In the span of a mere month golf enthusiasts have been granted the fine spectacle of a U.S. Open played at stunning Pebble Beach followed by a British Open held at the home of golf, the Old Course at St. Andrews. This pairing of venerated courses highlights an essential difference between the two Opens, which makes clear the case for the superiority of the British championship.
Only in the case of the British Open is it possible for ordinary biffers to set their cleated shoes upon every course in the rota, usually for a reasonable, though not a cut-rate, fee. (Indeed, residents of the city of St. Andrews can purchase yearly passes that make playing there a bargain even by Scottish standards.) I count my day on the Old Course among the finest of my life, despite my playing companion’s caddie’s marked penchant for tromping across my putting lines. Walking across the Swilken Bridge after a tolerably well-struck tee shot on no. 18, with the sound of bagpipes in the air across Old Station Road, toward a small gallery of townsfolk and tourists lining the railing behind the final green, was a transcendent moment. To watch the game’s greatest players master, or be humbled by, the very course we diffident amateurs have swatted at is to become fully immersed in the tournament.
The U.S. Open, by contrast, has until recently been played at private venues such as Winged Foot, Oakmont, Shinnecock Hills, and other enclaves at which the very rich make friendly wagers with people of comparable creditworthiness. Although I have teed a ball at the very spot at Carnoustie where Hogan famously hit a fade that spent much of its lengthy flight on the wrong side of a boundary fence before landing safely en route to his great victory in the 1953 British Open, only the most astonishing of fortuities would ever allow me to stand at the point where the relentless Texan hit his celebrated 1-iron to the heart of the 72nd green of the 1950 U.S. Open at Merion.
It is perhaps one of the paradoxes of golf that the land of vestigial monarchy welcomes all lovers of the game, while its revolutionary offspring across the Atlantic conducts its open championship more often than not on cloistered courses. In this respect, most certainly, Britannia rules.