The Open is always a special event
DOUG SMITH | CENTRAL TEXAS GOLF Ex-Horn Leonard has a way of doing well in the majors
I love the Masters and I love the U.S. Open, but there is just something extra special about the Open Championship — don’t call it the British Open lest you be tabbed a clueless American.
I guess it’s the history. I’m a sucker for the old footage of Bobby Jones, Walter Hagen, etc. I remember as a kid getting up early on Saturday and Sunday mornings to watch in black and white. It was all so intriguing. And having the tournament at the Old Course at St. Andrews this week makes it that much better.
I always enjoy following the Austin players in the majors, but this week all we have is former Texas Longhorn Justin Leonard.
Leonard is a puzzling figure this week. Despite his being a former Open champion, his name has not come up in pre-tournament talk. One British betting house ranks him at No. 36 to win at St. Andrews at odds of 66-1.
That might be understandable if you look only at Leonard’s 2010 season. He has missed the cut in six of 16 appearances and has only three top-20 finishes. However, one of those was a tie for 14th at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, where he was in contention for most of the week.
My guess is that when Leonard hits British soil his game will return to form. His record in the Open speaks for itself. In 1997 at Royal Troon, he came from five strokes off the lead in the final round to capture the Claret Jug.
At Carnoustie in 1999, Leonard wound up in a three-man playoff with Jean Van de Velde and eventual champion Paul Lawrie. Just last year at Turnberry, Leonard shot a final-round 68 to tie for eighth, just three shots behind champion Stewart Cink.
Leonard is making his 16th appearance at the Open. His first was at St. Andrews in 1995 in his first full season as a professional. He tied for 58th.
Although they aren’t at St. Andrews this week, several other Austin golfers have made their mark in the Open. Here are some of their highlights:
Mark Brooks: The former Texas Longhorn played in the Open 10 times between 1991 and 2001. In 1995 at St. Andrews, he tied for third, just one shot out of the playoff in which John Daly defeated Costantino Rocca.
The next year at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, Brooks shared the first-round lead with a 67 and wound up in a tie for fifth as Tom Lehman took the title.
Ben Crenshaw: Crenshaw played in the Open 21 times between 1974 and 1998. He was runner-up twice — in 1978 at St. Andrews, where he tied with Tom Kite as Jack Nicklaus captured the last of his three Open titles. Crenshaw tied for second again the next year at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, this time sharing second with Nicklaus as Seve Ballesteros won.
Bob Estes: The Austin pro has said that the Open is his favorite tournament, and he has made some strong showings in it. Estes has seven top-25 finishes in 11 Open appearances. His best was a tie for eighth at St. Andrews in 1995.
Tom Kite: Kite has the most Open appearances of any Austin player with 22. He has six top-10 finishes, including the tie for second with Crenshaw in 1978 at St. Andrews. Kite’s first Open start was in 1976 at Royal Birkdale, where he tied for fifth.
Joe Ogilvie: Ogilvie had just moved to Austin when he qualified for the 2001 Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annes. He was largely unknown, even in the U.S., but after opening with rounds of 69 and 68 he was just two shots off the 36-hole lead of Colin Montgomerie. He quickly became a crowd and media favorite thanks to his wit and engaging personality. He was still in the picture after a third-round 71 but closed with a 75 to tie for 25th.
The Open in person
I was lucky enough to attend the 1981 Open, which was played at Royal St. George’s in Sandwich in the far southeast corner of England. (It’s where they shot the golf scenes for the James Bond movie “Goldfinger.”)
After a two-hour train ride from London and a bus ride to the course, I finally got there late morning Thursday. I glanced at the familiar school-bus yellow scoreboard, and the three names at the top were Bill Rogers, who would go on to win, Tom Kite and Hal Sutton.
I thought to myself, “Here I have come about seven thousand miles to the Open Championship, and the three leaders are all guys I have seen play at Morris Williams.”
Justin Leonard, right, and Steve Stricker chat during a practice round Tuesday on the Old Course at St. Andrews.