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A British Love Affair

Arnie at The Open, in his own words

A British Love Affair

Arnie at The Open, in his own words

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rnold Palmer’s first trip to The Open was in 1960, at St Andrews, but as he wrote in his autobiography, A Golfer’s Life, his desire to play in the event “went back much further than that—to my days as a schoolboy golfer, when I followed newspaper accounts of the British Open and read exciting biographies of top American players like Jones and Walter Hagen, who not only played there but won there.” From a schoolboy dreamer Palmer rose to become a man to whom The Open “owed a debt,” according to former R&A Chief Peter Dawson, who like many others gave Palmer no small amount of credit in rejuvenating, and perhaps even saving, golf’s oldest major championship.

Here, we look at excerpts from Palmer’s book describing his and his first wife, Winnie’s, competitive trips to The Open, which began and ended at St Andrews—snapshots of what Palmer called “a love affair with British golf fans and their venerable Open.”

On his first appearance, in 1960

“My first glimpse of St Andrews one afternoon the following week wasn’t exactly the religious experience I’d hoped for. To tell the truth, the sight of the Old Course links didn’t exactly overwhelm me with fear. In fact, I thought it was probably as easy a golf course as I’d ever seen. Of course, this is exactly what most Americans think the first time they lay eyes on the place.

…As I discovered, though, it’s only after successive rounds at the Old Course that you begin to realize the subtle brilliance and high degree of difficulty the most famous golf course on earth throws at you. Bob Jones wasn’t particularly impressed by the course his first time around it, either, but he eventually became such a devoted student of the course that he compared it then to a ‘wise old lady, whimsically tolerant of my impatience, but ready to reveal the secrets of her complex being, if I would only take trouble to study and learn.’

I couldn’t put it any better than that. Study and learn. That’s exactly what you have to do to try to prevent the Old Course from beating you.”

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Upon winning at Royal Birkdale in 1961

“Winnie and I were both ecstatic, and I think our enthusiasm spread through the large galleries, who stayed to watch the presentation ceremony in the blustery winds. I was enormously pleased when I read how Henry Longhurst described the moment:

‘It is doubtful that there was a man present at Birkdale who wanted Palmer to lose. It is impossible to overpraise the tact and charm with which this American has conducted himself on his two visits to Britain. He has no fancy airs or graces; he wears no fancy clothes; he makes no fancy speeches. He simply says and does exactly the right thing at the right time, and that is enough.’

On winning at Troon in 1962

“Probably the finest finish of my career. My drives found every fairway, and the great galleries at Troon encouraged and rewarded me with enthusiastic applause for each good shot, feeding my confidence and pumping me up. I’ll never forget how they swarmed around me as I came up the 18th hole, held perfectly still as I made my approach shot to the final green, then swarmed ahead again to encircle the green. Winnie later commented to me that she thought they were going to charge right into the stately Troon clubhouse itself!

My goodness, what a feeling. I still get chills remembering that final walk through the crowds. A few minutes later, I tapped in for a final-round 69, a six-stroke victory, and a 276 total that eclipsed the old Open mark by two strokes. Almost as important to me, I’d successfully defended the championship—the first American player to do that since Walter Hagen in the 1920s.

As I remarked to the British press afterward, I’d never—and I meant never—played better tournament golf. They responded by using up most of their stock of superlatives, heralding my final two circuits of Lady Troon as the finest finish in the history of the event. I remember that a correspondent for the London Observer wrote that I might well be the greatest player of all time. This was the first time anybody had written that, and that statement gave me tremendous satisfaction and a deep thrill.”

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On his final Open appearance in 1995

“I’d also made up my mind to formally announce that this would be my farewell to The British Open, fittingly at the place where it all began for me thirty-five years earlier.

People were so extraordinarily nice to us that week. Everywhere we went it was easy to see that the appreciative British fans were as moved as we were by the fare-thee-well nature of the journey. Winnie and I greeted lots of old friends, had some big laughs, and shed more than a few tears.

 

On Friday afternoon of the second round, when it was obvious to everybody—including me—that I wouldn’t make the cut, I walked toward the famous little stone bridge over the Swilcan Burn on the 18th hole. Photographers were calling out to me. They knew what the moment meant, and they wanted me to pause and give them a wave. So, at the top of the arched bridge, I turned, framed by the stern visage of the Royal and Ancient clubhouse, lifted off my visor, and gave the gallery a long farewell wave with it.

…Memories were flooding my brain, and emotions were washing over me like you can’t imagine. In the instant it took for the camera’s shutter to flip open and close to capture that memorable photograph, I was also thinking how it all seemed to pass in the blink of an eye. True enough, my British Open magic was dimmed, but the magic of the British Open was as strong as it had ever been for me.

With that, I turned and walked up to the green and finished my Open career.”

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Tiger wood [L], Lee Trevino [R]

Winning Quotes

“It may be years before I fully appreciate it, but I am inclined to believe that winning The Open at the Home of Golf is the ultimate achievement in the sport.”

Tiger Woods
after winning at St Andrews in 2000

“I never thought that I belonged… When I left there, was the first time I really felt deep down that I belonged, I’ve arrived, I’m one of the guys.”

Lee Trevino
on his 1971 victory at Royal Birkdale

“I can’t believe this is me standing here. I can’t believe this is mine.”

Shane Lowry
2019 at Royal Portrush

“I liked being Open Champion so much I didn’t want to give the trophy back”

Padraig Harrington
on defending in 2008 at Royal Birkdale

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Shane Lowry [L], Padraig Harrington [R]

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Masters that changed golf

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