Monday, 10 July 2017

1983 Open Championship: Faldo, Irwin, and Watson

A look back at the 1983 Open Championship at Royal Birkdale, and a tale of varying fortunes for Nick Faldo, Hale Irwin, and Tom Watson.

Faldo's final day nightmare

It was not hard to see why a success starved British golf public were hopeful that fourteen years of hurt might end at Royal Birkdale in 1983. Nick Faldo, leader of the European Order of Merit, had won the first three tournaments he had played on tour during that season, and he had previous at Birkdale, winning the 1978 PGA Championship by seven shots.

The Times' John Hennessy was definitely convinced, describing Faldo as the "best British hope for the Open Championship since the golden days of Tony Jacklin a decade or so ago." But there was a hint of doubt in Hennessy's article. The big question hanging over Faldo was whether his game could stand up to the pressures of challenging for a major.

Faldo was talking in a positive fashion as the media frenzy gathered apace. "Don't ask me for a promise to win. But I have a real hope. I know what is wanted and you can depend on me giving it everything I've got." However, the man who would turn 26 the day after the tournament finished was aware of the doubters. "That leaves the question of how I might react to finding myself in a position to win the Open. Well, believe me, I cannot wait to find out."

Initially it looked like the hype surrounding Faldo may have been misplaced. Double bogeys at the opening two holes saw Faldo stand on the third tee already six shots behind tournament favourite Tom Watson, and needing a period of consolidation. "Don't let your head drop," Faldo told himself. "There are 10,000 people watching you on every hole. Forget what has happened and fight."

Faldo certainly put up a fight, playing the remaining 16 holes in seven under par, his 68 putting him four behind early pace setter Craig Stadler, and importantly, just a shot behind Watson. Another 68 on day two moved Faldo just two behind Stadler at the halfway point, and in prime position for a challenge a the weekend. The record crowds at Birkdale watched in anticipation.

Over the course of the next two days, Faldo would find out how he would cope with the pressure of leading a major during the final round. Sadly, he was to discover that, in his own words, "you ain't got it mate". Coming into the final day two behind leader Watson, a bogey at the first was swiftly forgotten as Faldo birdied the next three. At eight under par, Faldo was leading the Open on his own.

The first signs of strain started to show on the 12th, a bogey unfortunately a taste of what was to come. But it would be the 13th that Faldo later described as "the killer". Three putting after a poor first putt, Faldo left the green with a par on a hole that was yielding birdies. Another three putt at 14 led to a bogey, and when Faldo dropped a shot at 16, the dream was over.

"I played 60 or so holes very well under the strongest pressure," Faldo explained. "Then I made some silly mistakes. I know where I went wrong and I am convinced that one day it will all come together. I have to believe more strongly that I can win the Open." To reach his ultimate goal, though, Faldo would go through a lot of heartache.

Twin 76s - in the final round of the 1984 Masters and third round of the Open at St Andrews - when Faldo was again in contention, were enough to convince him that he had to go back to the drawing board. The Nick Foldo jibes simply had to stop. Asking coach David Leadbetter to "throw the book at him", Faldo was about to rip it up and start again.

"Only Nick knew that he didn't have the swing to take him to the very top," Bernard Gallacher revealed on Sky Sports' Sporting Greats. There would be a great deal of pain on the way; sponsors dropping him, an abysmal 1985 Ryder Cup, and people questioning his sanity. Yet the 1987 Open would prove that the ends definitely justified the means.

Irwin's air shot

Faldo's disappointment was tangible. But spare a thought for Hale Irwin. As Tom Watson sealed the deal on the Sunday evening, both Irwin and Andy Bean could only look on as the reigning champion edged them out by one shot. Naturally golfers always think about the shots they left out on the course, even more so if you have lost a tournament by a narrow margin. For Hale Irwin, there was only one place to begin the analysis: the 14th green on Saturday July 16.

Irwin was sitting pretty as he putted for a birdie on the par 3, 14th hole. Six under par for the tournament, the two-times US Open champion appeared to be in an ideal position to maybe go one better than his second place finish behind Seve Ballesteros in 1979 at Lytham. His 12-foot putt didn't drop, but no damage done. Irwin could tap in for his par, possibly admonish himself for not giving his putt a little bit more, and move on. However, Irwin was about to make a mistake that would prove extremely costly.

