Sport Golf

Thursday 30 March 2017

Many hopes gone with the wind in race for Claret Jug

The Open casts as big a spell as ever for the world's best golfers at a windswept Troon

Dermot Gilleece

Winner of The Open at Royal Troon in 1989 Mark Calcavecchia couldn't emulate his former glories as the weather played havoc with the players' best-laid plans over the past three days. Photo: Getty Images
Winner of The Open at Royal Troon in 1989 Mark Calcavecchia couldn't emulate his former glories as the weather played havoc with the players' best-laid plans over the past three days. Photo: Getty Images

By way of completing my involvement in a series of short Royal and Ancient films on the Open Championship last week, the director asked me to close my eyes and present outstretched hands. Then, when something fairly weighty had been placed upon them, he instructed me to open my eyes so he could see my reaction.

My surprise at seeing the famous old Claret Jug, plinth and all, had more to do with how heavy it was rather than the trophy itself - which is one of the most iconic in sport and especially familiar to those of us who shared the victory celebrations of Padraig Harrington. It being the eve of the 145th staging of this grand old gathering, the imagined feelings of leading challengers this afternoon adopted a compelling resonance.

Indeed, its appeal is such that if that wily old codger, Mephistopheles, were to whisper a seductive proposition as they enter one of the toughest home stretches in championship golf, some wayward soul might be temped to do business. Mind you, Phil Mickelson was convinced of evil influences working the wrong way, when his chance of unprecedented glory was ruined by an 18th hole lip-out on Thursday.

"It was obvious right there," he said afterwards. "If there wasn't a curse, that ball would have been in and I would have had that 62." So, did he believe in such influences? "I didn't, but I do now."

This was Mickelson indulging golf scribes that he once thought of as carefree layabouts. In fact, by his own admission, he saw us as people who "got up every morning, played a round of golf, had lunch, showed up for the last three holes and then went to dinner."

Read More: Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson ready for Troon shootout

A similarly jaundiced view was conveyed on Friday by Denmark's Soren Kjeldsen, with a dry Scandinavian wit more associated with Henrik Stenson. Just in from enduring a morning of incessant rain, he reflected on Royal Birkdale in 2008 and his worst Open round of 81.

"It came down so hard all day and it was so windy (Harrington shot a 74)," said Kjeldsen. "I'll never forget walking off the 18th tee. There was one guy from the Danish media and you could see he was all dry and he had just had a nice cup of coffee which I could smell on his breath. I thought I didn't do too bad. But his first question was like 'what happened out there?'

"It was crazy. That was probably a low point. I told him 'maybe you should try and walk outside the tent.'"

Gavin Caldwell, their current captain, has ensured a decidedly Irish flavour to the R&A suite here where four lunch tables are named after our four Open champions - Fred Daly, Harrington, Darren Clarke and Rory McIlroy. And when last Monday's guests included Peter Alliss, Gary Player and chairman of the Australian PGA, Peter O'Malley, some great stories were exchanged about Daly and Harry Bradshaw.

"When I think of the number of times I talked about Mickelson and the 1991 Walker Cup during speeches I've made this year, it's marvellous to see what he's doing here," said Caldwell, who was captain of Portmarnock at that time. "To be honest, I thought his win at Muirfield three years ago had provided a wonderful bookend to his career, but there may be more to come.

"Looking at the way his game has endured, I'm reminded of a practice day at Portmarnock and the short 15th, where a wind was blowing hard off the land. And when his colleagues missed the green, Phil hit it to six feet, whereupon the others protested that the wind was easy for a left-hander. So he proceeded to borrow a right-handed club and knocked it close again."

Caldwell also spoke about the decisive afternoon when the home side were ahead in six matches by the time Mickelson, with no lunch, had reached the 10th. "From that point, he played the last eight holes in three under par for a one-hole win which turned the tide."

He concluded: "I haven't spoken to him since then, but I think he has been a great credit to golf over the years."

As the traditional scene-setter for Open week, Tuesday's annual dinner of the Association of Golf Writers was especially appealing on this occasion. Paul McGinley, his talking skills honed from punditry on Sky, was in fine form at our 'Irish' table, and McIlroy was on hand to receive the Writers' Trophy for 2015 - while expressing some apprehension about media reaction to his comments about the Olympics.

