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British Open at Royal Troon: Where golf returns to its roots

Dustin Johnson practices prior to the British Open

Dustin Johnson practices prior to the British Open Golf Championship at Royal Troon, Scotland, on July 13, 2016. Photo Credit: EPA / FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA

TROON, Scotland — Golf has returned to its homeland, to the rain, wind and green hills of Scotland, a place of kings, kilts and courses with rhythmic names such as Auchterarder, Machrihanish, and the one where the 145th British Open — known here as the Open Championship — begins Thursday at Royal Troon.

The game was created on the Scottish links land in the Middle Ages. It is old as forever and modern as now, with changes in personnel certainly, in attire and equipment yet still affixed to the basic principle: Each swing of each club, from driver to putter, counts one stroke.

Golf is people from Bobby Jones and Arnold Palmer, to Jordan Spieth and Dustin Johnson. Golf also is venues that are as different from each other as Fenway Park is from Yankee Stadium — large or small, narrow or broad, accepting or like Troon, on the Firth of Clyde, some 35 miles southwest of Glasgow, testing physically and mentally.

Troon is a tale of two nines. Said the longtime pro Colin Montgomerie, who because his father was club secretary has played the place since he was a wee lad: “If you’re not under par after nine holes at Troon, you may as well go to the clubhouse at Prestwick and have lunch.”

Prestwick, where the British Open began in 1860 and was held the first 12 years, is adjacent to Troon.

Down the road from Troon is the Brig O’Doon, the bridge over the River Doon and Robert Burns’ cottage where in the dialect of Scotland he venerated the heroes of Scottish battles, Wallace and Robert, and gave the world “Auld Lang Syne.”

Troon may not have the scenic grandeur of Turnberry, 25 miles down the coast, where in 2009 59-year-old Tom Watson reached a playoff and lost to Stewart Cink. What it does have is a hole — the 11th — alongside a railroad track and another — the eighth — named the Postage Stamp, at 123 yards the shortest hole in of any Open course, a par-three that can play to anything.

Tuesday, in a practice round, Rory McIlroy, one of the game’s current Big Four, hit a wedge into one of the huge traps, named Coffin Bunker, and needed six shots to get out. After the round, McIlroy said he had a nine on the hole, six over par. Then again, not until Thursday did scores count.

Gene Sarazen’s first British Open was at Troon in 1923. The first round he had a hole-in-one at eight, the second round he hit into a bunker but holed out for a birdie two. Despite taking a total of only three shots in two days at the eighth, Sarazen missed the cut.

In 1973. Sarazen, then 71, played in the Open at Troon under the exemption for former champs (he won in 1932) and not only made another ace at the Postage Stamp but shot the exact 36-hole score as he did in 1923. That brought about a rather terse note from a crusty Troon member, to wit: “Fifty years Mr. Sarazen and you haven’t improved a single shot.”

Zach Johnson won the Open last year at St. Andrews in a playoff. His first Open in Britain, 2004, was the last one at Troon.

“The memories were brief because I only played two days,” Johnson said. “I don’t remember every hole, but I do remember the Postage Stamp. And I found out that this tournament magnifies your strengths and magnifies your weaknesses more than any other. And I remember the fans. They get this game. We’re in Scotland where it was designed and formed.”

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