The utility of British linksland might have been onexistent had golf not come along to make it hal- lowed, history springing from its sandy soil. Then Hitler started a war. Suddenly the game’s bucolic links, by virtue
of the low-lying shorelines where they were built, were susceptible to history of another sort: a German invasion that
was expected following The Battle of Britain, the epic 1940
air war. Thus the British prepared to make a stand on golf’s
oldest and finest courses, threatening their very existence.
One of them was Royal Lytham & St. Annes, on which
the British Open will be played for the 11th time this month.
Royal Lytham sits low and hard by the Irish Sea, uncomfortably so at the outset of World War II, requiring that precautionary measures be taken. An anti-tank ditch was dug
across the breadth of the course, from the third to the 14th
green, and posts were implanted on its flattest fairways to
thwart their use as enemy landing strips.
Wars, members learned, reorder priorities. Once German
Messerschmitts began crossing the English Channel, British
golf largely took its leave, its royal and ancient roots irrelevant
against unfolding history that was greater than its own.
“I am writing at a time of year when in happier days I should
have been watching and writing about the Open Championship,” the legendary British golf writer Bernard Darwin wrote
in the midst of the war and the Open’s six-year hiatus from
1940 through 1945. “I wonder—and this is common to many
people—whether I shall ever watch one again.”
Darwin, a World War I veteran and the grandson of the
man who advanced the theory of evolution, must have
wondered whether the species had entered a period of
devolution. Sobering memorials that testify to the inhumanity to which he was twice exposed are ubiquitous in
Britain. One is found on the outer wall of the ruins of
St. Andrews Cathedral where Old and Young Tom Morris
are buried. St. Andrews’ war memorial lists the names
of its citizens who paid the supreme sacrifice in the two
world wars. It is not a short list.
“Every church in all these little villages, some not much
bigger than a hamlet, with 100 people maybe, has these war
memorials. Huge numbers killed,” renowned British golf in-
structor John Jacobs, 87, says. “It’s really quite heart-rending.”
It was, if not heart-rending, at least a disconcerting toll
the war was taking on British golf courses. Many were
neglected, their maintenance often left to grazing sheep,
250 head in the case of Muirfield GC, regarded by many
as Scotland’s best course. Some were requisitioned by the
military, including Turnberry on Scotland’s western coast.
An airfield, part of which is still visible, was built on its
links. The course was decimated and golf ceased.
“It was not surprising the opinion was freely expressed
that never again would Turnberry be a first-class golf
course,” wrote Martin A.F. Sutton, whose firm was hired
by owner British Transport Hotels to rebuild the course
after the war. History eventually would provide a second
opinion—the “Duel in the Sun,” Watson versus Nicklaus
At St. Andrews there was a concern that its proximity
to the Royal Air Force base at Leuchars made its shoreline
vulnerable to invasion. Pillboxes equipped with anti-tank