SANDWICH, England Mark Calcavecchia rolled into Sandwich on Tuesday afternoon. "Rolled" is the operative word, because the 1989 British Open champion doesn't do things in a hurry, except maybe drink beer and play golf.
The wind was blowing hard on Tuesday, so Calc decided against a practice round. On Wednesday morning he was scheduled to tee it up with his buddies Steve Stricker, Jerry Kelly and Mark Wilson, but when they bailed on him, Calc went out solo. Stuck behind two plodding foursomes, he called it quits after five holes. ("Five hours by myself in a practice round?" Calc said. "No.") Later that night, he hit a couple watering holes in Sandwich with his wife Brenda and some friends from London. They bumped into Brandt Snedeker and Eric Larson, Jeff Overton's caddie. Chatted it up. Downed a lager or two. No matter that Calc was due to tee off the next morning at 6:41 in the first round of the 2011 Open Championship.
No matter, indeed. Playing in his 25th Open, Calc set sail at Royal St. George's on a dark, dank Thursday morning before most of the players, fans and media had congregated. If he wasn't prepared, it didn't show. On the strength of three birdies and a steady putter, the 51-year-old posted a one-under-par 69, good enough for a spot on the first page of the Open leaderboard.
If this tune sounds familiar, it should. At Turnberry in 2009, Calc opened with rounds of 67-69 before finishing tied for 27th. At St. Andrew's last year, he went out in 70-67, earning himself a Saturday tee time with eventual champion Louis Oosthuizen. (It didn't go well; Calc made a 9 on the ninth and shot 77.) Can he avoid self-combustion this year?
"I guess the long-range, wild-dream goal would be to win it obviously, but wherever I finish, I finish," Calc said after his round, which left him four back of the early leader, Thomas Bjorn. "I promised myself I wouldn't get mad and just do the best I could every hole. So one day down and three to go."
After 11 top-30 finishes at the Open, Calc has proven he knows how to play links golf. That wisdom prevailed on the 17th hole Thursday when Calc left himself a difficult shot up and over the severe slope fronting the green. Brenda, who is also Mark's caddie, reached for an iron, presumably thinking Mark would elect to play a bump and run. But before she could pull the handle out of the bag, her hubby helped himself to another club: his putter. With his awkward-looking claw grip, Calc banged his ball up the hill and across the green. He left himself a seven-footer, which he drained to save his par.
"When he missed the green, he used the putter fantastically," said Englishman Graeme Storm, who was in Calc's group. "He played great, didn't he?"
A world away, on the Champions Tour, Calcavecchia's play has been steady this season if not spectacular. He has six top-10 finishes in 12 starts, but no wins. "You know last week I lost the tournament by five," he said of the First Tee Open at Pebble Beach, "and I made no putts on Sunday and bogeyed the last three holes at Old Del Monte, which is ridiculous. ... But tee to green I'm hitting it fine."
That may or may not be thanks to the help of his swing coach Peter Kostis. "A typical Calc-Kostis lesson lasts about six to 10 minutes," Kostis said on his cell phone this morning.
Kostis was on his way back to London after a brief consultation with Calc on Wednesday. "We've been doing that for 30 years," he said.
Of course practice has never motivated Calc, competition has. Which is why this week is so important to him. Of the four majors, the British Open is the only one for which is he is still exempt. That exemption will expire when Calc turns 60, and "I promise you," he said, "unless I'm lame or something, I'll be here every year.
"I do love this tournament."