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  • Alistair Tait

An Open travesty

There are times when it’s hard to justify the Rules of Golf to those who don’t play the game. The Saturday of the Open Championship 17 years ago was one of those times.

It was a downright Open travesty.

Mark Roe’s world came crashing in on him after the third round of the 2003 Open Championship at Royal St George’s, where the Open should have been held this week until the coronavirus wrecked our world. After compiling a 4-under-par 67 to get into contention, he was controversially disqualified because he and playing companion Jesper Parnevik didn’t exchange scorecards. R&A officials failed to spot the error before Roe signed the wrong card.

Other players have suffered heartache in the Open. Thomas Bjorn experienced it the following day when he took three shots in a greenside bunker at the 16th, made a double bogey and lost to Ben Curtis by a shot. Adam Scott bogeyed the last four holes at Royal Lytham in 2012 to hand the old claret jug to Ernie Els. Jean Van de Velde standing in Carnoustie's Barry Burn in 1999 is the stuff of Open folklore.

Bjorn, Scott and Van de Velde lost because of decisions taken on the golf course. Roe didn’t get a chance to win the Open because of a clerical error. Hence the reason non-golf fans looked on in disbelief.

A British radio station ran a campaign to try to get Roe reinstated. Newspapers penned angry editorials. Ordinary golf fans fumed at the injustice, ranted at the inflexibility of the Rules of Golf.

If ever there was a time for equity to come into play in this great game it was the Saturday of the 2003 Open. A referee walked with the Roe/Parnevik pairing. An official scorer had dutifully recorded every shot and could attest both scores.

No flexibility. In those days Rule 6-6d was inviolate. Protests fell on deaf ears. Roe was tossed out of the Open Championship.

Roe could have been forgiven for howling at the moon, for calling the R&A all the names in the book. He didn’t.

“One thought became crystal clear when I came out of that cabin (scorer’s hut),” Roe said. “My only thought was to handle it in a way my late father (Gordon) would have been proud of. He always drummed into me that golf was a gentleman’s game. I didn’t want to let him down.”

He didn’t. Roe faced up to the media and answered every question in a measured way. Not once did he get angry. Not once did he reveal his true emotions, this from a man known for wearing his emotions on his sleeve. Later that night he drove home from Sandwich, picked up two bottles of champagne and got quietly drunk. The next day he watched the final holes from St George’s as Curtis lifted the trophy. Afterwards he went up to his bedroom, closed the door and wept.

“The game of golf can be cruel at times. That was as cruel as it can be. So I cried my eyes out. Because it was a lost opportunity, a chance I’d never get again. I’d created that moment, that opportunity to have a chance to win The Open. Your whole career you work towards that moment, that putt for the Open. I had an opportunity to create that moment and it was taken away from me.
“I thought I could win the Open that week. I’d just shot 67. No one beat that score all week. So why couldn’t I have gone out that Sunday and won the Open? I’ll never know.”

Had Roe continued in the tournament, he would have partnered Tiger Woods in the final round.

“Not getting to play with Tiger still hurts. I do think of that more than anything. In 2003 he was at his peak, the best player in the world. I would love to have had that Sunday, at St George’s, in the final round of the Open, in contention playing with Tiger. That’s the sort of stuff boys dream of. The thought of playing that final round with Tiger still gives me goose bumps.”

Roe retired from the game in 2006 after 25 years as a professional with three wins from 524 tournaments on the European Tour to become a successful short game coach and respected TV commentator. He played in 12 Open Championships with a best place of T16 in 1990 at St Andrews. Ironically, his lowest round came at St George’s in 1993 when he posted a final round 66 to finish T24.

The 2003 Open was his last appearance in the game’s oldest championship.

There are positives from Roe’s experience. Four years later the R&A changed the rule to make sure no player ever experiences what Roe went through that day at St George’s.

Despite a successful career, he’s probably had more compliments for the way he handled himself after that Open travesty than anything else he’s done in golf.

“I guess the positive is that because of me, no one will have to go through the same experience again. I don’t feel any bitterness. I don’t bear any grudges. What happened to me touched people, still touches people. I had a letter from one guy from Pittsburgh that basically said: ‘the way you handled yourself is the reason my father introduced me to the game of golf, and it’s the reason I will introduce my children to the game of golf.’ Maybe that means more than winning an Open.”

Maybe, but it was still a travesty.

Photograph courtesy of Mark Roe.

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