The other day someone asked me how many Opens I’d been at and, not being a numbers bod, I hadn’t a clue. Quite a few is the answer and it is still, I think, my favourite championship. The world and her husband are here at Royal Birkdale and if you stand still for long enough, you’re likely to bump into almost everybody you’ve ever known in golf: from Ireland, Japan, America, Sweden, Spain, Australia, wherever, you name it. It’s wonderful.
Even on Tuesday the train to Hillside was full of golf fans, male, female, young, not so young and the buzz and excitement were palpable. We streamed into Birkdale and big bruiser of a course though it is, with space to spare, we still stood out. We were absorbed easily but not swallowed up. Just another golf tournament? I don’t think so.
I had a front row seat in the grandstand in 1998 when Justin Rose, a talented, gangly teenager in a baggy jumper, holed out from the rough at the 72nd hole, to give notice of his taste for the big occasion. There was pandemonium but it was Mark O’Meara, aided, if memory serves, by a lengthy, officially sanctioned search for a missing ball, who won the title. His reward this year was to open the proceedings at 0635 on a pretty filthy morning. I confess I wasn’t there to see the start but perhaps I’ll make it this morning, when Beef is first off….
Dai died in May 2008, so Birkdale was the first Open I attended without him and it was a bit of an odd, bittersweet experience, albeit quieter than normal, with no husband to demand why I wasn’t getting a (blank) move on. The traditional Open ice cream didn’t taste quite the same that year. However, Greg Norman’s blast-from-the-past performance enlivened the proceedings, as did the presence of Chris Evert, who was, briefly, Mrs Norman. Ian Poulter also got in on the act in fighting style but it was Padraig Harrington, always one of my favourites, who retained the claret jug he’d snaffled at Carnoustie the year before.
Padraig, whose endlessly inventive thought processes are probably a mystery even to himself, went on to win the USPGA later that year and I didn’t see a shot of his final round. Assuming that he was too far adrift to have any chance, I went to bed and woke up to hear on the news that the delightfully doolally Dubliner had become a major miracle worker. It taught me never, ever, to take anything in golf for granted and it should be an object lesson to every player, at whatever level, to keep on plugging away, whatever the conditions, however hopeless things look, until the holes run out.
Even here at Birkdale, watching the best players in the world, it’s amazing how dire some of the body language can be, how quickly players of immense talent seem to be floored by the slightest setback, ready to slump after a missed putt or a misjudged pitch and responding sarkily or swearing sulkily if a shot goes awry. We all have days when we’re out of sorts but being a professional is surely all about damage limitation when the timing is out of sync or the biorhythms have gone walkabout. It’s often a question of mind over matter.
Ask any Open champion.