AUSTRALIAN golfers enjoy a one-in-three strike rate at British Opens held at Royal Birkdale – a remarkable frequency but one that could have been even better.
The nine Opens held across the Lancashire links have featured Aussies more often than not – and quite often in vast numbers. Something about the place clearly agrees with our players. (And Americans. Until Padraig Harrington’s triumph at Birkdale’s most recent Open, only Yanks and Aussies had ever left Southport with the trophy.) Two of Peter Thomson’s five Claret Jugs were collected at Birkdale, while Ian Baker-Finch received his there, too. Kel Nagle, Graham Marsh, Greg Norman and others have brushed briefly with chances of victory – the 2008 Open almost redefining Norman’s greatness.
What is it about Birkdale that resonates with Australian players? Is it the forgiveness of its flat fairways, the most dramatic set of dunes in the Open rota or something more intangible? On July 23, we might just know a little more behind the mysterious attraction.
The first of Birkdale’s soon-to-be 10 Opens was the first of Peter Thomson’s five victories – a haul bettered only by Harry Vardon’s half-dozen. Thomson, then aged 23, took £750 in prizemoney back to Melbourne after eclipsing by a shot the 72-hole tallies of Bobby Locke, Dai Rees and Syd Scott. ‘Thommo’ was in touch with the lead throughout, trailing by three shots after 18 holes, two after 36 and beginning the final round tied with Rees and Scott. A closing 71 sealed his first Open.
Kel Nagle, the defending Open champion, saw the previous year’s result reversed to a degree as Arnold Palmer claimed the first of two straight Claret Jugs. In capricious weather, Palmer edged Dai Rees as Nagle (71) and Peter Thomson (73) finished equal fifth and seventh, respectively. Palmer led Rees by a stroke after 54 holes and matched the Welshman’s 72 in the final round to take the title by one.
Peter Thomson bookended the victorious stretch of his Open career at Birkdale, taking out his fifth championship at the same English links where he first triumphed 11 years earlier. Bruce Devlin was the most prominent Aussie in the early going, sharing the midpoint lead before closing 75-75 to tie for eighth. Thomson, meanwhile, rebounded from an opening 74 to edge Wales’ Brian Huggett and Irish star Christy O’Connor Snr by two strokes, collecting £1,750 for his efforts.
This was a rare Birkdale Open without a heavy Aussie influence. Peter Thomson and Kel Nagle sat a shot from the lead after 18 holes but Thommo’s tie for ninth was the best result anyone from Down Under could muster – and that was still seven shots adrift of the champion, Lee Trevino. The ‘Merry Mex’ owned at least a piece of the lead after each round and edged ‘Mr Lu’ – Taiwan’s Lu Liang-Huan – by a shot. Trevino also became the fourth player (there are now six) to win the US Open and British Open in the same year.
Graham Marsh began the final round in ’76 with only three golfers in front of him: England’s Tommy Horton, American golden boy Johnny Miller and a precocious 19-year-old Spaniard named Severiano Ballesteros, who led Miller by two strokes after 54 holes. Miller was irresistible that year, closing with a 66 (that began with a bogey) to win by six strokes from Ballesteros and Jack Nicklaus. Seve squandered his lead with a double and triple-bogey that closing Saturday but did finish eagle-birdie (including an artful, brilliantly Seve-esque chip to the 18th green) to tie Nicklaus for second.
David Graham was only two strokes behind Tom Watson with a round to play in ’83 but it was another Graham – Marsh – who torched Birkdale on Sunday, shooting a 64 to finish fourth, two behind Watson. It was a fifth (and final) Open victory for the kid from Kansas, this Claret Jug sealed with a pure 2-iron into the heart of the 18th green that set up a winning par. Sandwiched between Marsh and Watson on the final leaderboard were Andy Bean and Hale Irwin.
This truly was Australia’s year [above]. Ian Baker-Finch defeated countryman Mike Harwood with a 64-66 weekend that may never be repeated at Birkdale. The Queenslander was well off the pace with rounds of 71-71 to open this Open before his Saturday 64 vaulted him into a share of the lead with Mark O’Meara. Baker-Finch’s outward 29 on Sunday laid the foundation for a comfortable victory and an Aussie quinella. Pre-championship favourite Craig Parry finished eighth while Greg Norman – who would be heard from again at Royal Birkdale – shared ninth. IBF banked £90,000 for his greatest triumph.
In an Open largely void of Australian input, American Mark O’Meara exacted revenge on Birkdale when he ended the fairytale of little-known Brian Watts in a four-hole playoff. Watts gets credit for playing a remarkable bunker shot from an awkward stance on the 72nd hole to force the tie. The reigning Masters champion, O’Meara also fended off Tiger Woods, who opened with 65 and closed with 66 either side of a 73 and a 77. He rolled home a long putt on the final green to set an initial target that proved to be one shot light.
Brutally strong winds battered Birkdale all week nine years ago as Padraig Harrington successfully defended the Claret Jug [below] with a three-over total, one of only two above-par winning aggregates since 1985. But the ‘almost’ story was the play of 53-year-old Greg Norman. The two-time Open winner headed the field by two shots with 18 holes remaining and still led with nine to play. Yet Harrington’s four-under burst in the closing six holes – compared to an eight-bogey 77 from Norman – gave the Irishman a four-shot victory over Ian Poulter. Norman shared third place with current champion Henrik Stenson.