Now we’re getting back. For much of this year, the players, caddies, broadcasters, writers, and anyone else who is a regular in the traveling circus that is the PGA Tour, have said the start of a return to normalcy has been marked by sound. Precisely, the roars from fans returning to golf events outside the ropes. Those roars helped make the PGA Championship, where fans shouted on and then chased Phil Mickelson up the fairway to a sixth major, the closest thing to a major championship atmosphere since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.
For me, it’s the sights that will mark something closer to a return to the normal cadence of the professional game. It’s the sight of the best in the world playing seaside links early in the morning (and if we’re being honest, the middle of the night) on my television back in the United States. It’s the sight of sweaters and rain gear rippling in the wind in July. It’s the sight of sand—and sometimes only the sand, with a player somewhere over the horizon of a revetted face—exploding like a firework from a pot bunker. It’s the sight of not a damn tree in sight, and hopefully no ball marks. It’s the sight of a rolling ball, bad bounces, and incredulous reactions. It’s the mixture of turf, gorse, and heather that can cover the palette of a hydration assessment chart, set against gray skies, blue grandstands, and yellow scoreboards.
It’s also the smell of coffee wafting through the house as soon as your eyes open on the pillow. Given the extreme watching hours, you schedule the pot to brew the night before so it’s there waiting for you. It avoids that futzing around in the kitchen and loud grinding of beans that might wake the house during the middle of the night or those pre-dawn hours. Because one of the last things you want to do is alter that sound, the sound of a quiet house. As far as watching pro golf goes, few experiences are better than waking to the smell of fresh coffee emanating from somewhere under your roof, finding it, pouring yourself a cup, and watching the Open in an otherwise quiet, sleeping house.
It’s been two years since that. The experience returns over the next four days with the 149th Open. Shortly after he’d called this major the “biggest and best of them all,” Rory McIlroy disclosed to Golf Channel that he “hadn’t really played links golf in a couple of years.” Like a Masters in November or a U.S. Open with fall foliage and no fans, the statement, from one of the great European players ever, would have been hard to believe at the start of 2020. It was a jolting reminder of all the twists and abnormalities in professional golf over the past 15 months.
A professional golf tournament and a professional golf schedule are not among the hundreds of more important priorities of the past horrible year. The real, tragic, and ongoing losses are not lessened by the whimsical diversion of a golf tournament.
The Open was the only men’s major championship canceled in the earliest weeks of the pandemic. It meant an extended wait to return to the most distinctive major championship, the one that gets at the origin of the game. Golf is full of ham-fisted attempts to promote some executive vice president’s concept of the intangible pieties like the “core values” or “essence” of the game. It’s all subjective, and often just marketing, but in pro golf, the Open often feels like the only week that hits at something elemental to the game in an actual (almost?) authentic way.
It’s the major that promotes and demands a creative mind, a style, and a test that Tiger Woods said is “the way it should be.” In the intervening years since we last held an Open, the chase for speed, distance, bombs, and muscle has accelerated with pace and dominated the game, thanks in beefy part to Bryson DeChambeau’s high-profile transformation. That transformation yielded immediate success, including at one of the U.S. Open’s sacred grounds, Winged Foot. It was there that DeChambeau overpowered the course to his first major title and prompted several questions about the identity of the professional game as well as headlines like, “Even Winged Foot has fallen victim to bomb-and-gouge, raising a difficult and uncomfortable truth.” The bombs have repeatedly flown to success at lower-profile events and less-challenging courses, too. The bombs will fly again this week at Royal St. George’s, but there will be so much more than that. An Open and a links test is not a defense against the distance gains, but it does provide more alternative paths to the trophy at the end of the week.
So it will again be a sui generis style of golf watched at all hours, at least for the American consumption of a major thousands of miles and an ocean away. While a U.S. Open or a PGA may drop in to your locale for a visit, the Open is unattainable for so many. That always added to the ritual of these four days per year (in non-pandemic times). The first couple days of watching a major can go the way of drudgery, the obligatory rounds to get us to Sunday drama and conclusion. For the first two rounds, the Open watch is an experience—whether it’s late night or early morning or hour 14—adjoining the actual golf watching. The style of golf is unique. The scenes are unique. And the consumption hours are unique.
In the United Kingdom, it’s been deemed safe enough to hold an Open. In regards to the small golf corner of the world, the march to whatever we call normal on the other side of the pandemic was signaled with the return of fans. For others, maybe it was a promotional campaign with extra capitalization. For me, it will be the major we did not get in 2020. After two years, we’ll welcome that experience in the wee hours of the night in a quiet house.