Q-and-A with Curt Sampson

Author Curt Sampson's latest book, Royal and Ancient, (Villard, $25.95) takes a broad and well-informed look at the 1999 British Open. Sampson, 48, isn't just a talented writer of some repute -- his well-received and authoritative 1994 biography of Ben Hogan helped inspire Steve Jones to win the '95 U.S. Open -- he's also one of the few who wields a golf club with the same authority as a pen, having twice won the Golf Writers Association of America annual tournament. Sampson talked about his newest book from his ranch outside Dallas.

You picked up on the Carnoustie greenskeeper, John Philp, from the very start -- and then, of course, Philp ended up being the villain, or the hero, of the '99 Open. Why'd it occur to you to start talking to him?

Really, that was just dumb luck. I met the guy the first time I set foot on Carnoustie, and he was obviously a good talker and an interesting guy. I gave him a bottle of whiskey -- a lot of great friendships are started that way. Carnoustie's a little town, it was hard to find a place to live, and I just asked if I could pay him a fairly modest amount and stay with him and his family, and he surprisingly agreed. It was lucky.

Which raises some other issues -- for instance, do you think maybe your presence inspired him to be the hero of the B.O.?

No, I don't think so. He just is -- he was so pro-Ben Hogan and all he represented, and anti-the current golf pro all that he perceives him to represent -- ill-prepared, spoiled, overpaid and so on. He had that going in, and I was just glad to observe it, it was thought-provoking, and that plus the course setup made him one of the key figures in that little drama.

Many people seem to think he was the key figure in the British Open of 1999.

Many people liked the way he handled himself. The postscript of the book, which wasn't in the galley that you've seen, mentions that he was knighted.


He is now Sir John Philp. I don't know if he's had his investiture, but in December he got a letter from No. 10 Downing Street.

Were you surprised to hear about that?

Oh, yeah. But I sensed that he was speaking for a lot of people when he said what he said -- including the Royal and Ancient. I know that what he was saying -- "stop complaining and play the golf course as you find it" -- they were agreeing with.

And that gets you an M.B.E.?

That has to be key part of it. Obviously, he's done some meritorious service for golf in maintaining Carnoustie, but -- other people maintain golf courses, he's the only one I know who's been knighted for it.

The book leaves it a bit uncertain how much of the way the course was set up was his doing, and how much was the R&A's.

I don't think anything he did would have been a surprise to them. I'm sure that they have enough handle on things to control the playing field. But it was true, I think, what was said over and over, it was a bit of a freakish year for weather, and a banner year for growing rough.

What did you think of the way the course was set up?

I used to be a serious player, so I tend to sympathize with the competitors. And they were presented with an almost impossible test there. I just don't know how you could have prepared for it -- there wasn't another course in the world as hard. I guess you could have gone somewhere or other to find similar conditions, but I don't know where that would be. So Philps' statement that the players were just ill-prepared, while true, wasn't really completely fair -- because where could you go to find that?

Do you think they had Tiger Woods on their minds?

Well, yes -- they did have Tiger Woods in mind. John Philp was offended that Woods hit the 6th green with a driver or whatever, a five-iron or a 7-iron. That's the long par-5 on the front nicknamed Hogan's Alley. [Philp] saw that as a complete retreat from the traditional game. After all, this is the hole where Hogan required a driver, 4-wood, and a pitch. So he thought the shaft, and the ball and so forth, are losing touch with the traditional game.

You don't usually see the British Open set up the way the USGA sets up. Do you see this as a trend for future British Opens? Do you think courses should be "Tiger-proofed"?

Gosh I don't know. They've had high rough before and they will again. The big accusation had to do with fertilizing the rough -- Philp denied that vehemently and repeatedly -- he said again and again it was because of the freakishly warm and wet conditions. Should we Tiger-proof golf courses? I don't know. I agree with what a friend of mine, Geoff Shackelford, said when I called him about this -- he said, we send these great golf courses major championships because of their wonderful architecture, and then we allow some bureaucrats to mask the architecture under horrendous rough or skating-rink greens. He finds that it's true, and I tend to agree with him, that if it's a great test, it ought to be ready to play a major in three or four days.

I think you sort of suggest that the course setup reshuffled the deck, turned the leaderboard upside down in a way.

