The Winners’ Tales
Meet five men who took down Royal St George’s to claim the Claret Jug
There are four measures of success in professional golf – getting your card, making cuts, winning… and, the toughest of all, winning a Major championship. Since the first one at Prestwick in 1860, just 148 men have won an Open Championship, and 14 have done so at Royal St George’s – a venue with its own challenges. To find out how they did it, the shots they needed, how Royal St George’s tested their games and how winning the oldest Major changed their lives, we spoke exclusively to the five living St George’s champions – Bill Rogers, Sandy Lyle, Greg Norman, Ben Curtis and Darren Clarke.
What was your form like going into the Open you won?
BR I was having a very good year, brimming with confidence – I finished second to David Graham at the US Open a month earlier. It was the lightning in a bottle that a golfer just wants to catch.
SL I had a few tournaments under my belt going into July, but I missed the cut in Ireland beforehand. I didn’t finish my first round, heading for a 90 in tremendous wind. I didn’t finish the last hole, semi-shanked my 4- or 5-iron over the stands, OB. So I said, “That’s enough for this week, young
Lyle is going to retire gracefully.” That gives you an idea how silly the game is… a week later I was Open Champion.
GN It was very solid. I knew my swing was good. I’d worked extremely well with Butch Harmon and we had great practice sessions in the days leading up to it. We were just fine tuning it every day, so I felt very comfortable, and confident.
BC My form was pretty good. It was my 15th event that year and each time I felt it was getting better and better, making some decent money.
I went into The Open with the attitude of just having some fun.
How did you prepare?
BR Playing, frequently, so I arrived in England on the Monday, young, energetic and anxious to have a chance at another Major.
GN Same preparation as normal – most of the time I’d go up to Skibo Castle in Scotland to practise before heading down on Monday.
BC I got there on Friday and played 18 holes on Saturday and Sunday.
I spent a lot of time chipping and putting to get used to the different style of course. I was a links rookie so I had to learn how to hit 7- and 8-iron bump-and-runs, as well as getting used to longer putts – you could be 20 yards off the green and still putt it! It was weird standing on certain tees and not being able to see the fairway – just grandstands, or towers in the background. So it was vital to get familiarised with the layout and figure where to hit it. Then, on the Monday I took the train into London with my girlfriend (now wife) Candace to take in the sights aboard one of the big red buses. It was great to be a tourist for a day. It helped me relax.
SL Ian Woosnam offered me a Macgregor driver he couldn’t do much with, so I put another shaft in it, decided to use it in The Open… and drove the ball really well. That was key. Royal St George’s, like Carnoustie, can be brutal if you’re not quite driving the ball well, with tremendously heavy rough and a few long par 4s that you have to put full throttle on the driver to have some sort of sensible second shot in. I’ve still got that driver at home.
Did you have any inkling it was going to be your week?
BR I was confident, but I never put myself in the frame of mind that I was going to win. I always took it as it came and wasn’t quick to disclose that confidence: a good frame of mind is the reason why you play and why you play a lot, so you can improve your chances.
SL Not particularly, no. I didn’t have a really great putting spell weeks before so there was no notification that something big was in the air. It just happened.
GN Not really, especially after opening my account with a double! I remember telling myself, walking to the second tee, “Look, you’ve got 71 holes to make this up, don’t worry.” I felt good, I liked the course, I liked the lines off the tee… there was nothing I felt uncomfortable about.
BC You never know – even after playing solidly in the first two rounds – whether the stars are aligned or not. But not teeing it up with Tiger helped me go under the radar a bit.
DC Tom Watson’s caddie left a ‘Your locker is in the right place’ note on my locker (Clarke received the locker intended for Greg Norman, who had to withdraw through injury) and that inspired me.
What do you remember most about the week?
