LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England -- The second-to-last man in was a giant American, Justin Hicks. He was in the final group and made the day's last birdie on the home hole shortly before 9 p.m. In the clubhouse behind him, red brick and timeless, men wearing French cuffs ordered their desserts. Hicks was grinding it out, shutting it down. He was "finishing."
The players don't use that word the way we do. The players say, "I had it going but I could not finish." That is a double on 17, a three-putt bogey on 16. Something that ruins that card and dinner, too. You have to finish. Justin Hicks finished.
His last-hole birdie got him to two under par, one shot behind Tiger Woods and a bunch of other major champions. He did it under a gray sky that was spitting rain with the wind down and a dozen spectators in bleachers that will carry thousands in Sunday's gloaming. What a difference 72 hours makes.
Hicks knows it well and better than most. In 2008, he was tied for the lead after one round at the U.S. Open. Sixty-eight. Three under. Hot stuff. "One over played off," he said Thursday night. You remember the playoff, Rocco and Tiger. Hicks, 6-foot-3 and 210 and a Michigan grad, was long done when Tiger made that snake on the last to keep hope alive. He finished about 70 places behind them.
He's no kid. Hicks is 37 and hasn't needed shampoo in years. He makes a living at the game, wherever it will have him, most commonly the Nationwide tour, on which he's won twice. This is his first British Open. He prepared for it by playing a lot of golf at home, in West Palm Beach, Fla., at Bear Lakes. Not at the Lakes Course. Oh, no. You'd never prepare for an Open and the links game on something called the Lakes Course. No, he prepared at the other course at Bear Lakes, the Links Course, a track Big Jack himself did originally and re-did recently. It's humpy and hollowy and, by Sunshine State standards anyhow, kind of linksy.
"It didn't really go over too well with the members," Hicks said. Golf-course changes seldom do. Golfers are conservative by nature, and we like things the way they were. "Too severe." But when he arrived on Saturday and played Lytham for the first time, he had a whole new appreciation for what Nicklaus did. "I could see what he was going for," Hicks said.
On a bright day here you can play golf until 10 p.m., but Thursday was not bright. It was semi-dark when Game 52, Hicks and his two fellow night travelers, got in. The flagstick was not clear, and neither was the line, but on these slow greens you can hit it hard and in the middle of the hole, just like you did as a kid, racing sunset. Hicks played some of that kind of golf, as a kid in Michigan, at Grosse Isle Country Club. On Thursday the stakes were higher.
At two under, you could be betwixt and between, trapped between trying to make the cut and trying to get in the lead. Justin Hicks said he won't have that problem. He's not getting ahead of himself. He's playing the shot in front of him, and he'll keep playing the shot in front of him until there are no more shots to play. He did that beautifully on Thursday, when his tee time was assigned to him. On the weekend, they don't tell you when to play. You tell them, with your play. Nobody envies being last off on Thursday and Friday. But on Saturday, on Sunday? Well, that's a whole different thing.
Hicks said the hardest part of his Thursday was figuring you what to do with himself until his 4 p.m. tee time. You've heard Phil and Tiger and Ernie say the same thing, talking about the torment of long Sundays. Eventually, the bell goes off, for all of them, and suddenly it's a golfer and his ball and the course and the light in the sky.