1978 Open had lasting effects on Kite, Crenshaw
On a summer day in Scotland in 1978, two former college teammates from Austin arrived in St. Andrews to compete in the oldest championship in golf, the British Open.
Tom Kite had seen the Old Course before. He played in the 1971 Walker Cup amateur matches against Great Britain and Ireland, and on the bus from Glasgow he asked other members of the American team if ancient St. Andrews was a hilly course like the ones he knew in Texas.
The players told Kite, then 21, they had no logical reply.
“It’s a flat course that plays hilly,” Kite said his teammates told him in 1971. “I didn’t quite understand their answer until I saw the golf course.”
Ben Crenshaw, who played with Kite at the University of Texas, knew the Old Course only from maps, film, published accounts and his own dreams. He came to St. Andrews in 1978 having earned five PGA Tour titles and a fleeting brush with British Open glory the previous
summer, when he finished tied for fifth on the high cliffs of the west Scottish coast at Turnberry.
Crenshaw instantly was charmed by the vast, rippled fairways of the most famous course in the world.
“I was just fascinated,” Crenshaw said of his first encounter with the linksland on St. Andrews Bay. “It’s basically a very flat golf course from some perspectives. But when you get out and play it, it’s anything but flat. It’s just a sea of very minute and interesting undulations. “I still marvel at them.” Against that backdrop of mystery and intrigue, Kite, 28, and Crenshaw, 26, set out that Thursday in July to compete in their first British Opens contested at St. Andrews.
The bunker-laden course of double greens and dramatic creases, evolved of wind and water and grazing animals, had been the scene of 21 previous British Opens, known beyond the U.S. as the Open Championship. Some form of golf had been played there since 1552. Tom Kidd won the first Open Championship in 1873 with rounds of 91 and 88. Later victors included Bobby Jones, Sam Snead and, in 1970, Jack Nicklaus.
Eight summers later, Crenshaw opened with a 2-underpar 70. Kite tied for 26th in the first round at even-par 72.
In the second round, both of them shot 69.
Crenshaw started the pivotal third round that Saturday in a tie for first place with Isao Aoki of Japan and Seve Ballesteros of Spain. Two shots behind, Kite was tied for sixth.
“My confidence was up,” Crenshaw recalled. “I was in great position. I’d done some nice things there at St. Andrews.”
Kite shot a steady 72 in round three. Crenshaw played the course at a shot over par, 73.
Crenshaw remembered the round as “a little loose.” He finished with a share of third place, a shot behind the leaders, Peter Oosterhuis and Tom Watson.
Up for grabs
Kite started the final round two shots out of first and in a tie for seventh. He’d made up a stroke on Crenshaw, who began his Sunday round tied with Simon Owen of New Zealand, who shot a 67 in the third round, and the last man to win at St. Andrews: Nicklaus, who went around the Old Course that third-round Saturday in 69 swings.
The championship was anyone’s.
“It’s a learning experience every time you go there,” Kite said. “You have to refresh your memory as to where all the hazards are, because they’re not out there for you to see.”
On that Sunday in 1978, Kite drove the green on the par-4 12th hole. He made birdie.
He said a thought occurred to him at that moment. That he could win. Kite evaulated a 15-foot putt for birdie on the 13th hole. He produced a “beautiful putt,” he said, that missed. He had a similar-length putt for birdie on No. 14. He missed that, too.
“At St. Andrews, you don’t get the ball close to the hole very often. The greens are so huge, the bounces are so erratic, that you don’t always feel like you have total control. That particular day,” Kite said, “I had a number of putts that were in the 15-to 20-foot range. And I didn’t make any of them.”
Crenshaw suffered early but enjoyed better fortune later in his round.
He made a double-bogey on the 480-yard par-4 fourth hole. He shot a 3-over 39 on the outward nine holes.
But the undulations and folds in the land that enchanted him so much became friendlier to his cause on the inward side.
Crenshaw shot a 4-under 32 on the last nine holes. He finished with a four-round total of 5-under 283. And so did Kite. The two childhood friends and rivals sat on the steps of the Royal and Ancient Clubhouse and waited for destiny.
Nicklaus and Owen held it in their hands, but Owen made a series of errors late in the round when he bogeyed the 16th and 17th holes.
Nicklaus finished with verve and patience. His last obstacle was the notorious Road Hole, the par-4 17th. He made par there. “When Jack got past 17, you kind of felt like he was going to win,” Kite said.
Nicklaus shot a second consecutive 69 to claim another Claret Jug at the Old Course. Kite and Crenshaw finished in a four-way tie for second with Owen and Raymond Floyd.
The Texans went on to play other Open Championships at St. Andrews. In 1984, they shared 22nd place. In 1990, Kite missed the cut; Crenshaw tied for 31st.
In 1995, Kite tied for 58th. Crenshaw, in his last British Open on the Old Course, tied for 15th.
Tiger Woods won his first Open Championship at St. Andrews in 2000. And Kite played his last one there, opening with 72-72 to make the cut before he finished with a share of 70th place.
Connected deeply and indelibly by place, time and trajectory, Kite and Crenshaw went on to Hall of Fame careers in the game. Each earned 19 titles on the PGA Tour. Crenshaw won a pair of Masters. Kite won a U.S. Open. They now compete on the Champions Tour but yearn, in their own ways, for the dominance and dominion they once exercised over the game that was formalized centuries ago on St. Andrews Bay. They now design courses of their own. They live still in Austin.
Their second-place finishes in 1978 remain their best in the oldest championship in golf.
“I still think it’s the most interesting and thinking golf course in the world,” Crenshaw said of St. Andrews. “There’s an infinite amount of ways that you can play the golf course.”
Crenshaw calls the Old Course “the most democratic golf course in the world.”
There are no intimidating, narrow lanes of fairway hemmed by dense rough or corridors of trees.
Nothing tells the player how to play the loop of holes that begin and end in nearly the same spot.
In fact, much of the course appears as open and limitless as the imagination.
“If you’re a beginner, you can play it,” Crenshaw said. “If you’re an expert professional, it holds your attention.”
“St. Andrews gives you tons and tons of options,” Kite said. “More options that any golf course that’s been designed.
“There it is,” Kite said. “Go figure out how to do it.”
That’s what they did in 1978. That’s what the field will do today, the 28th occasion the Open Championship commences on the Old Course, the home of golf.
Jack Nicklaus, left, hugs caddie Jimmy Dickinson after Nicklaus shot a final-round 69 to win the 1978 British Open by two shots over Ben Crenshaw, Tom Kite, Simon Owen and Raymond Floyd.