‘I WAS A LINKS ROOKIE... IT WAS WEIRD STANDING ON CERTAIN TEES AND NOT BEING ABLE TO SEE THE FAIRWAY’
BR I remember I almost missed my tee-time on the first day and would have done – and been DQ’D – if journalist John Whitbread hadn’t walked onto the putting green and said “Bill, what are you doing, I believe you’re on the tee box!” I’d got the times wrong. I panicked, ran off the green and made it on to the tee just in time. I owe John for that!
SL It’s always memorable walking down the 18th with the crowd behind you – they were behind me big time over the last four holes. This is what you dream about when you’re a young boy – walking down the 18th and seeing your name at the top of the scoreboard! Playing alongside Christy O’connor Jnr made such a huge difference as he was such a nice guy to play with, a gentleman. I enjoyed his company, was relaxed and that enabled me to play well and build momentum.
GN Walking to the first tee on Sunday, I looked at the leaderboard and thought, “My God, that’s a who’s who of golf up there, you’d better make a bunch of birdies because everybody is going to go for it!” I think seven or eight of the top 15 in the world were on that leaderboard, but that inspired me. It made me up my game.
BC After Saturday’s round, all I kept thinking about was that first tee shot on Sunday. “Find the fairway and I’m going to win”. I was just focusing on that, especially after Tiger lost his ball off the first tee and took a triple after having to walk back. A big turning point came midway through Friday’s round when I found a bunker on nine – my caddie wanted me to hit it out sideways, but I thought I could get it out and it came out like a bullet and allowed me to build momentum. It was probably stupid; if I’d have taken a six or seven there, I’d have struggled to make the cut.
DC After shooting a third round
69 to go into the lead, I went into the media centre and somebody asked if I could win. “Of course I think I can win, this is what I practise and play for,” I replied. Some were quite taken aback that a 42-year-old was leading The Open, thinking that he could win. A lot of them didn’t expect me to.
What was it like down the stretch?
BR Even teeing it up on the 72nd hole with a four-shot lead, you know things can happen so you remain focused. But the excitement of walking up the last hole of an Open Championship on the brink of winning is reward for all the effort, work and investment you’ve made to get to that place.
SL It’s a schoolboy’s dream, but you’ve got to finish it. It’s not over till the ball’s in the hole. It wasn’t exactly stressfree in the last three holes – I had to make a good putt on 16 for par, the 17th is just a nightmare, trying to hit that fairway, and on the 18th tee I was waggling my club, but had to step back when there was a huge roar up ahead on the green… apparently Peter Jacobsen was rugby tackling a male streaker! Fortunately, I hit a reasonably good drive, though I finished with a bogey which probably meant a play-off with Bernhard Langer. It was an agonising 40 minutes, waiting for the last chip shot, which Langer had to make from the back right of the green and it just snuck past the hole. GN It’s sad that they’ve stopped the galleries rushing in behind the final group, especially if you’re the winner. That was one of the most unique things about The Open. Yeah, you still get patted on the back and all that, but it’s not the same. I’ve always enjoyed playing in front of the British crowds – their appreciation of how to play these links courses is always evident. You don’t have to hit it to two inches every time; you can hit it to 45 feet and they know it’s a great shot.
BC I was very nervous. As I walked up 18, I figured I had to make birdie to have any chance, so when I missed the chip, I remember telling myself “Hey, if I can make this putt, I can finish second or third and probably secure my card for next year.” I didn’t know Thomas Bjorn was having trouble on 16. I was just focusing on what I was doing.
DC To walk down the last hole knowing, before I got onto the green, that I’ve won the biggest and best Major in the world was very special.
Highlight of the week?
BR Oddly enough, the fourth round double I made on No.7, because that was a wake-up call. I was playing very defensively as a result of having a five-shot lead and was just trying to protect my lead. It went from five to a one-shot lead after seven holes, but the double woke me up. Aside from the walk down the 72nd hole, that’s what I remember most.
SL The realisation that the pressure was off. I had won The Open and could try and enjoy the moment. Life changes from that point on.
GN Walking to the 10th tee with a oneshot lead, I reminded myself that a good friend of mine, Larry Bird, one of