LYTHAM ST. ANNES, ENGLAND | Everyone has his own way of preparing for the Open Championship.
World No. 1 Luke Donald teed it up at the Scottish Open the week prior to Royal Lytham & St. Annes, as did Lee Westwood and Phil Mickelson. Rory McIlroy chose London as the place to get ready. Tiger Woods spent the week contemplating a missed cut at The Greenbrier while working at home in South Florida.
My preparation was slightly different. I joined 60,000-plus members of the E Street Nation in the cold, wet slop at London’s Hyde Park to watch Bruce Springsteen put his enlarged ensemble through their paces for three-and-a-half hours.
No doubt you are wondering what the Boss’ name is doing in a golf publication and where I am going with this … but bear with me for a moment.
The outdoor Saturday night show in London was special. It began with Bruce, his harmonica, and bandmate Roy Bittan on piano, offering “a little love letter” to London. He sang Thunder Road, “the first thing we played after our feet touched English soil” in a legendary 1975 concert.
Since then, he has had a special relationship with London fans. He clearly revels in the warmth of their embrace, and, in turn, they cannot get enough of him. The assembled knew the words to most of his songs, and they didn’t hesitate to sing out loud, if off key. It’s quite something to see and hear 60,000 Brits singing about a Vietnam veteran’s disgust and frustration at the top of their lungs.
The show also quickly became part of Bruce lore for an odd reason. Claiming that he had waited 50 years for the moment, he surprised the gathered by calling Paul McCartney on stage for the closing numbers. However, after ripping through the Beatle’s “Saw Her Standing There” and “Twist and Shout,” someone killed the sound and brought a premature end to the festivities. Curfew, it was claimed. Fingers were pointed, blame was assigned, but a historic moment was ruined.
Springsteen is 62. In his 40-year musical journey, he has made a fortune or two. He doesn’t need to do this anymore. And yet he is out there every night, show after show, sometimes for nearly four hours, entertaining, engaging and otherwise thrilling his worldwide audience. He leaves the stage each night exhausted, thoroughly drenched in sweat. The man has never once in his career phoned it in. Never.
Which brings me back to golf. As I watched Tom Watson hitting balls on the practice tee one day at Lytham, I couldn’t help but think of the parallels between him and the Boss. Watson also is 62, born the same September month as Springsteen, in 1949. He has as a new hip, has won eight major titles, and is financially secure. His place among golf’s all-time greats has been settled, and he has become a statesman for the game. He doesn’t need to do this any longer, and yet there he is at Lytham, competing against lads a third of his age. He held his own, as he usually does when he ventures across the pond, making the 3-over par cut on the number.
Just as Springsteen has a special bond with Londoners, Watson has a unique relationship with golf fans in the British Isles. It has been that way since he learned to embrace the British game, and then went on to win five Open Championships. The same year Springsteen won over London, Watson won his first Open Championship, at Carnoustie in 1975. Golf fans in the British Isles embraced him precisely because he learned their style of play, and then proceeded to master it. They still can’t believe how close he came to winning again, at Turnberry in 2009.
The final similarity is this: Like Springsteen, Watson never once in his fabled career has phoned it in. He has far too much respect for the game to ever give it anything but his best, even during the lean years when his putter refused to cooperate.
Which brings me back to young McIlroy, who was never a factor last week at Lytham. On the eve of the Open, McIlroy admitted that he all but gave up in the second round of the European Tour’s biggest event, the BMW Championship at Wentworth. “I didn’t shoot a great first round, and then in that middle stretch of the second round, I had a few bogeys,” he told the London Telegraph. “So I stood on the 12th tee and realised I probably wasn’t going to make the cut. From then on, half my body was in Paris (where his girlfriend, tennis superstar Caroline Wozniacki was) and the other half in Wentworth. But that’s totally understandable, I feel.”
McIlroy is the finest young talent to come along since Tiger Woods. Because he is warm, refreshingly engaging and preternaturally talented, he is precisely what this game needs. Along with Webb Simpson and Rickie Fowler, his is the face of the future of the pro game. But when he says his Wentworth behavior is “understandable,” he displays the ignorance of youth.
In time, he will learn. The game hopes that he will grow up to respect his craft like Tom Watson and the Boss do theirs, to never surrender. If so, he will become a champion, not just a winner.