The weird and wonderful world of golf's most intriguing Major
Victory on greatest stage has meant glory for some and ignominy for others, writes Karl MacGinty
IT'S the oldest of golf's Majors and can be as eccentric and incorrigible as a mischievous elderly uncle. Anything can happen at the British Open, from the wacky to the wonderful – even this week, when it takes place on the fairest links of them all, Muirfield.
Of the four jewels in golf's crown, the British Open forever will be the rough diamond, principally because of the sacred turf upon which it is played. Traditional seaside courses offer a wild antithesis to the pristine, emerald green fairways of Augusta National, home to the US Masters.
The wide array of shots and options on the links brings creativity to the fore, setting the annual quest for the Claret Jug apart from the unyielding attrition of the US Open or the PGA.
US Ryder Cup captain and five-time British Open champion Tom Watson hit the nail on the head when he said: "American golf is so predictable, it sometimes becomes boring. Everybody plays the same shot the same way, whereas links golf is so unpredictable. That's its beauty."
That Watson went within one stroke of winning the 2009 British Open at Turnberry in his 60th year illustrates how imagination and the ability to conjure up shots remains a match for brute force in this mystical arena.
Along with the vagaries of seaside weather, links golf challenges the player with an infinite variety of lies on hard, quick fairways; the constant threat of tall, whispering fescues, deep pot bunkers and rolling swales and the bodhran bounce on its greens.
On the southern shore of the Firth of Forth, Muirfield has been home to the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers since 1891. Old Tom Morris laid out the course and, in 1892, it hosted the British Open for the first time.
It is a wonderful design, entirely different to Old Tom's alma mater at St Andrews. The outward nine loops clockwise around the inward half, which circles in the opposite direction.
Not unlike the workings of a Victorian clockwork toy, this ingenious layout forces the golfer to adjust to an ever-shifting wind.
Like any other course on the Open roster, Muirfield can deliver lucky hops and bounces, like the one which helped Lee Trevino pluck himself out of deep trouble on Sunday in 1972 with an outrageous chip-in par that broke Tony Jacklin's heart and, contemporaries suggest, his spirit too.
The Open championship is so enormous and overpowering, it really does change lives.
Its most prominent victims this century include Sergio Garcia, who ended up wailing like a lost child in the locker room at Carnoustie, and Thomas Bjorn, whose Viking spirit was cracked by his final-day implosion in a greenside bunker at Sandwich.
For some, the Claret Jug brought with it a curse. Hoisting it in victory at Lytham in 2001 would be David Duval's last act as a world-conquering professional, while Todd Hamilton, Stewart Cink and Darren Clarke have gone into stasis since winning the title.
Former world No 1 Duval, now 41 and wallowing at No 1512 in the rankings, appears unlikely to contend this week.
Yet if Bjorn, in form on the European Tour, or Garcia, remarkably close to the top of the putting charts in the US, make a Major breakthrough next Sunday, it would merely add another chapter to the never-ending story of golf's most intriguing Major.
1. TIGER AVOIDS TRAPS AT
ST ANDREWS BUT FALLS
INTO OLDEST ONE OF ALL
Any catalogue of the British Open in the 21st century must begin with Tiger Woods, who ushered in the new millennium with a performance for the ages at St Andrews in 2000.
A month after his epic 15-stroke win at the US Open at Pebble Beach, record crowds of 230,000 flocked to see Tiger, then 24, play 72 holes at the Old Course in an unprecedented 19-under-par.
Never before nor since had anyone gone so low at a Major. Remarkably, Woods also went four days without hitting a ball into any of the 112 bunkers at St Andrews.
So great was Tiger's mastery at the Old Course, he romped home five strokes ahead of nearest challenger, Colin Montgomerie when the British Open was next played there in 2005, then retained the Claret Jug with a strategically brilliant performance around the tight confines of Royal Liverpool the following summer.
Tiger used his driver just once that week at Hoylake as he paid the perfect tribute to his late father Earl, who'd died several weeks earlier – all his grief and joy came pouring out as he sobbed in the arms of his caddie Steve Williams on the 18th green.
Woods had become embroiled in traps of a different sort by the time the British Open returned to St Andrews in 2010. Only in recent months has he recovered the sense of entitlement he used show with his putter, though not yet in the Major championship arena.
He hasn't won a Major since 2008, but how fitting if Woods regained his winning aura at Muirfield, where a sudden rainstorm on Saturday in 2002 resulted in his worst round as a pro, an 81, shattering widespread hopes of a Grand Slam by Tiger that season.
