The British Open that stopped a Grand Slam
The spiritual side of Stewart Cink keeps him from believing in golf gods. His last trip to Muirfield was enough to at least make him wonder.
Eleven years ago, there appeared to be no stopping Tiger Woods. He won the Masters and the U.S. Open, the first man in 30 years to capture the first two legs of the Grand Slam. And after two rounds at Muirfield, he was only two shots out of the lead going into the third round of the British Open.
“If the wind ever blows,” Woods said on Friday after his bogey-free 68, “it’s going to be interesting.”
Saturday appeared to be another bonnie day along the Firth of Forth, with only a mild breeze for most of the morning.
And then it got interesting.
Cink recalls being on the third tee, just as the outer loop of the front nine turns clockwise. On the eastern horizon, he could see a black wall of clouds. He remembered saying to himself, “Oh my gosh, it’s coming toward us.”
“And it just clobbered us. It was intimidating.”
Woods caught the worst of it. He couldn’t reach the par-3 fourth hole. He hit only one fairway on the front nine. He made his first double bogey in 14 rounds at a major, and more followed. He went through 12 gloves trying to stay dry. And when this remarkable day was over, Woods had an 81, the highest score of his career.
And so ended his bid to become the first player to win all four professional majors in the same year.
“That was unfortunate. We could have maybe been looking at a Grand Slam because Tiger was playing so well,” Cink said. “I don’t really believe in golfing gods, but if they were to exist, they would be smirking a little bit. We’re talking about a Grand Slam and then they threw that at us.”
The squall only lasted a few hours, but it did plenty of damage. Ten players failed to break 80, including Colin Montgomerie, who went from a 64 on Friday to an 84 on Saturday. The last 32 players to tee off all shot over par. No one broke par who teed off in the last five hours of play.
Ian Poulter was in the group ahead of Woods. He was two shots out of the lead. He shot 78. When asked what he remembered about that day, Poulter’s eyes got as wide as when he makes a big putt in the Ryder Cup.
“What bit of that three hours of torture would you like to know about?” he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever played a round of golf with it dropping that much water and the course was playable. It’s the most amount of cubic capacity of water I’ve ever seen drop and not flood a green. Have I ever played in it? No. Would I ever want to do it again? No. How can you prepare for that? Your caddie needs eight hands.”
Mother Nature was only a contributing factor, however, to the end of Woods’ bid for the slam. Thomas Levet played in the group behind him and shot 74. Levet wound up losing in a sudden-death playoff. Ernie Els won the claret jug in 2002. He was in the last group on Saturday and played most of the back nine in calmer conditions when the storm passed. Even so, he weathered the storm and shot 72.
Woods wasn’t at his best, and it happened at the worst of times.
“We were just about ready to go out,” he recalled. “And it just hit. You could see this wall of rain coming in. The forecast was just for maybe some showers, no big deal. But no one had forecast for the wind chill to be in the 30s (below zero C). No one was prepared for that. No one had enough clothes. It got to the point where the umbrella was useless. It was raining too hard, and it was too windy.”
Such tales are not unusual in links golf. What was unique about this day was the combination of wind, rain and cold. The lasting image was Shigeki Maruyama, crouching and shivering behind a wooden billboard that surrounded the tee, the only shelter he could find.
The wind was strong enough to move golf balls on the green, which typically means a stoppage in play. But it was raining so hard that the balls stayed put on the wet greens. It was raining hard enough to form standing water on the greens. But it was blowing so hard that it dispersed the water.
“We’ve been called off the golf course in far nicer weather, but there was no reason for it,” said Padraig Harrington of Ireland. “There were no balls moving. There was no lightning. So you had to play.”
Justin Rose and Justin Leonard made the cut with one shot to spare on Friday. They went off in the second hour of tee times for the third round and played in lovely weather, with only a mild breeze. Each had a 68. They started the day in a tie for 50th. When it was over, they were tied for third.
Leonard and Rose wound up three shots out of the lead, but that was as close as they got. Woods followed his 81 with a 65 the next day, not enough to make up much ground with good scoring all around him. Els kept this Open interesting to the very end, losing the lead with a double bogey on the 16th hole, finishing birdie-par to join a record four-man playoff, and winning in one extra hole when he saved par from a bunker on the 18th.
What might have saved him that week was his 72 in the third round. It was the lowest score among the final 11 groups who teed off.
“What he shot on Saturday was phenomenal,” said Stuart Appleby, part of the four-man playoff that Els won. “That was probably in the top five of hellish weather days that he and I have ever seen in our British Open history.”