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  • Alistair Tait

Sanders belongs to unique Open club

Doug Sanders will be remembered in golf lore for as long as the game is written about. He might not be as famous if he’d won the Open Championship.

Sanders, who has died aged 86, is probably more famous because he missed that 30-inch putt on the final green of the 1970 Open Championship at St Andrews. He might have made more money if he’d holed the putt or beaten Jack Nicklaus in a playoff the following day. However, his reaction as the ball slid past the hole is etched in history. You can watch the agony for yourselves. The official film is on the Open website.

There are many tributes to Sanders today well worth reading. Michael McEwen’s excellent article on Bunkered’s website gives an insight into a man who favoured flash clothes and lived life to the full. Guy Yocom’s 2010 My Shot story in Golf Digest is also noteworthy.

Sanders, who won 20 PGA Tour titles and had three other seconds in major championships, belongs to a group of players who should have/could have won the old claret jug only for it to be ripped of their hands either through their own actions or the previous severity of the Rules of Golf.

Here are my top five.

Tom Watson, 2009 Open Championship, Turnberry

Watson winning his sixth Old Claret Jug at the age of 59, becoming the oldest major winner, would have been one of the greatest stories in sport, never mind golf. Those of us who were there that day have the painful memory etched in our brains.

You could feel the electricity drain from the atmosphere when Watson bogeyed the last hole when a par would have given him the title. We knew the story we all wanted to write would not be written. We knew Stewart Cink was going to prevail in the ensuing playoff.

As you would expect with a man of Watson’s stature, the way he handled himself afterwards was a credit to our great game. There was no woe is me, just woe in the press room. Some of us were depressed for days afterwards at witnessing the greatest story in golf that never came true.

The difference between Watson and the others in this story is that the great man has five Open victories. Oh, how we wish he had six.

Jean Van de Velde, Carnoustie, 1999 Open Championship

I remember leaving a story unfinished to rush out of the media centre to watch Van de Velde make history by becoming only the second Frenchman after Arnaud Massy in 1907 to win the Open Championship. I stood beside his then wife Brigitte as the French farce unfolded. It was painful to watch. Still is.

Van de Velde is one of the nicest, most personable people you’ll meet in the game, a player who always makes time to stop and talk. He would have been a fine addition to the major club, but will go down in history for the way he contrived to throw away a three-shot lead on the final hole of that Open.

Mark Roe, Royal St George’s, 2003 Open Championship

It’s still to golf’s shame that Roe was denied the chance to win that Open Championship because of a mere clerical error. He and Jesper Parnevik failed to exchange score cards before the start of the third round. Roe’s 67 mattered not because of the stringency of then Rule 6-6d.

I remember arguing in the subsequent press conference that equity should come into play on the basis there was an official scorer, and a referee walking with the two–ball who could attest to the fact Roe shot 67 that day. My arguments fell on deaf ears.

Roe would have been playing with Tiger Woods in the final round. He might not have gone on to win, but I still maintain he should have been given the chance. Thankfully, the R&A subsequently changed the rule to ensure a similar ruling can’t be made nowadays.

Thomas Bjorn, Royal St Georges, 2003 Open Championship

Bjorn’s double bogey at the par-3 16th hole in the final round will go with him to his grave. He needed three shots to get out of the bunker and ended up losing by a shot to Ben Curtis.

The Dane has reconciled himself with that moment. He once told me:

“I learnt to live with it. I said at the time and I say it today, it will always live with you if you don’t win a major championship. If you do win one then it’s gone to some extent. It will always be there. But I got myself in that position and some people never do. That’s the one thing I still take from it.”

It was Bjorn’s second runner up in the Open Championship, but in 2000 he and Erne Els finished a distant eight shots behind a rampant Tiger Woods. The 2003 Open was his for the taking. Apart from that double bogey at 16, he also bogeyed 15 and 17.

Captaining the winning 2018 Ryder Cup team has helped ease the pain, but Bjorn will always look back at 2003 as the major he let slip through his grasp.

Adam Scott, 2012 Open Championship, Royal Lytham

Ernie Els’s name is on the Old Claret Jug as winner of the 2012 Open Championship. It could just as easily be Adam Scott’s. The affable Australian (pictured above) bogeyed the last four holes to hand the trophy to Els.

The South African found it hard to celebrate afterwards. His thoughts were with Scott. Everyone’s thoughts were with Scott. The man with arguably the most beautiful swing in the modern game would have been a fitting inductee into the Open Championship winner’s club.

Golf can be such a cruel game.

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