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  • Alistair Tait

Strange goings on at St George’s

Mark Roe’s scorecard nightmare at Royal St George’s 17 years ago is just one of a number of strange goings on at the Open Championship’s most southerly venue. The gods of golf seem to have done their best to try to disrupt the championship on occasions when the game’s greatest tournament has been staged over the links Dr Laidlaw Purves laid out in 1877.

Roe's Open travesty was the big story on the Saturday of the 2003 Championship. Thomas Bjorn was the Sunday story.

St George’s, where the final round of the Open should have been played today, has been the site of a number of firsts in the Open. It was the first English course to stage the championship. That was in 1894. JH Taylor won that year in another first: it was Taylor’s first of five Open victories. Walter Hagen won the 1922 at St Georges to earn his first of three Open victories. He also became the first American winner.

And so to the Sunday of 2003 when it looked like Bjorn would become the first Danish/Scandinavian man to win one of the four tournaments that really matter. It certainly looked that way when he stood on the 16th tee on Sunday with a two-shot lead. The rest is history. He took three shots from a greenside bunker to record a double bogey, then bogeyed the 17th and lost by a shot to Ben Curtis.

Did he choke or were the gods of golf at it again?

“It wasn’t that I felt uncomfortable about the situation or felt that I couldn’t handle it. People said I choked, and I can understand that, but I never felt as if I choked.”

Anyone who knows the Dane will attest to that. You don’t win 15 European Tour titles unless you’re hard as nails. As with Roe, Bjorn handled himself in the aftermath with dignity. Although the loss hurt, he’s always kept it in perspective.

“I got myself in that position at St George’s and some people never do.”

If Curtis was a surprise winner to many, then Bill Rogers was perhaps as big a shock winner at St George’s in 1981. The gods of golf nearly cost the Texan too.

Rogers was talking to golf journalist John Whitbread on the practice putting green before his opening round. Just as well, or Rogers never would’ve won by four shots over Bernhard Langer. The American recounted the story in 2011, when Darren Clarke won at Royal St George’s.

"Suddenly, John looked down at the draw sheet and said to me, 'Bill what are you doing, you're due on the tee?'," Rogers recalled. "I told him, 'No, I'm not off for 20 minutes', and he said, 'You're due off in about five seconds'.
"I'd got the times wrong. I panicked, ran off the green and made it on to the tee in time. There's no doubt that if John hadn't told me I would have been DQ'ed. Instead I won. And Langer came second. Journalists. Who needs them?”

At least the gods of golf sided with Rogers that week. They weren’t on Harry Bradshaw’s side in 1949. The Irishman finished runner up to Bobby Locke but might have become the first with an Irish passport to win the title if not for a painful twist of fate.

The County Wicklow man hit a drive on the fifth hole in round two that finished inside a broken bottle. Unsure whether he could take relief and with no referee around, Bradshaw closed his eyes and swung. Glass flew everywhere and the ball travelled about 30 yards. Bradshaw eventually marked a six on his card and, perhaps unsettled, signed for a 77. Locke won his first of four claret jugs by a shot to become the first South African winner.

The 1934 Open at St George’s was another first. It was Henry Cotton’s first of three wins. The gods of golf could do nothing about Cotton’s outstanding play. Opening rounds of 67 and 65, 132, set an Open record for low opening 36 holes that wasn’t broken until 1992, when Nick Faldo went two shots better at Muirfield.

Maybe that’s why the golf deities vented their spleen on the final day of the 1938 Championship. Reg Whitcombe won with rounds of 75, the best of the day, and 78 in a gale so bad it ripped the exhibition tent apart. Henry Longhurst wrote:

“The Marquee, the biggest I’ve ever seen, was looking like a great eight-masted ship with tattered canvas. Seams were splitting like the tearing of giant calico, and the billowing canvas was heaving and straining to bring the whole contraption to the ground. … Steel shafted clubs were twisted in grotesque figures of eight, and pullovers, shirts, scarves, mittens and caps were blown wildly across Prince’s club nearby and thence into the sea.
“Fantastic were the cries of woe told by some of the lesser fry. Rounds of ninety, ninety-five, and even a hundred, were comparatively commonplace, and this among the last forty survivors, presumably the finest golfers in Great Britain. Seventy five was the best round of the day, and morning and afternoon there were only eleven scores below eighty.”

Strange goings on indeed. Whoever wins next year’s Open Championship at St George’s will not only have to beat the world’s best, but hope the golf gods are kind to him.

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