During the third round of the 1978 British Open at St. Andrews, Tommy Nakajima came to the 17th hole 4-under for the day and tied for the lead in the tournament — until, that is, he putted his ball into the fabled Road Hole bunker, then took four strokes to get out: quintuple-bogey 9.
Among the witnesses to the calamity, which the British tabs dubbed “the Sands of Nakajima,” was Nakajima’s caddie, Neil Ballingall, a 15-year-old Scot who’d never worked a bag before and who’d come to the job by a quirk of fate. The week before the Open, Ballingall and a friend, both seeking summer jobs, had dropped by Lundin Golf Club, their local course and site of the final round of Open qualifying. They’d asked if they could land a loop.
Only one man expressed interest. “He was a short Asian man in dress shoes and a jacket,” Ballingall recalls. “And we thought, ‘Well, this guy has absolutely no chance at all.'”
The friends tossed a coin. Ballingall lost, and the job was his.
“I figured it was pretty much hopeless,” says Ballingall, now 47.
The following morning, when Ballingall showed up for work, the same well-dressed man was there, but so was a lanky, athletic-looking fellow: Tommy Nakajima. The short man was Nakajima’s manager. ‘Well,’ Ballingall thought, ‘prospects have improved.’
Since neither spoke the other’s language, Nakajima relied on gestures to give Ballingall a crash-course in caddieing. “At first, I was standing directly behind him, which was completely distracting,” Ballingall says. “He preferred that I stand to the side of him, where he could only see my shoes.”
In two qualifying rounds, Nakajima shot 69, 78, then passed through a playoff to land an Open slot. On to St. Andrews.
Anyone watching would have guessed that Nakajima was less nervous than his caddy. While Ballingall walked on eggshells, Nakajima fired opening rounds of 71 and 70. On the 17th hole on Saturday, Nakajima was tied for the lead with playing partner Tom Weiskopf when he played a smart approach to the front right of the green. The pin was tucked back left, and no one was firing at the flag.
“He hit what looked like a beautiful putt,” Ballingall says. “I was sure it was going to curl right toward the cup. But at the last minute, it caught a ridge and trickled down into the bunker.”
Nakajima hung his head.
His first attempt from the sand was an ugly blade that hit the face of the bunker and rolled back. His second shot was short. His third landed on the green, then rolled back into the bunker. His fourth settled ten feet past the pin.
“At the point, there was no way he was going to make the putt,” Ballingall says.
The nine dropped Nakajima out of contention. But his 17th-place finish meant that Ballingall had earned a paycheck of 160 pounds.
“A month’s wage for a week’s work,” Ballingall says.
Nearly half a lifetime later, Nakajima’s one-time caddie works as the golf course superintendent for the Fairmount St. Andrews, a resort on the bluffs above St. Andrews. He hasn’t spoken to Nakajima since that fateful day.
The only words the two exchanged about the Road Hole blowup came as they walked toward the 18th tee on Saturday. Having just spoiled his chances for the Claret Jug, Nakajima turned to his young caddie and said softly: “Sorry, Neil.”