2. DUVAL PLUMMETS FROM GOLF'S HIGHEST SUMMIT INTO THE ABYSS
Ian Woosnam and his caddie Myles Byrne were central characters in the wackiest tale at the modern British Open, while their misfortune at Lytham in 2001 helped create one of the biggest mysteries in modern golf.
"You're going to go ballistic," the Irishman told his boss on the second tee at Lytham on Sunday in 2001. He was dead right. 'Woosie', tied for the lead overnight and fresh from a birdie at the par-three first, was apoplectic when Byrne told him there was a second driver in the bag.
The Welshman was penalised two strokes for carrying 15 clubs on that first hole and by the time he recovered his composure, his victory prospects were gone. Instead, the Claret Jug was lifted by David Duval, who surely must wonder how different his life might have been without this watershed – winning his first Major threw the American's career into a tailspin from which it's never recovered.
Duval was consumed by a sense of anti-climax after achieving this Holy Grail at Lytham. Yet other painful factors, physical and personal, helped ensure one of the most spectacularly successful players of his generation would suddenly lose the Midas touch.
Though Duval leapfrogged Tiger to the top of the world by winning 11 of 34 tournaments from the end of 1997 to early '99, a debilitating back injury sustained in 2000 would throw his swing completely out of kilter.
He'd been burdened far longer by events in real life. Naturally, the loss of his brother Brent to aplastic anaemia in boyhood had a profound effect on Duval. The fact that the bone marrow he'd bravely donated failed to save his sibling appeared to leave him with an unwarranted sense of guilt.
A couple of years later, the marriage of his grief-stricken parents fractured. Through it all, Duval found refuge in golf. Though he wore dark glasses to correct a stigmatism, he also yearned to avoid the glare of public attention.
This came shining through in the mid-2000s when, plainly worn down by injuries, illness and incessant repetition of the 'what's wrong with Duval' question, he told a confidant: "I just wish I could be anonymous again."
Though he's not regained former glories on the course, Duval found rich contentment in his life.
Blissfully married to Susie, he's now motivated by the desire to show their five children how good a golfer he can be. These days, Duval heartily laughs off any suggestion by strangers of a tortured life. Far from it!
3. SO 'EASY' FOR ELS AS A COUPLE OF CLARET JUGS LAND IN HIS LAP
Few were as badly mauled by Tiger as Ernie Els. The Lion of Africa roared to victory at the 1994 and 1997 US Opens but had endured a staggering series of near misses at the Majors when he arrived at Muirfield in 2002.
His mane had been clipped by an agonising series of three successive runner-up finishes at the Masters, the US Open and British Open in 2000, especially in the latter two, where Woods roasted Els (and the rest).
Having completed the 'Tiger Slam' by winning the subsequent US PGA and 2001 Masters, the world expected Woods to become the first player to pick up all four Majors in the same season when he won the 2002 Masters and US Open.
Yet Mother Nature had other ideas, blitzing Tiger's prospects at Muirfield with a deluge of biblical proportions. As Woods fell out of contention with a 10-over-par 81, his worst round as a professional, the biggest stumbling block between Els and a third Major title had been removed.
"I've had a good career but I've got a little Jekyll and Hyde in me," conceded Els in his moment of victory, also colourfully admitting he'd been afflicted by 'Tigeritis'. The South African beat Thomas Levet, Stuart Appleby and Steve Elkington in the only four-way play-off at Muirfield.
Fate intervened on Ernie's behalf once again at Lytham last year, when a period of self-doubt, culminating in his decision to take up the belly putter, was brought to a spectacular conclusion as another Claret Jug landed in his lap. This time, Adam Scott was the architect of his own horrible downfall. Four ahead with four to play, the gifted young Australian became embroiled in a waking nightmare as he finished with four successive bogeys.
Els had made a big putt on 18 for the birdie and a final-round 68 which ultimately clinched his fourth Major.
Scott, who signed for a 75, showed character by putting that setback behind him and winning April's Masters, establishing the Australian as one of this week's favourites.
4. BJORN LOSER AS CURTIS, THEN HAMILTON TAKE BRITISH OPEN TO NEW LEVEL
Thomas Bjorn and Padraig Harrington had been hot rivals as they clambered up the European Tour ladder together and it looked for all the world as if the Dane would be first to win a Major as the 2003 British Open came to a climax.
Bjorn led by three going into the final four holes – then a truly wacky Open took another bizarre twist, changing the complexion of the Dane's tournament and, indeed, his career.
After a dropped shot at 15, Bjorn hit his tee shot at 16 into the right greenside bunker. Twice, he scooped his ball out of the sand, only to see it halt before the top of the crest on the green and roll back to his feet.
Bjorn got out at the third attempt and sank the putt for a five, followed by shell-shocked bogey at 17.