In a way. But on the other hand, if Leonard had won -- he came so close -- then everyone would have viewed it as the most just possible result, the tour's greatest grinder on the toughest golf course ever played. But he didn't, so your point is well-taken, that it reshuffled the deck and there were these two pluggers named Paul Lawrie and Jean van de Velde, who didn't have the sense to give up -- they were happy to be there, they qualified for the tournament on the Monday of that week. And I'm sure in their heart of hearts were both a bit shocked to be where they were on Sunday.

One of the most engaging things about Royal and Ancient is the obvious feeling that you were charmed by Van de Velde. A few people felt sort of as you did, that the second-guessing coming from the ABC announcers was a little over the top. Or maybe I'm putting words into your mouth. Do you think he should be second-guessed?

Oh, sure because that's great sports. That's what fans and writers do, we second-guess -- that's our job, that's what we do.

Speak for yourself.

But I think the -- in defense of the TV guys, Van de Velde's behavior was so unlike any they'd ever seen that -- all they could do was ascribe insanity and choking. But all he was doing was trying to play the 72nd hole as he'd played the first 71, which was balls-out. Jean just went for it -- his mantra was something his caddie would whisper to him, or he would say to himself, "Allez, Jean." He paid for it, I think freakishly, at the end. And some would see that as just. This was the ultimate layup course, and he didn't lay up for the most part. I'll bet he hit twice as many drivers as Justin.

I remember thinking at the time, when the ABC guys were all over him, "It's easy to say that, but maybe he figures if he doesn't hit driver, he's already caving into the pressure." Is that the way you might have looked at it yourself if you were in his shoes? I mean, who of us can say he choked?

I don't know. I was leading a college tournament my senior year by two shots with one to play. And of course there weren't scoreboards, but I sensed I was doing well and I choked my way to a double bogey on one of the easiest holes on the course, and then lost in playoff. Maybe that's the genesis of my sympathy for Van de Velde. In my personal way, and in a much smaller frame of reference.

Hmm. Did you slice your drive?

No. I hit a three-wood into a bunker that should have been out of play, then I went from that bunker to one in front of the green, left it in that bunker. Hit a good shot to five feet, and lipped out. My cheeks still burn with shame. Choking dog.

No compunction about using the "C" word?

I can certainly use it about myself, and I have choked many times, and that was a good example of it, I was 21 or something. I can choke in a game of golf with you this afternoon, for two bucks. That would be enough. I choke when I get under par. If I ever get under par, it's harder for me to get farther under, because I start to choke.

Hoo-hah, Mr. Under Par. When did you give up your dream of being a professional golfer, if indeed you have.

I certainly did. And I believe it was 1978, I played in one Tour School. Shot 76, 83, 75. And I saw that I was well overmatched.

Who'd you play with?

I played with some guys who are still on the Tour, I guess. But the key guy for me was Ed Fiori. His nickname is "Grip." The way he holds a golf club is -- what's the phrase? "Two pythons making love?" It's all wrong, and it looked ridiculous, [and I thought] you can't play that way. And I don't think I ever beat Ed Fiori, and it was depressing.

You hear so much about how American pros react to British courses -- some of them hate'em, others wear their love for them on their sleeves. Is it becoming a status symbol to dig the old courses?

Especially in the case of the Old Course, it must be an acquired taste -- like your not enjoying your first drink of Scotch, and yet by your fifth or your tenth try, you've got a bottle ready to go... And a lot of golfers are snobs, myself included. Often golfers will get together and play the name game -- "Have you played Ballybunion, have you played Dornoch?" There's some one-upping there, guys trying to outdo each other in their love of that corner of the world, that part of the game. And you know, I plead guilty, I do some of that.

How much do the Brits do this stuff?

A lot of them do it in reverse: "Have you played Merion? Have you ever been to Texas to play Colonial?"

What's the difference between a great player, and a good one -- is it nature or nurture?

You're asking the big questions, aren't you, Ray Bob?

I know you've got all the answers, Curt.

Well... like a lot of people, I was harmed by following Ben Hogan.


Yes. I probably had a similar socioeconomic -- maybe a little bit better off -- similar background. He was one of seven kids, I was the fifth. I mean, we got along fine, we never went hungry, but we weren't wealthy. And I always read about, "Hogan never had a lesson," that he "practiced his way to what he became" As a result, I eschewed lessons. I would have been far better off following in the steps of Arnold Palmer, whose father was a golf pro, or Jack Nicklaus, whose father could afford to buy him Jack Grout. I have gone 180 degrees on that. Competent instruction is the way to go -- I think the "dig it out of the ground" thing for most people is limited. It's a good idea, but I don't think people should follow Ben Hogan in all cases.

How's that for not answering your question?