Other lands have their vitality in a few, a class, but we have it in the bulk of our people.
And so it is July. The grass, so lush and green in April and May, has begun to brown over in spots, and everyone is, just now, realizing that the early season is over and they are, just now, about as good as they are going to get this season. And it’s dawned on some—not you, I hope—that this is probably about as good at this game as they ever will. For the professionals it has become make-or-break time, the time of year to put some serious money in the bank, or at least enough to keep their tour cards for another year, or at least get into the finals of Q-School, or second stage, or some kind of status on the Nationwide Tour, or something, just something to keep from having to go home again—home to that insurance job the brother-in-law’s been talking about, or that club pro job somebody promised once, “if it didn’t work out.” And so July is, for golf, not a lazy, happy time at all: it is a time of cruelty, and of victims piling up like the cracked shells of turtles beside a Florida highway.
July is also, by design or happenstance, the month of the Open Championship, or as we colonials like to call it, the British Open—which is, often, a championship of misfortune and sorrow, of too-proud Frenchmen, horrible bounces, and the heartbreak of old men allowed a brief glimpse of the glorious past … before that door is closed on them, wickedly and forever. The Masters is, of course, the tournament of hope, like the spring it heralds, and the U.S. Open, usually, is the tournament of the expected: it is a hard tournament, but the winner is nearly always the man who’s played the most consistently, so that it (mostly) feels like justice has been done by the end of it. But the Open is a tournament of darkness and mystery, and there’s hardly a year that goes by without someone wondering what might have been, if only …
At least some of that mystery has, in the past, come from the ignorance of we Americans—both the players themselves and we, the audience at home. An American watching the Open has always the uneasy sense that the spectacle on display is some different game that, coincidentally, has many of the same trappings and the same spelling as the familiar old game but is in fact something entirely other, something strange and uncanny. Why is that man using his putter—the flag stick isn’t even in the picture! Or, why hasn’t Tiger hit his driver in two days? And so on.
This year, however, some have the odd sense that we have already seen this tournament: the shot of the year, for instance, is probably Charl Schwartzel’s 120-foot chip-in on the first hole of the final round of the Masters—with a six-iron. What American player would even have thought of that? (Ask yourself: would you?) It was the kind of shot that Americans only see once a year, at the Open, but there it was at the course most Americans might think of as epitomizing the high-flying aerial American game: Augusta. (They’d be wrong about that, in one sense—because Augusta is actually receptive to a ground-game, but it’s true that the players who’ve dominated the Masters have been high-ball players.) And, to be sure, the U.S. Open was the coronation of a new king of European, and British, golf: Rory McIlroy.
So this year’s Open begins with, perhaps, a new sense of itself: the winner of the tournament is always introduced with the title, “the champion golfer of the year,” and if, in past decades, the words have always been imbued with some sense of irony (who ever thought Bobby Locke, as great as he was, was the match of Nelson or Hogan or Palmer?), there’s a notion on the march, now, that maybe those words are not just another relic of the nineteenth century, a token of past imperial splendor. More than a decade ago, Britain tried to re-invent, “re-brand” as the advertisers say, itself with the “Cool Britannia” label, acclaiming the election of Tony Blair’s New Labour Party as the final entombment of the old, class-bound, traditional England. Maybe it did and maybe it didn’t, but perhaps it’s true that the children of the ‘90s, including Rory McIlroy, really did grow up with a different sense of themselves and their possibilities, and that maybe—it’s impossible to know—that’s made a difference.
Almost certainly it’s made a difference in the game of golf: where once it was the Americans who came to Europe and sneered (Sam Snead, famously, first saw St. Andrews and thought he was looking at a pasture), now it’s the Europeans who seem self-confident, who look at the great American cathedrals of the game—Augusta, Pebble Beach—and view them as just another route to a paycheck. And possibly—in golf, at least—that’s what’s necessary to produce: that sense that all the world has just been born, and that you are the equal of anyone in it.
What’s astonishing, though maybe not as astonishing as some might like, is that traditionally that sort of sensibility has been the special province of Americans, not Europeans. It’s what George Orwell, that canny Englishman, meant when he said that what he admired about Walt Whitman, poet of America, was that Whitman really conveyed how, in what now might be a long-ago America, “Everyone had inside him, like a kind of core, the, knowledge that he could earn a decent living, and earn it without bootlicking.” Whitman himself defined freedom as the ability “to walk free and own no superior,” which is just the sort of sensibility that, it now seems, is more readily to hand on the far side of the Atlantic than on this.
Some time ago, the neoconservative David Brooks asserted that the difference between young African-Americans and young people of African descent in France (who were then rioting) was that African-Americans always had the option to go to college, whereas “in France the barriers to ascent are higher”—but the reality is, as the newspaper that published Brooks (The New York Times) was forced to admit, in fact social mobility “is not higher in the United States than in Britain or France.” The reality today, according to the social scientists that study such things, actually is that a young person with aspirations today is probably better off going to Berlin than to Los Angeles or New York or Chicago. And maybe that’s hard for Americans to hear, given that entire libraries are filled with stacks of books telling us that what makes us who we are is just that sense that anybody can be anything, the entire line of thought that is condensed in the old line that, in America, anybody can be president.
Yet while our present executive does, in some kind of 21st-century manner, exemplify the cliche, it’s also true that Rory McIlroy has probably seen more real political change in his lifetime than many Americans twice his age. It’s well-known, for instance, that to be an incumbent congressman in America is as near as it is possible to get to guaranteed employment outside the law or academia, while Rory witnessed, at the ripe age of 10, one of the most historic constitutional changes ever seen in the world: the “House of Lords Act of 1999,” which abolished the British aristocracy’s hereditary right to representation in Parliament. In other words, Rory saw what Washington and Jefferson and Adams and company put their lives and fortunes at risk to have a chance to see: the end of the nobility as a real political force in Britain. Not since the 1960s has anybody put forward an idea as monumental as that, but Britain in the 1990s not only talked about it—they acted on it. Young Americans, on the other hand, have simply watched as a mostly-moribund clique of liberals has tried to hang on to victories that were won by 1968, as the siege engines of the ravenously greedy have drawn in ever-tighter.
To say that the one has anything to do with the other (politics, golf) is, to be sure, just the sort of thing that isn’t done in America today—though just where the idea came from that there are things that are and aren’t done is a bit of a question—and anyway amounts to nothing when deciding who to bet on for the Open, which as I’ve mentioned is probably the hardest of the major championships to handicap because the rolls and folds of a links course—the only kind the Open is played on—can be so capricious. It’s unlikely that Rory McIlroy can follow up his victory in America with another in his “home” major—he hasn’t, for instance, played against serious competition since winning at Congressional. But if he can, in the seriousness and cruelty of July, he might say to the world that it is Europe—that “ancient bone-yard,” as Orwell called it—that is America now.