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Texan takes the mark of a tough British Open course

Now the great links at Royal St. George's, Sandwich, return to the larks singing in their solitude, where below the dogged clubs members have their fun. But for many the big question remains unanswered: Is this a suitable venue for the British Open golf championship, the first and in a worldwide sense the most prestigious Open of them all?

The quiet Texan Bill Rogers won the gold medal and a year's possession of the silver trophy with a score of 276, 4 under par. The persistent Bernhard Langer, the greatest golfer West Germany has ever produced, took second place at even par.

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Yes, but the course itself defeated almost everybody else. Another American, Ray Floyd, came in at 3 over.

Bruce Lietzke was 5 over; Ben Crenshaw, 6; Lee Trevino, 7; US Open winner David Graham of Australia, 8 over.

Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson, Hubert Green, and Britain's Tony Jacklin could do no better than 10 over, while Seve Ballesteros (the 1979 winner and one of this year's top favorites) was 13 over.

The top amateur, America's Hal Sutton, scored 295 (15 over), while leading British amateur Geoff Godwin took 81 strokes in the last round to score 299. Yet by Open standards this is a short course at 6,841 yards.

What the 114,522 spectators -- 17,000 fewer than at Muirfield, Scotland, last year -- and many millions of TV viewers the world over saw is a golf course that may graciously give you a 66, but from whose hold you can never force such a score.

On the first day, playing in a difficult wind and with his mind probably on other things, Nicklaus took 83, his highest score as a professional. (Gary Player took 81.) Jack came back next day with a courageous 66, equaling the record for the altered course, and felt that if he could keep scoring in the 60s he could still be challenging at the end. But St. George's allowed the great man, certainly the finest golfer of his era, scores of only 71 and 70 for the last two rounds for a finish far, far down the list.

Nicklaus, I know, loves Muirfield best of all the great links courses. He rates it an "honest course." All the hazards are visible. A bad shot is surely punished in one of the terrifying sand bunkers, but good shots are as surely rewarded.

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But at Royal St. George's this is not the case. Not only are many of the hazards invisible, but even some of the fairways and several of the greens. Every long ball hit is at the mercy of an unpredictable bounce. As at other seaside courses, when you look at the time sheet you should also look at the tide tables. The wind may howl in on the flood but go out quietly with the ebb.

A calm star can win you the championship. In 1934 the great Englishman Henry Cotton started 67, 65, and by the time the final round began was so far ahead he could afford to stumble around in 79 shots and still win by 5.

Walter Hagen, whose winning game was based on impossible recovery shots, won here twice. The legendary Harry Vardon won at Royal St. Georges's, too. In Cotton's year Vardon, down here in Kent to watch, was forced to retire to bed in his room at the Guilford Hotel. Cotton, the first British winner anywhere for 10 years and first at Sandwich for 30, took the trophy straight from the course to Vardon's bedroom and both men wept.

Vardon considered St. George's the best course in the world. It required, he said, technique, judgment, courage, resolution, and self-control. And, like life itself, it provided an occasion to triumph over unjustified adversity. To him, therefore, and to many others, it was, and is, the epitome of what a links golf course should be. This is not golf as most of us play it most of the time, but it is golf in the true spirit of the original Scottish game and, say traditionalists, must be preserved and treasured.

Rogers, therefore, is seen as a most worthy champion. He showed exactly the game and the qualities that ought to win British Opens.

Five shots ahead going into the final round, he started breezily. Then the course struck back. On the seventh, Langer made a splendid birdie. Rogers, playing just behind him, hit trouble and compounded it with more trouble, only just scraping out of the hole with a double-bogey seven. His lead was down to one shot.

Langer, a slight, curly-headed blond with an unexpectedly powerful swing, has consistently placed second almost everywhere this year. Could he get his first win?

Rogers decided not. He attacked. With three birdies in four holes he put himself out of reach again. Ray Floyd and Britain's Mark James faltered. Sam Torrance of Scotland got a hole-in-one to close up some, then also fell away. Consistency, courage, and resolution had won again. So maybe old Harry Vardon was right.

Next year the championship goes to the rather less- chancy links at Troon, Scotland. But in, say, six years' time should not the world's best golfers put themselves again to the unique test of Royal St. George's?

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