Mark Calcavecchia on Practice-Round Wagers, ’89 Open Win Over Norman

July 13, 2016
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Everything lined up perfectly for Mark Calcavecchia as he first set eyes on Troon, host of the 1989 British Open. He not only loved the course, he was on a big-time roll. He’d won the Bank of Boston Classic and the Australian Open the previous year, and the Phoenix and L.A. Opens in the first five weeks of the 1989 Tour season.

And he’d gotten into Arnie’s pocket.

“The first thing that happened the week of the ’89 Open, Mark O’Meara and I played Curtis Strange and Arnold Palmer in a best-ball match,” Calcavecchia says. “Mark and I won, clipped them for 50 pounds, I think. Arnie wasn’t that happy. It’s pretty funny to think about now. It was the start of a great week, obviously.”

Here, Calcavecchia reminisces about a lucky L-wedge, Greg Norman reaching the “unreachable” fairway bunker on 18, and the excellent buddy trip in his future.

I think Arnie was, what, 60 when you and O’Meara played him and Strange? You took money off an old man! I hope you felt good about yourself.

[Laughs] I did, actually. It didn’t bother me in the least. I don’t think Arnie’s hurting too much for cash. I think he’s okay.

You’ll be given an honorary membership at Troon, along with others who won the Open there, like Todd Hamilton and Justin Leonard. Will you use it?

Maybe when I retire I’ll get a group of guys and go over and play all the Open courses for a week. The week before the 2001 Open, eight of us went over to Ireland: Phil Mickelson, Billy Mayfair, our managers, Bones [Jim Mackay, Mickelson’s longtime caddie]. At Old Head it was blowing about 50 with occasional rain. It stung. Then we went to Ballybunion, Lahinch, Royal Portrush, and that might have been it.

PODCAST: Calcavecchia Shares Tiger, Daly Gambling Stories

I trust you had a little something on the line with Phil?

I think I beat him at Old Head because me and Billy Mayfair were low with 79 and Phil hit three drivers out of bounds on a 210-yard par 3 into a 50 mile an hour wind. It was funny. We definitely had action on every round. I remember another round when I called off the bet. Phil had a range finder, and the caddie I’d hired for the day was like 30 yards off on the second hole. I hollered across the fairway, ‘All bets are canceled!’ I’m not going to lose $1,000 to Phil and get bad yardages all day.

Were there majors you felt you should have won before the ’89 Open?

Yeah, ’88 Masters, I got done and had a one-shot lead. Sandy Lyle made a 20-footer on 16 that broke sideways, and then of course he hit the fairway bunker on 18, but nobody hits it higher than him, and he hit a 7-iron out and made par to clip me by one.

You beat Wayne Grady and Greg Norman at Troon in ’89, and it was the first time the R&A had used the four-hole playoff. Were you happy to go four holes?

I had no idea it was a four-hole playoff. I don’t know why I hadn’t heard that. Once Wayne Grady got done, I asked a guy, ‘We’re going back to 18?’ He said, ‘No, we’re going to 1.’ It’s the easiest hole, a driver, L-wedge. I’d be surprised if some of the guys don’t drive it this year. But the guy said, ‘We’re going 1, 2, 17 and 18.’ I was actually relieved. At least you had a little room to do something.

Norman was the man back then, but he’d already been the victim of some bad luck and a few ill-timed blunders. Did that cross your mind?

I didn’t think of it that way. On Sunday he went out and birdied the first six holes, then he birdied 1 and 2 again in the playoff. All I was thinking then was whether he was going to birdie every hole on me. I didn’t think of the past, or that he was No. 1.

So you were really just trying to hang on, at least in the beginning.

I made about a 30-footer for birdie from off the back of the green at the second, and then he made his birdie right on top of me. But at least I was only one back, not two.

Then what happened?

I got a break on 17. Greg hit it just off the green in some wispy grass, and pulled out like a 7-iron to chip it. I would have putted every time, and sure enough he blew it 12 feet by and missed. Grady bogeyed it, also, so we each had him by two going to 18.

And then Norman’s drive reached the unreachable fairway bunker.

I hit first, and back then I never hit a three-wood off the tee, so I tried to smooth a driver up there and hit a big, old pop-up fade into the rough. And then Greg hit and pounded it, and I thought, If this thing kicks just a little bit right it’s going to go in that bunker, and sure enough it got the kick I was hoping for.

The TV commentators all reacted with such alarm when it trickled in there.

I knew it was reachable because Greg is longer than me, and I almost reached it on the last hole of regulation. Greg hit a bullet cut, and he thought it was perfect. He and Bruce Edwards were like 20 feet off the tee and I was still standing on the left side of the tee watching it roll for like five seconds and then go down in there.

Then everything went haywire.

My second shot wound up about seven feet short of the hole, but it looked like it was a tap-in. I think Greg thought he needed a miracle, but he wasn’t going to hit it more than 100 yards out of that bunker, and that’s about how far he hit it. That left him a 60-yard bunker shot with the pin all the way back, with O.B. just over the green, an almost impossible shot. And he skulled it over everything and didn’t bother finishing the hole.

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What was the best shot you hit that day?

It’s a tie between the eight-iron on the 72nd hole that I knew I needed to hit close to tie Greg, and the five-iron in the playoff on 18. But the 30-footer for birdie on the second hole was huge, too, because Greg had birdied the first and was in there looking at another one.

The luckiest shot I hit was when I flew the L-wedge in the hole from left of the 12th green, slam-dunked it for birdie. It’s a par 4 and I didn’t hit a very good drive, and an even worse second shot. I was on a dirt area where spectators walked. My thinking was to try and fly it on the green and keep it on the back and hopefully make a 30-footer for par.

At 56 you’re playing the PGA Tour Champions. How’s your game?

Actually I’m feeling pretty good. I threw in like 10 new clubs last week, new irons, new putter, the whole deal—just wanted to start over. I hit everything really well.

What’s your plan for the Open?

My wife, Brenda, and the kids, Britney and Eric, are coming over, they want to see where the old man won. We have Wimbledon tickets to a men’s semifinal, and to the women’s final Saturday. That’ll be a great prelude to the British Open, and the next week is the Senior British Open at Carnoustie, so it’ll be a fun couple of weeks.