This week’s Scottish Open is a huge event – it wasn’t like that in 1972
IN THE clubhouse at Downfield, a framed poster commemorates the first Scottish Open golf championship, held there in 1972. Its main image is the caricature of a young player, lining up his putt amid a sea of signatures. Kel Nagle, Tommy Horton, Christy O’Connor, Max Faulkner, Sam Torrance, Peter Oosterhuis, Bernard Gallacher…all were among those who scrawled their names across the memento, unaware that members of the Dundee club would still be peering at it 40 years later.
Now, of course, we have the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open, which starts at Castle Stuart on Thursday. Four decades earlier, it was the Sunbeam Electric Scottish Open, contested from 26 June to 1 July. If sponsorship is any guide to a nation’s tastes, steam irons, food mixers and shavers have given way to hedge funds and multi-asset portfolios, as well as an astronomical hike in prize money.
Luke Donald earned £500,000 for his victory in the Highlands last year. Neil Coles, another Englishman, won £1,950 four decades back. Brian Huggett, the Welshman who lost in a play-off, received less than half of that. Harry Bannerman, who played in the previous year’s Ryder Cup, finished 24th at Downfield, for which the reward was an £88 cheque that makes him laugh now. “Those were the days eh?”
Actually, they were not the worst. The total purse for the Sunbeam Electric Scottish Open was £10,000, several times more than had been on offer before John Jacobs took charge of the tournament circuit late in 1971. The new Scottish Open was a product of his revolution, which planted the seeds of what later became known as the European Tour.
Now 87, Jacobs recalls how he went about it. “Until then, five people made money at a tournament, five broke even and the rest made a loss. That had to change. So the first thing I did was write as diplomatically as I could to all the then sponsors and say ‘look, we need a minimum of £5,000 in prize money’. We couldn’t have any more tournaments at £2,000. It wasn’t a runner. I got some absolutely wonderful letters from people calling me the biggest jumped-up so-and-so they had ever come across… but only two of them pulled out.”
Sunbeam Electric were an American company with a factory in East Kilbride. They liked the idea of associating themselves with a national open, which was another element of the Jacobs masterplan. He wanted to take the tour abroad so that every tournament, whether it was the French Open, the German Open or the Dutch Open, would have a market to itself. “You couldn’t stage tournaments 50 miles from each other, one week after another, as we had been doing in Britain,” says Jacobs. “We weren’t big enough. So the continent was the obvious place to go.”
The decision to hold the first Scottish Open at Downfield, a long parkland course on the outskirts of Dundee, was thanks in part to its successful staging of the 1968 World Seniors Championship. That title was won by Chandler Harper, an American who later became honorary president of the club.
Downfield would also stage the 1974 Benson & Hedges Match Play Championship, won by Australia’s Jack Newton. Gregor Mitchell, who has been a member there since 1954, recalls how they spruced up the course, Augusta-style, for the benefit of television that week. “They put dye in the burn and it made the pond a lovely blue colour, like something overseas. I remember playing it the night after it was done. When my mate duffed his tee-shot about ten feet, he said it was because the pond was too bright.”
Although lacking the kudos that comes with being a links course in Scotland, Downfield has a few claims to fame. Apart from the tournaments it has staged, it was where Paul Lawrie came through final qualifying to win the 1999 Open Championship. In 1972, its tree-lined fairways were playing every one of their 6,879 yards, thanks in part to a misty practice day on which rain had flooded the 18th green. Maurice Bembridge, the Englishman who played in four Ryder Cups, described it as a “very fine course”, the best he had seen all season. “It’s nice to have to play some real shots,” he added.
The holes were re-ordered for the tournament, which attracted healthy crowds, TV coverage and hospitality, although nothing on the scale of today’s Tour events. Gallacher likes to recall the practice routine in those days, conducted on a patch of ground with little or no help from the event organisers.
“You had to bring your own golf balls and send your caddy down there. Health and safety wouldn’t allow that now. He would be one of many caddies out there, having 3-woods belted at them from 240 yards. They were ‘shagging’ for you. That’s what you called it. You just aimed your balls at the practice ball bag. The driving range, as we know it now, was still to come.”
There were 33 Scots in the field for the 1972 Scottish Open. Apart from Gallacher and Bannerman, there was Eric Brown, the previous year's Ryder Cup captain, “Wild” Bill Murray, a former Downfield club champion, and an 18-year-old by the name of Sam Torrance, who made a big impression on the opening day by reaching the 528-yard fourth in two mighty blows, the second of which was a driver smashed off the fairway. “It was the best shot I ever saw in my life,” said Frank Rennie, his playing partner. “I would have had to be on LSD to have attempted it myself.”
John Garner, a Mancunian with an impressive short game, featured prominently for most of the week. A controversial selection by Brown in the Ryder Cup, he held a one-stroke lead after the first round thanks to his chip into the final hole, which earned him a course-record 68. In the third round, he holed from off the same putting surface, this time with his blade, to share the lead with Huggett on nine under. Between those feats, Garner had struggled to make the second round, due to the absence of a night porter at his Carnoustie hotel. At 5.30am, after realising he was locked in, he was to be found “furtively slipping over windowsills” in order to be on the practice ground for six.
Some well-kent faces struggled – Bernard Hunt 83, John Panton 80 – while others flourished. Oosterhuis and Roberto Bernardini equalled Garner’s 68 but, at the end of it all, it was a serial winner who took the honours. Coles had already secured 23 of his 45 professional titles when his nine-under-par 283 total earned him a play-off with Huggett.
At the second sudden-death hole, which Norman Mair, The Scotsman golf writer, described as the “picturesque but perilous ninth”, Coles’ wayward drive bounced off a tree and back into play, while Huggett hit his second into a ditch. The latter donned his waterproofs and tried to splash out but, when his ball dribbled back down the bank and into the deep, it was game over.
The two men who had combined to produce a dramatic finish also happened to be partners in golf-course architecture. “And if we can build courses as good as this one, we’ll be doing all right,” said Huggett. “It’s great this Downfield, tough all the way, you can never let up.”
That, though, was to be the last time it hosted the Scottish Open, which was won by Graham Marsh at St Andrews the following season, before disappearing altogether from the circuit for a 13-year period. Its return, to Haggs Castle in 1986, signalled the start of a renaissance that has taken the tournament from there to Gleneagles, then Carnoustie, Loch Lomond and now Castle Stuart, where players and officials would do well this week to reflect on how far it has come.
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Wednesday 19 June 2013
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