Professional golf can be a cruel game. The ranks of the game’s nearly-men who have laboured manfully in the shadows without ever ascending the sunlit uplands of a Major victory, the ultimate yardstick by which history judges success and failure, is peopled by hard-working, honourable players. Until the summer of 1996, it seemed that Tom Lehman was destined to be amongst their number.
When a young man from Scunthorpe via Potters Bar teed it up on the first at Royal Lytham & St Annes in 1969, he was just about the only player in the field who believed he, or any other British player, had a realistic chance of winning the Open.
With boy wonder golfer Rory McIlroy aiming to follow up his US Open triumph, this week’s Open Championship at Royal St George’s should be a welcome boost for Sandwich after Viagra-maker Pfizer leaves town.
If there is any doubt that sporting success can have a transformative effect on the wider national psyche, the events of a magical 10 days in the British summer of 1934 when a new national hero emerged at Royal St George’s, provide compelling evidence.
Before the internet, television or even radio, golf’s grip on the public imagination was largely down to the power of the written word. Heroic feats performed by the likes of Harry Vardon, Walter Hagen and the immortal Bobby Jones were first revealed to avid enthusiasts of the fledgling sport in their morning newspapers.
Calamity Jane and the Walter Hagen Concave Niblick both played vital roles in Bobby Jones’s 1930 ascension into golfing immortality.
When Bobby Jones stepped onto the first tee of the Old Course for his opening drive of the 1927 Open, his place in the pantheon of St Andrews greats was far from assured. His first visit to the hallowed links six years earlier had ended in public ignominy.
Ian Poulter is one of several English players with realistic hopes of Open victory this year. He’s in the top 10 of the official World Golf Rankings, and has a soft spot for the Old Course. “I qualified for the 2000 Open at St Andrews through a regional qualifier and literally the day that tournament ended I went up there. I absolutely loved it.” It was the rookie 24-year-old’s maiden Open.