But the highlight of the evening was the brief contribution by Reverend Stephen Willett, father to the current Masters champion, Danny, and vicar of a parish just outside Sheffield. Having been invited to say grace, he first informed us about the day the bishop visited the Willett abode for lunch.

Read More: WATCH: Rory McIlroy smashes club as frustration gets the better of him at Royal Troon

"When we were just about to eat, I said to him we'd say grace," he recalled.

"Danny looked at the bishop and said 'I don't know why... We never normally do.'"

Then, to much laughter, Reverend Willett added: "My career prospects went down the toilet at that point."

It being Troon, and the loss two months ago of one of our finest, reminded me of the same occasion in 1997, when the great Peter Thomson was the main speaker. And having noted the lush, green nature of modern links terrain from the brown, scorched look of his days of dominance, he made warm mention of the 1950 Troon winner, Bobby Locke, and his four Open titles.

Thomson then referred to another "of the greatest players of my time", whose name, unfortunately, we wouldn't find on the Open roll of honour - because he never won it. "And he wasn't British," he said. "But he was the best European golfer of that era. I refer to an Irishman - Christy O'Connor."

He continued: "When I think of Christy I think of that ramrod straight left arm, which remains that way, even now in his 70s. He went close to winning the Open on a number of occasions but, for some reason or other, he never made the breakthrough. Luck didn't seem to be with him when it mattered."

For those of us of a certain age, a particularly interesting three-ball over the first two days comprised the last three winners at Troon - Mark Calcavecchia (1989), Justin Leonard (1997) and Todd Hamilton (2004). And for each, there was the sense of coming home to honour the impact their Open performances has had on their respective careers.

The presence of Calcavecchia afforded the opportunity of recounting a fascinating exchange I had with Gene Sarazen, 23 years ago. It had to do with his decision to change his name from Eugenio Saraceni, because "it sounded like I was a concert violinist". He then added with a mischievous smile: "That guy Calcavecchia should change his name."

The man playing in his 29th Open, was highly amused. "That's funny - the first time I've heard that," he said. "Maybe I should have become Mark Calc." Then, by way of emphasising his enduring competitiveness, he succeeded in carding a first-round birdie on the treacherous 11th, which he had been unable to reach during practice rounds.

Read More: Late adjustments made to Open course as Royal Troon braces for 30mph winds

As it happened, all three of them missed the cut on six over par - which, taken with the nine-over from John Daly, tended to put a bit of a dent in the prediction by the 1995 champion that "in the next 20 years, you're going to see some older guys, guys in their 50s, win some majors".

Daly explained: "Technology has helped, and guys are fitter and stronger at an older age. They also have a far better chance here than, say, at Augusta, which is so freaking long. You don't have to be a bomber at the British Open. With no disrespect to Zach [Johnson], look what he did at St Andrews."

Troon could hardly be more different from the burnt, bouncy stretch that Thomson remembered. At one point last winter, six fairways were entirely under water and 160,000 gallons were pumped away. Any chance of it acquiring a frisky weekend bounce were emphatically killed by Friday's rain.

One constant, however, was the difficulty of the 11th hole, known as 'The Railway'. Changed from a par five in 1997 to what is now a 482-yard par four, it has been a source of serious grief over the years. In fact, Thursday's opening round was notable for horrendous nines there from David Duval, Australian Steve Bowditch and Sweden's Kristoffer Broberg.

But there has been some humour, too. Arnold Palmer, who described it as "the most dangerous hole I have ever seen" during his victory march of 1962, did some fascinating scrambling there in 1989.

Having thrashed around in gorse flanking the 11th, he turned, perplexed to his caddie, Alfie Fyles. "Hey Alfie, where's the plaque?" he asked. "About 200 miles away," came the droll reply. "You're on the wrong course."

Palmer had confused it with the 15th at Birkdale, where a remarkable six-iron recovery shot in 1961, had, indeed, been commemorated by a plaque.

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