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Golf Trail, UK | Off to the greens

Some of contemporary golf’s most absorbing battles, interspersed with exasperating tussles with the British weather and a visit to a once-great tourist town
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First Published: Sat, Jul 13 2013. 12 07 AM IST
The 140th Open Championship in progress in 2011 at the prestigious Royal St George’s golf course in Sandwich, England. Photo: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
The 140th Open Championship in progress in 2011 at the prestigious Royal St George’s golf course in Sandwich, England. Photo: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
One of the great things about the Internet is how it never judges you. You can summon a browser, type in the address of an Internet search engine, and then proceed to ask it the kind of questions that you’d never even contemplate asking another human being: What is the difference between white rice and brown rice? Who switches the light inside my fridge on and off? How to use toilet paper when I travel abroad. How to make a baby. Yet, despite all this anonymity and absence of judgement, I cringed physically as I typed a particular question into Google sometime in early July 2011: “How to go and see a golf tournament.”
Darren Clarke of Ireland hitting a shot in Sandwich
But first, a little backstory. On the evening of 19 June 2011, I sat slumped in front of my TV, lazily switching channels. The missus and I had completed watching our daily quota of cookery shows and Scandinavian crime serials respectively. She was snoring away on the couch by my side, and I was desperately trying to pass out myself.
And then suddenly, on the TV screen, I saw Rory McIlroy blazing away to victory at the US Open Championship of golf. I had tuned in with just four or five holes to go. McIlroy was comfortably leading the field by seven-eight strokes.
Rory McIlroy is one of those champion sportsmen who exude a certain charming vulnerability. Even at the heights of their powers, as they are close to victory, they seem to exist on an emotional and physical razor’s edge, almost as if they’re going to break down and throw it all away at any moment.
In fact, McIlroy had done just that at the previous major golf tournament, the Augusta Masters. The 23-year-old from Northern Ireland went into the final round of that tournament leading by four strokes. And then had a nightmare final round that saw him end the tournament in 15th place. It was a gut-wrenching meltdown, and many wondered if McIlroy would ever recover.
Two months later McIlroy led again going into the final day at the US Open. And now, on my TV, he was just a few holes away from his maiden major championship. The British commentators sounded even more reverential than usual, their hushed voices nearly choking with anticipation. Would the boy wonder of golf finally win a major? Or would he throw it all away again?
This was nerve-wracking television. I sat up.
A couple of hours later, as McIlroy lifted the trophy, the commentators invited viewers to tune in again, next month, for The Open from Royal St George’s Golf Club in Kent, England.
Kent? Wasn’t that just a short train ride away from London? Perhaps…if I could get tickets…
A woman sunbathing on the North Pier in Blackpool. Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Early on the morning of 17 July 2011, I boarded an “Open Special” coach bus from The London Victoria coach station bound for the golf course at Royal St George’s. The bus was packed with day-trippers visiting the course for the final round of play. The coach soon rocked everyone to sleep, the freshly bathed bodies filling the whole bus with the comforting fragrance of assorted body washes and soaps.
Royal St George’s is located in the town of Sandwich in Kent. Despite having a population of only around 6,000, the town houses two world-class golf courses: Prince’s and Royal St George’s.
The latter was built in the late 19th century right by the sea on land covered by dunes.This is immediately evident as you walk around the course, scrambling up and down the sandy hills and troughs, trying to keep up with the golfers.
Keeping up with a golfer, I learnt online, is the ideal way to get to know a golf course. So as soon as I jumped out of the coach I ran to the first hole and waited for someone to tee off. In my case it was the Italian Edoardo Molinari.
My game plan, gleaned from the Web, would be as follows. I would dutifully make an entire circuit with Molinari, making a mental note of the holes, vantage points and seating areas that I could come back to later. Once Molinari completed his round, I would tuck into a light snack of a pulled pork sandwich and two pints of beer, and then settle down in front of one of the big outdoor screens. This would go on till an hour or so before the leaders teed off (in a golf tournament, the leaders after each round tee off last in the subsequent round. Several hours can transpire between the first and last players to tee-off).
At this point I would run and find a seat at one of the galleries or on one of the hills. The galleries at the 18th would be the best, of course, though these tend to get filled up very early.
From this vantage point I would sit comfortably and watch the top five or 10 pairs play. And then I would once again retire to the big screen, beers in hand, to watch the end game. And then I would take the coach back to London and never, ever, tell any of my friends that I spent an entire day watching other people play golf.
A great plan. An easy plan. A relaxed plan. Exactly the kind of plan that the British weather likes to obliterate.
Four-five holes into Molinari’s round, the rain began to pour down cold and hard. For the first hour or so, I managed to soldier on under my umbrella. Then I gave up. I went and sat in front of a big screen, shivering in the cold.
There was one other reason why I moved to the front of the screen. I couldn’t see the golf ball. No matter what I did, how I stood, how I shaded my eyes with my hand and squinted, I’d lose the ball the moment Molinari made contact with it.
I tried standing behind Molinari. I tried standing beside Molinari. I tried standing near the green where the balls landed. Nothing. Not even a speck of white. One moment there would be nothing. The next the ball would be there and everyone would be clapping and I would join in sheepishly.