Attempting to flick his two-inch putt into the hole for a par, Irwin's backhanded effort resulted in his putter making contact with only grass and fresh air. "I made an error which at this point in time looms very large," Irwin admitted after Watson collected the Claret Jug. "I don't really know how it happened - I think I hit the ground and the club bounced over the ball."

Of course, no one can say that if Irwin had made his par then he would have gone on to contest a play-off with Watson. After all, there were still 22 holes remaining for Irwin after his aberration. But in the immediate aftermath, you could see how it threw Irwin off track. Picking his ball out of the hole, Irwin dropped it on the green in a clumsy fashion, his mind understandably scrambled. A bogey at the next probably did little to shift the incident from his head.

"There is nothing to read into it except that I flat missed," Irwin went on. "I've tapped in like that hundreds of times. I've never whiffed. Since it was an intentional shot, I had to count the stroke." Despite his troubles, Irwin still had a chance of winning his first Open coming down the stretch on Sunday. After a birdie at 17, both Irwin and Bean moved to eight under par, yet after parring the tricky 18th, the likelihood was that both had taken one shot too many in comparison to Watson.

"Now I've got to see Watson two-putt this thing and make me cry," Irwin announced, as he paced around a television whilst hoping that his one shot too many wouldn't come back to haunt him. Alas Watson's par at the last ensured that Irwin would be left with a scar from his air shot, and he would be forever remembered for that two-inch putt. "It's the costliest mistake of my life, but it's history now," Irwin stated. His mood probably wasn't helped a little over a month later when Irwin narrowly missed out on the final Ryder Cup spot to the man who would also leave Birkdale triumphant.

Watson makes it five

And so to the man who would eventually be the last standing. Defending champion Tom Watson had arrived at Birkdale in a confident frame of mind, informing the Championship Committee to guard the trophy well, as come Sunday he intended to take it back to America once more. "I guess I am swinging pretty damn well," Watson informed the press before the tournament started. "And playing better than for any Open I have contested in England."

All of Watson's Opens had been won north of the border, and with memories of his third round 80 at Birkdale in 1976 dredged up by the media, strangely his English drought was mentioned repeatedly. To add to this, there was a more recent stick with which to poke Watson. His failure to win the US Open at Oakmont, the month before the Open.

After playing the front nine in 31 strokes in the final round, Watson led Larry Nelson by three strokes. But a combination of unusual Watson sloppiness, and a 60-foot birdie putt by Nelson on the 16th, saw the trophy slip through Watson's fingers. Without a win since the 1982 Open, Watson had a thing or two to prove, both to himself, and the doubting Thomases.

Throughout the four days, Watson was rock solid. Opening rounds of 67 and 68 saw him just one shot behind Stadler, and a third round 70 propelled Watson to eight under par and the lead on his own. Winning his fifth Open was never going to be easy, though, with major winners Stadler, Ray Floyd, David Graham, Lee Trevino, and Irwin lying in wait.

It was little wonder that after pipping Bean and Irwin to the title, Watson described the experience as like going through fifteen rounds with Muhammad Ali. Dropping two shots on the front nine, Watson was vulnerable once more to a final day disappointment. But birdies on 11, 13, and 16 edged him back in front, meaning a par at the last would see Watson taking the Claret Jug back home with him again.

Parring the last was not a given, though. The 478-yard par four played more like a par four-and-a-half throughout the four days, and Watson must have been ruing not securing a birdie at the par five 17th. But a fine drive, and a stunning second on to the green - "The greatest two-iron shot of my life, and what a time to do it" - set up Watson for glory.

"That makes up for the US Open," Watson said, as he collected the trophy, before dropping it and causing a bit of damage to the famous old jug. Claiming his eighth major, it looked inevitable that the 33-year-old Watson would at least join Ben Hogan and Gary Player on nine majors, maybe even challenging Walter Hagen on 11. But Birkdale would amazingly be the last spotting of Major Tom.

A bogey on the Road Hole at St Andrews a year later saw Watson drop the trophy once more, although this time figuratively, as Seve celebrated his second Open title. Watson was never really the same again. He did threaten at the 1987 US Open, 1989 Open, 1991 Masters, and of course he came agonisingly close to writing his own fairytale in 2009, but never managed to add to his eight majors.

You would have got good money on Watson never winning a grand slam event after Birkdale in 1983. And pretty decent odds on Faldo eventually ending up with six majors. Thankfully sport is not always predictable.

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