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TEE TO GREEN, STEVE SCOTT: Collin Morikawa is smart enough to ‘get’ the Old Course pretty easily this July

Collin Morikawa checks his name on the Claret Jug after his Open victory last year.
Collin Morikawa checks his name on the Claret Jug after his Open victory last year.

Links golf, particularly played in Scotland, Ireland and in England, is unquestionably the purest form of the game.

But we who treasure the tradition sometimes get a little over-precious about it.

I thought about this last week when hearing Collin Morikawa, the current Open champion, talk about his victory at Sandwich.

Morikawa had never played links golf before last July. Arguably, he’d never played it before arriving in Kent, because his week prior had been at the Scottish Open at the Renaissance Club.

Morikawa ‘got’ links golf in a week

The East Lothian course is right next door to Muirfield. But unlike the Honourable Company’s fiefdom, it does not pass the strident test to qualify as links.

The terrain is similar, and unlike Muirfield there are two holes actually adjacent to the Forth estuary. The challenge from the elements is no different, obviously.

But the turf’s not quite the same and it doesn’t have the hard yards of decades in play.

Nobody told Morikawa all this, however. After a disappointing week at The Renaissance, he decided his irons were not quite right for links golf. So he changed them.

To digress briefly, this is one of the more underrated feats of modern major championship golf.

Many modern golfers, very good ones, could not make such a change without consulting an army of tech gurus and considerable range testing.

Morikawa did it just with a brief consult to the TaylorMade tech truck and the advice of his caddie, JJ Jakovac. There was some risk with this, he conceded last week. Both JJ and the tech boys thought he was nuts.

But it worked. He went from hitting approach shots 40 feet away to winning The Open, at his first attempt, in the space of a week.

Cracking the code’s not that hard

That Morikawa was able to do this and crack the code of links golf, apparently so effortlessly, bristles with the links purist. It’s supposed to be anathema to those brought up on a diet of station-to-station, parkland golf.

Some people never crack it – Scott Hoch springs to mind. Some take years – Tom Watson, a links golf fan like few others now, admitted it wasn’t until he’d won three Opens that he actually ‘got’ it.

But really, links golf is not rocket science. It does take imagination to play, but we’re not talking JK Rowling or Lennon and McCartney imagination. Smart golfers adapt pretty quickly, and most enjoy having their skills tested outside their usual confines.

In 2015, Jordan Spieth arrived for the Open at St Andrews halfway to a Grand Slam. Many dismissed his chances.

Spieth had very limited links golf experience. He had never set foot on the Old Course and had basically three days to learn the most linksy course there is. The wind, if it came, would surely leave him with no chance.

Well, in one of the worst weather Opens of my three decades of experience, including a squally, blustery final day, Jordan was one misjudged gap wedge on the 18th away from a four-way play-off. So much for the necessary experience.

Smart players adapt and embrace the challenge

I have this feeling about Morikawa as well. He plans to show up this July and try to learn the Old Course in three days. He’s not going to ask anyone about the mysteries.

This partly stems from his Augusta experience. He had asked veterans what he needed to succeed there, and was told the usual – you need a pronounced draw.

He tried that in his first two attempts and it didn’t work. So this year he just decided it was just better to figure it out for himself. The result was his best-ever Masters finish of fifth.

I think we should have every faith that Morikawa can figure out the Old Course for himself. And that he should definitely be considered one of the favourites this July.

The Tassie is a proper festival of golf

While we’re on tradition, I’m not entirely comfortable with the fact that the Craw’s Nest Tassie is being played this week.

Carnoustie’s Open Amateur tournament has a good claim to being the most popular event in all of golf. Entries online for the 348-strong field open and close in literally minutes each year. It is never under-subscribed.

Generations of players from clubs all over Britain continue to love to play in the Tassie. No wonder, it’s a relatively cheap way to get at least two rounds on the Championship Course and the ever-underrated Burnside.

And it’s a proper, old-school festival of golf. The bars and B&Bs of Carnoustie get a thorough workout during the week.

The Tassie – and its handicap cousin the Maulesbank Trophy – is a lesser-known bit of genius from the great visionary of Carnoustie Links, James Wright. He’s now properly credited as the man who fashioned the Championship Course’s great finishing stretch.

But the accountant and links chairman of the 1920s and 30s also inaugurated the Tassie. It was really just a way to elongate the holiday season by a week for the benefit of the town’s hoteliers and hostelries.

That was always traditionally the first week in September, but after a Covid-caused gap of two years, the Tassie is being played in May for the first time. The Tassie trophy itself, with an art-deco look and celtic script, is one of the most attractive in golf.

I cut my golf-writing teeth on the Tassie, watching scores of weird and wonderful swings from the committee room high above the first tee in the old, unloved clubhouse.

So I’ll always have a sentimental attachment to the event. I’ll miss it this year because of the British Masters at The Belfry. But I’m confident The Tassie will be just as frenetic and fun in May as it always was in the late summer.

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