Things were much easier in front of the big screen. I tuned into commentary on a pocket radio and sat back. For about 20 minutes. The next few hours would have been comical if they weren’t so goddam frustrating.
“We’re expecting some rain now,” the commentator would say. And we’d all run for cover into one of the shops. Immediately the sun would come out. “There should be clear sun for the next 30 minutes,” the commentator would say. We’d put down our umbrellas and sprawl out in front of the screens, only for a torrential downpour to descend instantaneously.
A man relaxing on Blackpool beach. Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
This absurd meteorological chicanery continued all the way till the end of the tournament. The closest I got to the eventual winner, Darren Clarke, was a fleeting glimpse of his trousers through a crowd of several million people who had thronged around the last hole.
It had proved to be a wet, cold, muddy, uncomfortable day under a grey, unforgiving sky. And I loved every moment of it.
So much so that the next year I booked tickets not just for the final day but for all four days of the 2012 Open tournament. I booked a room at the Glendowie Hotel in Blackpool and even convinced the missus to take the train down from London for the last day’s play.
Blackpool, once the Ooty, Kodaikanal, Shimla, Lonavala, Chowpatty and Darjeeling of middle-class Britain rolled into one, is today on the verge of financial ruin.
As the UK got wealthier after the 1980s, tourists with serious money began to abandon Blackpool for more exotic locations in the UK and Europe. When the UK went broke after the economic crisis of 2008, the downmarket clientele that kept the pleasure town on life support also abandoned it.
Only the memories of pleasures past remain, alongside a certain crustiness that is both repulsive and sorrowful. I arrived in Blackpool the night before the first day’s play, checked in, dropped my bags, and then went out to the seaside promenade to have a look around.
Broken cities are easy to ignore. Thriving ones are easy to adopt. But you’re haunted by the once-great cities that now wallow in misery. Blackpool’s inner streets were a repulsive warren of cheap bars, bachelor parties, bouncers with lifeless eyes and rowdy tour groups that laughed and vomited.
Things got better on the sea-front, but not by much. Most hotels hadn’t been renovated in years. And you know that a city is living off fumes when an Internet list of the best local restaurants includes a Pizza Express and a Subway.
It is perhaps this prolonged misfortune that has left some of the locals with a certain fatalistic good cheer. The Glendowie Hotel’s proprietors are some of the most cheerful and genuinely friendly hoteliers I’ve ever met. Lynn and her husband Merv bought the Glendowie around 10 years ago in the hope that this would give them something nice and relaxed to do during their retirement years. Recently Merv went back to his job as a trucker to make ends meet.
The morning after my arrival in Blackpool, I took a tram and then a bus to Lytham, 5 miles (around 8.5km) down the seaside road. The 2012 Open took place at the Royal Lytham and St Anne’s golf course. Like Sandwich, this course too is a “links”, or seaside course. But unlike the 2011 venue, St Anne’s is set back from the sea by a road, several rows of housing and a railway line.
Lytham is a universe away from Blackpool’s woefulness. This is a prosperous-looking place with prosperous houses lived in by prosperous people driving expensive cars.
For the first three days I enjoy the golf in little sips, conserving my energy for a frenetic last round. Rory McIlroy is a firm favourite. Punters are less optimistic about defending champion Darren Clarke, who appears to have achieved little since that blustery day in Sandwich.
Those three days are magnificent.
In the mornings I breakfast spectacularly at the Glendowie back in Blackpool. Then, after a little lie-down in bed to check email and read, I commute to the course for a walk about. The weather is mostly pleasant, with an occasional bite in the air. When I bore of the golf I go back to Blackpool and take long walks by the sea. Soon I learn the trick to enjoying Blackpool—look out to the sea as much as you can. And try to forget the dilapidation behind you. There is an assortment of large, somewhat bizarre art installations on the seafront. One of these is a massive disco ball on a stick.
I dine well, if unexceptionally, at a Burger King, a Nando’s and a Harry Ramsden’s fish and chips shop, respectively.
In contrast Sunday is a day-long scramble to follow Indian interest golfer Anirban Lahiri around the course, to occasionally catch a glimpse of leaders Adam Scott and Ernie Els, and then to scramble back to Blackpool for our train back home. We leave a little before the tournament is decided, against the wishes of the missus who by now is engrossed in the proceedings. She, indifferent till this very day to golf in any shape or form, motors over the course with alacrity (also, she hates Blackpool, or the shell of Blackpool that now takes the original town’s place, and wants to spend as little time there as possible).
But a golf course full of spectators leaving together is not a pleasant occurrence. Eventually we walk to the bus stop with the leaders two holes away from the end. Late that night we reach London and catch pictures of Ernie Els lifting the claret jug on the news.
This year The Open—it is always called just The Open—takes place at the Muirfield course 20 miles away from Edinburgh. In all likelihood it is going to be cold, windy and miles away from any civilization. I cannot wait.
The 2013 edition of the British Open Golf tournament will be held from 18-21 July at Muirfield, Scotland.
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First Published: Sat, Jul 13 2013. 12 07 AM IST
More Topics: Golf | The Open | Travel | UK | Kent |