The clubhouse at Royal Birkdale is a sleek, white, art-deco structure that stands out amid the stately courses of upper-crust British golf clubs like Ian Poulter in an Amish village. But for this week’s wind-blown British Open, the R&A should have replaced the Birkdale clubhouse with the Bates Motel, because it was a horror show out there.
Like any good scary movie, this year’s Open was gruesome and bloody for the actors and great fun for the viewers. It’s always more fun rooting for the bad guy, and Royal Birkdale gave us a great one: the gale-force, chilly, wet, English seaside weather. It attacked every shot the players took: long-bombing Tour pros crushed drives into the wind that went 230 yards; high-flying approach shots hung up in the air so long you could count the dimples before the balls landed; and putts were pushed off their paths as if touched by an invisible finger.
The killer didn’t wait long to claim its first victim. On Day One, it brought heavy morning rain, blustery wind and temperatures in the low 50s. Sandy Lyle, who won this tournament in 1985, withdrew after nine holes because his fingers were numb (he was already 11 over). That angered both the R&A and the sadistic fans who paid good money to watch their heroes suffer.
“It’s probably my shortest Open ever,” the understated Lyle said. “I got off to a miserable start.”
It wasn’t just the Golden Oldies who got slammed either. Vijay Singh shot 80 on Thursday and said he didn’t play badly.
“It was miserable, miserable, miserable weather,” said the World No. 10, who didn’t make it to the weekend. “It was just a miserable day.”
But the weather was just getting started. Friday brought more wind and rain, and the most high profile victim was John Daly, who needed a bogey on 18 to break 90 and left town soon after signing his blood-splattered scorecard, which included a 9 on the par-4 13th.
High-profile players like Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els barely made the nine-over cut line.
“Growing up in Australia, you know this is a good winter’s day,” a chipper Robert Allenby said after posting an excellent 73 on Friday. “But I guess it’s summer over here, isn’t it?”
By Saturday, the players weren’t even the story anymore. The wind became the star at Royal Birkdale, with gusts exceeding 50 mph. Nervous R&A officials debated whether to suspend play and opted to move some tee boxes up by more than 50 yards to give guys a chance to reach the fairway. (Incidentally, the average driving distance on the PGA Tour is 280 yards. The longest carry at Birkdale is 230 yards on the 11th hole, and the R&A moved that tee box forward 68 yards).
“Brutally, brutally difficult,” a battered Ian Poulter said after posting a 75 Saturday. “The golf course was tougher than I would have ever imagined, and it didn’t stop from start to finish. It was right on the edge of playable.”
Still, some players kept a sense of humor about it.
“Everybody out of the way,” joked Jean Van De Velde (the acclaimed star of the 1999 horror Open at Carnoustie), after hitting his ball into a gorse bush on the par-3 4th. “Ball is coming, hopefully. This could be a great three. Or maybe a two. Or a helluva four.”
The only cliched part was the end: I mean, isn’t the blonde always the last victim in horror movies? Greg Norman, who handled the killer wind all week like Jamie Lee Curtis outsmarting Michael Myers, was finally done in Sunday, when the wind was just slightly less ornery than the previous day.
“I think the wind moved a little bit more around to the north-northwest and became a little more awkward,” Norman said after shooting seven over Sunday to finish his unlikely run at one more major in a tie for third place. “The first couple of shots we played out there were shots we haven’t played before.”
When it was all over, the only man standing was Padraig Harrington, who might have had an advantage at brutal Birkdale. You knew the weather wasn’t bothering him when he walked down the 18th fairway Sunday to claim his second consecutive British Open. He was wearing a short-sleeved shirt.