The third major of the year is usually called the British Open in Canada and the U.S. Its proper name is the Open Championship. Still, the "British" defines and distinguishes the championship, especially if it's considered an adjective and not a geographical pointer to its location.
This subject comes to mind because Stephen Ames said unequivocally on Monday that the Open is the best of the four majors. Ames, who lives in Calgary, has always felt this way; clearly, he knows his golf. Ames was particularly effusive about the matter after shooting 69-61 at the Gleneagles Country Club in Plano, Tex., to claim one of eight spots available there during a qualifying event for the Open.
This year's Open will be played July 18-22 at The Royal Lytham and St. Annes Golf Club in England. Lytham is a links, as are all Open courses. The type of course more than any factor makes the Open the best major. Ames said there's almost no end to the variety of shots a player can hit from the same spot. The options introduce choice, and choice can lead to both confusion and creativity.
Above all, a links invites golf on the ground and makes it possible to hit effective shots even in foul conditions. Most American and Canadian courses are parkland layouts that call upon players to fly the ball through the air a specific distance; it's as if the ground doesn't exist. Such paint by numbers golf limits expression while links golf expands it. Call this a freedom of expression issue.
Even the vaunted Augusta National Golf Club, site of the Masters, now constrains more than it expands. Yet co-founder Bobby Jones and architect Alister MacKenzie intended Augusta National to be an "inland" links.
The addition and consequent incursion of rough and trees has done much, sadly, to erode their intention. The ground game doesn't play nearly the role Jones and Mackenzie wanted, except near and on the greens because of the undulating terrain. From the tees and fairways, however, there isn't nearly as much to choose from now between Augusta National and the weekly PGA Tour courses.
Golf on a links, meanwhile, does more than provide fertile soil for the ground game. It provides unrelenting evidence that golf isn't a fair game. It was never meant to be fair. The American historian Dr. William Anderson dealt with this in a brilliant paper on the contrast between American and Scottish golf.
"In Scotland luck itself is unfair," he wrote. "Two golfers may hit similar shots with one ending in the fairway and the other in a pot bunker. Or one may hit a good shot that takes a bad bounce into a bunker while another may top a shot that runs onto a green [because, happily, forced carries over artificial water hazards aren't part of a links] This random nature of luck makes the game all the more unfair, but it is a subtlety that American architects and golfers normally neither desire nor appreciate."
Golf is also more a part of the cultural fabric in the U.K. than in Canada and the U.S. The courses are often in the middle of the town, no more so than in St. Andrews. They're open to the public, at least some of the time. The only way to play Augusta National or the Olympic Club in San Francisco, site of next month's U.S. Open, is as the guest of a member.
Golfers often discuss their "bucket lists." A suggestion: Book a trip to the Open. No Open will invigorate your golfing senses more than the one at the Old Course in St. Andrews, where it will next be held in 2015. But an Open anywhere is memorable, and the best major, because it's also the "British" Open. And that makes all the difference.