of the 36 played that day, needing only to sink it to win the championship. He then hit such a weak, nervous putt that it stopped two feet short. With that he laughed—somewhat shakily, of course. After barely curling in the second putt, he dropped his tweed cap over the hole and rubber-legged his way, vaudeville style, off the green. Charles, who had been partnered with Rodgers, was somewhat shocked at all this. He gazed stonily at his competitor's antics, then stepped forward and rammed in his own four-foot putt to preserve the tie.
In the 36-hole playoff the next day, while his demonstrative opponent was either clapping happily or kicking his putter in anguish, depending on the situation, Charles was calmly one-putting 12 of the first 20 greens to build a seemingly insurmountable margin of five shots. But his lead shrank to one stroke when he hooked a drive out of bounds and Rodgers sank some putts of his own. Then on the 8th hole of the afternoon round, Charles broke Rodgers' last challenge. First, Rodgers rolled in a downhill 50-foot birdie putt and cake-walked ecstatically around the green. Amazingly, Charles stroked in a 30-foot birdie putt of his own. With no more than a flicker of a smile on his face he turned and walked off to the next tee, leaving his caddie to retrieve the ball and Rodgers to try to retrieve his shaken spirit. The caddie got the ball, but Rodgers never got back his composure. While Phil fumed, Charles continued to play impassive, almost flawless golf. He won the gallery over with his efficient dignity, and he won the playoff 140 to 148.
By winning, Charles not only bested an unusually strong field—Arnold Palmer was trying for his third British Open in a row, Peter Thomson his fifth championship, Gary Player and Kel Nagle their second, Jack Nicklaus and Doug Sanders their first—but an extremely tight and trying course. The rough was worse than at the U.S. Open in Brook-line, the fairways were heavily sprinkled with deep, tiny bunkers, and the greens were small and hard, requiring that approach shots land short and bounce toward the hole.
Beyond all this, the course presented a truly unique difficulty: the British railway system. All day long small, black steam engines puffed by, going to and from the sprawling resort town of Blackpool, some six miles north along the Irish Sea. "The railroad trains are simply one of the hazards a player must learn to overcome at Royal Lytham," declared Charles Lawrie, Great Britain's Walker Cup captain this year, with a mischievous smile directed toward American visitors hardly accustomed to mixing locomotives with their golf.
Lawrie's statement could only bring an emphatic nod of agreement from near-winner Jack Nicklaus. During the second round, while working hard for a par out of the rough on the left of the 8th hole, he started to hit an approach shot. Just then a steam engine the size of a trolley, but pulling a dozen coal cars and a battered caboose, huffed and clanked its way out of the Ansdell-Fairhaven station behind the 8th green. As Nicklaus was about to settle back into his stance again, the engineer reached up and produced two deafening toots on the engine's steam whistle. It was his statement of independence of a game that seemed to exhaust so much energy with such little result.
Later in the tournament this unusual hazard intervened once more. Leading by two shots with only two holes to go in the last round, Nicklaus was in deep grass on a mound behind the 17th green preparing to pitch back, hopefully for a par. Near him in the 16th fairway Charles and Rodgers, now tied for second, waited and watched. As Jack stood over the ball, glowering at the hole, a commuter train whistled shrilly. Jack waited until the train had passed, then fluffed his pitch and took a bogey 5.
The silent treatment
While the trains presented one problem, the almost deathly quiet of Royal Lytham's galleries produced another. During last year's British Open at Troon in Scotland, the crowd had broken loose and run wildly over the course, surging around Palmer and shouting loudly. This year the spectators, who totaled 20,000 for the entire tournament, trooped around the course like mourners at a funeral. Fine approach shots were greeted with only light hand clapping, sizable birdie putts with slightly heavier applause, and short birdie putts, very often, with almost no noise at all.
"Those Scots tend to get a little too excited," explained a Royal Lytham marshal lounging by the side of the 14th fairway. "Down here we don't go in for a lot of yelling. When a player hears some firm clapping he knows he has hit a good, crisp shot."
This English restraint, combined with the almost total lack of scoreboards around the course, made it difficult for the players, especially during the critical closing moments of the tournament, to figure out who was doing what, where. Charles and Rodgers, playing together, could, of course, keep track of each other, but Nicklaus, two groups ahead, might as well have been playing in France.
After he had bogeyed the 71st (or 17th) hole to lose one stroke of his lead, Nicklaus waited on the 72nd tee to try to determine what his closest pursuers had done on the 70th. "I wanted to know what I needed," he said later. "When I knew they must have played out the 16th and I still had not heard a sound from down there I figured they must have passed the hole without a birdie and that a par would win for me." Actually, both Rodgers and Charles had birdied 16. When Nicklaus bogeyed 18 and the other two parred in he was beaten.
Arnold Palmer's failure—he finished 26th—was a real shock to British golf fans, who have made him something of a national hero. As the Open began, the odds on Palmer were 2 to 1, absurdly low for any professional golf event.
"Arnold is such an engaging person," said Pat Ward-Thomas of The Guardian, one of Great Britain's most authoritative sportswriters. "He is so expressive and so capable of astounding things on a golf course; a combination of warmth and great talent that we don't see over here too much." It was that kind of feeling that was reflected in the betting.
Palmer certainly felt the support that welled from his large galleries, but he did not respond with his customary flair.
"I could feel them moaning and groaning while I was moaning and groaning, but I just couldn't seem to concentrate," he said. "This happens sometimes and you are not sure why."
Thus in the end the U.S. hopes were left to Rodgers, whose 67-68-73-69 represented the best golf he had played in months. Tied for the lead or ahead throughout the first two days, he seemed ready to win his first big title when Charles came from five strokes back with a brilliant third-round 66 and the coolness to force the playoff.
"I really have to offer my condolences to Phil," said Charles at the presentation ceremony. "I think I just demoralized him with my putter. I hate to think how many putts I sank. It is a shame we can't be joint holders of the trophy." Demoralize is a fair word for what he did to Rodgers. So is slaughter.
"People are going to like Charles over here," said three-time British Open Champion Henry Cotton after it was all over. "He plays golf in the British manner. No clowning, no exuberant gestures, no exorbitant facial expressions. It is quite possible he may even make a hero of himself, like Hogan, just by the efficient way he plays."
To left-handers, at least, he has already made a hero of himself.
Flamboyant loser Rodgers directs a pleased prayer skyward after sinking the short putt that put him into the playoff.
Unemotional winner Charles, his face showing no strain or ettort, hits a tee shot with a swing that is as grooved as his temperament.
Jack Nicklaus waits tensely for train to go by. A moment later, as Nicklaus got set to hit, the engineer, not giving a hoot, blew his whistle.