American Ben Curtis, playing in his first Major and a lowly 396th in the world rankings, was hitting wedges on the range when his caddie told him: "You're the British Open Champion!"
Curtis became the first debutant to win since Tom Watson in 1975, bringing a weird week to a suitable climax. The oddities began when the opening tee shot by favourite Woods on Thursday morning vanished in long grass under the nose of countless fans, many of whom joined in the search.
Bjorn was involved in another unseemly incident that first day, penalised two strokes for angrily slamming his club into the sand after leaving his ball in a bunker.
The Dane had to fight demons of self-doubt down the years since Sandwich. In 2004, for example, he walked off the course at the K Club after six holes of the European Open.
The following year, he was leading the same event but hit three shots from the 17th tee on the Palmer Course into the Liffey, eventually taking 11 at that hole in a stupefying meltdown.
Still, Bjorn finished second only to Phil Mickelson at that year's PGA and has won five times since on Tour, including the storm-tossed 2006 Irish Open at Carton House.
If he recovers from the sore neck which caused him to pull out of the Scottish Open last Friday, the in-form Bjorn this week might even emulate Darren Clarke's 2011 feat of winning his first Major title at age 42.
Remarkably, a year after that stunning victory by Curtis, another unheralded American, 500/1 shot Todd Hamilton, then 38, brought the Claret Jug back from Royal Troon to the US mid-west.
In fairness, Hamilton was ranked 56th in the world after adding a victory at the Honda Classic that March to 11 career wins on the Japan Tour ... and he beat Ernie Els fair and square in the four-hole play-off.
Yet while Curtis has won three times on the PGA Tour since his stunning breakthrough at Sandwich, Hamilton's career went the same way as Duval's and he currently plays on America's Web.Com Tour.
5. HARRINGTON SPARKS SPECTACULAR IRISH UPRISING AT THE MAJORS
Looking back to the 2007 British Open, Harrington brilliantly describes his panic during those fateful few minutes after knocking a second ball into the Barry Burn at Carnoustie's 18th hole.
"The tee shot didn't bother me," said the Dubliner. "Anyone can hit a bad tee shot, especially on No 18 at Carnoustie, the toughest hole in golf. But after I hit my approach shot into water, I thought I'd lost. I'd choked. It was over.
"I was utterly embarrassed. I'd let everybody down. I wanted the ground to open up and swallow me," he added. "But my caddie (Ronan Flood) talked me through it. He used every cliche in the book ... a barrage of statements.
"After 50 yards I wanted to throttle him. For the second 50 yards, I was listening and for the last 50 yards, I was believing him. He helped me get back in the zone. It was amazing. You never get back in the zone after doing what I did on that hole. Yet I did."
Harrington pitched and putted for a double-bogey six and, after signing for a 67, found himself in a play-off when a ghostly finger seemed to brush Sergio Garcia's putt for par and victory past the cup at 18.
Careers are made and broken by such tiny strokes of destiny.
Harrington played well enough that week to deserve the Claret Jug and went on to prove his mettle by holding onto it the following July at Royal Birkdale and denying Garcia once again on Sunday at the 2008 US PGA.
The Spaniard was utterly devastated by events at Carnoustie. Someone who walked into the locker-room after the play-off was stunned by the sight and sound of Garcia wailing uncontrollably in the arms of his sister.
He was so deeply wounded, one suspects Carnoustie played a significant part in undermining Garcia's self confidence to the point where he conceded last year: "I don't think I can ever win a Major."
Harrington's feats helped invest Graeme McDowell with confidence for his US Open win at Pebble Beach in 2010, while Clarke also paid tribute to the Dubliner for making it less difficult for him to visualise his Open success in 2011.
Rory McIlroy, who won the silver medal as leading amateur at Carnoustie, didn't need convincing that Major titles were in his destiny – and Claret Jugs too, despite doubts about his ability to play in the wind.
Though he shot a stunning first-round 63 at St Andrews in 2010, McIlroy literally got blown off course the following day as Louis Oosthuizen pressed on for victory.
Even after rebounding from his infamous Sunday meltdown at the Masters to win the 2011 US Open in record-breaking fashion at Congressional, doubts about the youngster's ability to shape shots in sea breezes arose again the following month at Sandwich.
Yet as he surged home at last August's PGA in Kiawah, McIlroy blew all such notions asunder.
His form this season has been poor, due to a mixture of new equipment and poor scheduling but, on his game, McIlroy has the raw talent to make Muirfield rattle and hum next weekend.
However, McDowell's success last Sunday week at the French Open establishes the Portrush native as the man most likely to bring the Claret Jug back to Ireland for a stunning fourth time in six years.