It may be a surprise to some, that with 90-plus majors on the resume, only once have I taken in the Open Championship (we in this country are the only ones who call it the British Open), and that was as a spectator.
It was 1983, and it was time for someone who had spent so much time with golf to make the trip to the British Isles. But my purpose, as is the case with any true golfer, was to play, not watch.
I had assembled a solo plan that reasoned, with the golf world focused and located in the south of England, it was an ideal time to travel to Scotland to check off a trio of historic venues before taking in the final round of the Open at Royal Birkdale. So having knocked off St. Andrews, Carnoustie and finally Turnberry on Saturday, I jumped on the M6 and headed south.
Foolishly, or naively, I had not booked accommodations for Saturday night. I somehow thought I could easily find a B&B in the vicinity. I veered back onto local roads about fifty miles out and started looking for “To Let” signs. By early evening I was in the heart of Southport and still hadn’t found a room. Knowing that Europeans travel by train, I found my way to the main station and began driving in circles in the surrounding neighborhoods still looking for a room.
After two or three loops, I saw a sign in the window and quickly pulled over, now desperate for a room. A balding, portly Englishman with a “wife beater” shirt on and a pint in his hand answered the bell. I explained I was in town for the Open and needed a place to stay for the night. He told me he did, in fact, have a room, but it was a “dooble” and much too expensive for one guest. I told him I would take it and was invited in.
He was watching the Open on an old black and white cabinet TV and said I should join him. I remember only two things about our conversation. He was harsh on a young English golfer named Faldo and taken with the championship leader, Tom Watson. The phrase he used to describe Watson’s aggressiveness as a player has always been a favorite. He said, “that Watson has a lotta ‘bottle’ as a golfer.”
The next morning I headed to the tournament, comfortable with the knowledge that the Open Championship never cut off ticket sales. Once inside the gates I headed for the tented village. At that time, the Open was as much a golf trade show as it was competition.
I don’t remember many of the holes at Birkdale, but there were still some noteworthy moments in 1983. It was the last Open Championship that Arnold Palmer made the cut, and at plus-one on Sunday, he was a story worth watching.
I was only on the course for a short time when the local fire department showed up on the scene. Britain had been going through a heat wave and the dry rough on the course had caught fire. It is the only time I have seen the fire brigade in action during a major.
That 1983 Open was also the moment of the greatest lapse in the brilliant career of Hale Irwin. On Saturday, Irwin missed a birdie put at the 14th and with the ball two inches from the cup, he carelessly jabbed at the ball to tap it in. He whiffed. That missed two-inch putt left him one stroke out of a playoff—and the only time he finished second in a major championship.
Watson played steady with lead throughout the day and was looking to make it two straight Open wins. I bailed out on trying to follow Watson over the closing holes because I had another experience in mind. For years I had watched the galleries for the final group at the Open as they vaulted over the ropes when the final shot had been played into the green (a practice less tolerated today).
I went to the eighteen crossing while Watson was three holes shy of my position and waited for the American to come my way. At first there were only a few of us along those ropes. But after a while it was like the scene from the Hitchcock movie The Birds because each time I looked behind me, the gallery had quietly grown. By the time Watson had reached the 18th tee, nursing a one-stroke lead, the numbers had swelled to at least ten deep.
Watson hit a perfect tee shot to the middle of the fairway and had 210 to the green. When he putted his two iron straight at the flag, golf’s version of the ‘running of the bulls’ began. The galleries burst over the ropes back up the fairway and headed for the green. Watson was completely engulfed in the mob. (When I interviewed Watson not too long ago and mentioned being at Birkdale he said: “how about that two iron?”)
At my position, with the spectator rope stretched across my midsection I could feel the force of the crowd behind me push forward. People who were standing further back than me, but who had been there for a time as well, began to yell about not losing out to the crowd from up the fairway. At that point I was helpless. The push from behind was almost ‘tidal’ in force and the thought of being trampled seemed very real.
When Watson burst through his mob there was a roar and spectators behind me became more desperate. The Bobbies working the rope line kept saying to us at the front to just “sit down, sit down,” a command not practical nor possible. We continued to surge forward and my next thought was we were going onto the green, and then amazingly we just stopped just short of the apron.
Watson two-putted for his par—and the win—and I had my Open experience. It was Watson’s last major win and fifth Open title, and I wondered, as I left the course, if my host from the night before would think I had a little “bottle” for my risky eighteenth hole crowd adventure.
Dan Reardon is Golf Editor at KMOX. He can be heard throughout the week on America’s Sports Voice.