The romantic words we use to describe major championships and those who battle through them – the conqueror, the triumphant, the survivor – have a particular significance in Open Championships at St. Andrews.
Coming into the 1995 edition, most assumed a player fitting those descriptions would have a comfortable lead by Sunday afternoon. The pedigree of victors at the game’s most iconic course was pure and without rival, and the tournament would be timestamped by Arnold Palmer’s final playing in the event. As he walked across the Swilcan Bridge on Friday, people of all ages were watching from the brass railings of the Rusacks Hotel, hanging out of second-floor windows at the Woollen Mill and finding anywhere else they could cram in to catch a glimpse of the King as he bid an emotional farewell to the tournament he profoundly shaped.
“As I was coming up 18, I kept thinking about 1960 and what it led to,” Palmer said afterward, referencing his first trip to St. Andrews and the burgeoning success of the next 35 Opens. “A lot of great years and a lot of happy times.”
Despite that humbling backdrop, the 124th Open Championship became defined by words we rarely associate with this tournament at this venue. It was preposterous, unexpected and bizarre, an exciting play but starring an unfamiliar cast of wild cards.
At the core of this is the enduring memory we all share, that of 38-year-old journeyman Costantino Rocca pounding on the turf after holing an improbable 65-foot birdie putt from the Valley of Sin on the final hole to reach a playoff he would lose miserably. It’s an arduous task to think of another major in which the classic moment is the runner-up celebrating at any point, let alone on the 72nd hole.
“Behind the ninth green at St. Andrews, they always had these Otis Spunkmeyer chocolate muffins. They were fresh and they were good and I ate them every single day.” – John Daly
Then there was the champion, John Daly, the antithesis of Bobby Jones, Sam Snead, Jack Nicklaus, Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo and the others who had previously won at St. Andrews. The country hulk with a bleach-blonde mullet had been the mystery winner at the 1991 PGA Championship when he went from ninth alternate to immediate fame, but he mostly had struggled since. His alcoholism took an ugly turn late in 1993 when he walked off the golf course at the Kapalua International, leading to a suspension and a stint in rehab. Daly came back in 1994 and won the BellSouth Classic but looked otherwise lost from that point forward; heading to the 1995 Open Championship, a sober Daly had one top-10 in his previous 31 starts and failed to reach the weekend 13 times. Upon arriving at St. Andrews, Daly told reporters that he emptied his minibar and stocked it with Diet Coke and M&Ms, combating the desire to drink with caffeine and sugar.
“I was craving chocolate when I wasn’t drinking,” Daly said in the ESPN documentary Hit It Hard. “Behind the ninth green at St. Andrews, they always had these Otis Spunkmeyer chocolate muffins. They were fresh and they were good and I ate them every single day.”
More than the muffins, the Old Course inspired something else in Daly. His typical miss at the time was a hook, and St. Andrews tends to offer more forgiveness left of fairways than to the right. He also had contributed to a U.S. victory at the 1993 Dunhill Cup on the layout alongside teammates Fred Couples and Payne Stewart, becoming acquainted with the different ways the course can play.
“It’s my favorite place to play golf in the world,” he said.
Daly was a factor from the beginning, shooting 5-under 67 in benign conditions to share a first-round lead with major champions Tom Watson and Ben Crenshaw as well as European Tour stalwart Mark McNulty. Although a second-round, 1-under 71 gave him a share of the 36-hole lead with Brad Faxon and little-known Katsuyoshi Tomori, most believed the eventual winner would come from the rest of the tightly packed leaderboard. Crenshaw was only one shot behind at the halfway mark, along with two previous U.S. Open winners in Ernie Els and Corey Pavin, and proven PGA Tour winners John Cook and Mark Brooks. Stewart, a two-time major winner at the time, was two strokes back and tied with eventual major champions Justin Leonard and Vijay Singh.
For the most part, none of those better-known players would be involved in the drama Sunday afternoon. Also conspicuous by their absence were strong favorites Greg Norman and Nick Faldo, who eventually finished T15 and T39, respectively. In the previous five Opens, the pair had combined for three victories, a runner-up and three other top-10 finishes; in 1995, they were never in the conversation.
Instead, the tournament shifted in favor of 26-year-old New Zealander Michael Campbell who claimed a two-stroke advantage heading into the final round after a Saturday 65 vaulted him to the lead. Campbell, who would win the 2005 U.S. Open at Pinehurst a decade later, was playing in just his second major and, following an eventual tie for third place, would go his next 26 major appearances with no top-10 finishes and 16 missed cuts.
Two shots behind Campbell was Rocca, who had eagled the par-4 12th on Saturday to push him into the final game for Sunday. The veteran had been successful on the European Tour, finishing sixth on the Order of Merit in 1993, which led to the first of three Ryder Cup appearances, but his best major finish before the 1995 Open was a tie for 41st in the previous year’s Masters. The runner-up performance would be the top achievement of Rocca’s career, save for a Sunday singles victory against Tiger Woods in the 1997 Ryder Cup that helped Europe to a 14½-13½ win at Valderrama.
Daly faltered on Saturday with a 1-over 73, but it was a bit of fortune on his final hole of the third round that kept him in contention. Coming off of a double bogey, Daly unleashed a drive on the par-4 18th that bounded over the green, climbed up a small hill next to stairs that lead to a walkway, and came rolling backwards to safe ground. The ball came mere feet from going out of bounds, which likely would have led to no better than bogey and a nearly insurmountable deficit. Instead, he putted from off the green to about 8 feet and converted the birdie putt, getting him to within four strokes of Campbell.
“On this golf course, if you are seven or eight shots back, you’re still in it,” Daly said following the third round. “The wind is supposed to blow a lot harder tomorrow, so I’m kind of glad I’m not in the last group.”
Players encountered a different beast on Sunday as winds whipped to the point where balls were oscillating on the greens. Fitting with the theme of the tournament, Englishman Steven Bottomley played well ahead of the leaders and shot a 3-under 69, the lone player to break 70 on the day, to reach 5-under 283. Bottomley had only won £9,000 in his career to that point but had made it through a local qualifier into the event. It turned out to be the only made cut of the four majors Bottomley played in his career, and he nearly won it.
While Bottomley waited, the pack slowly crawled back. Campbell was flustered right from a nervous opening tee shot, dropping shots at Nos. 5 and 6 while Daly charged forward. By the time Daly rolled home a birdie putt on the par-3 eighth he had reached 8 under to lead Campbell by one and Rocca by two. Four holes later, he was still at 8 under and now leading by two shots ahead of Brooks, who had started the day five strokes behind Campbell. By this point, Campbell trailed by three and Rocca by four.
Brooks would double bogey No. 16 and birdie the last to join Bottomley at 5-under, seemingly giving Daly command. However, a bogey on No. 16 and a trip to the Road Hole bunker at No. 17 cut Daly down to 6 under as he came to the 72nd hole. Two holes behind him Rocca had crawled back to 5 under to get to within one, while Campbell fell to 4 under.
The next sequence is one of the most remarkable in major championship history. As Daly made a routine par at the final hole, Rocca sent his ball well over the 17th green and onto the road, giving himself an impossible shot. He decided to putt for his third and watched as his ball immediately popped upward off of a small stone, bounced on the road and climbed mischievously up the bank on the back of the green, somehow rolling to just a few feet from the hole. He made par and came to the last needing a birdie to force a four-hole playoff. While it’s a now-forgotten footnote, Campbell also had a chance to reach a playoff if he had eagled the drivable par-4 finisher, but he settled for a birdie to tie Bottomley and Brooks.
Rocca’s drive on the last came up just short of the Valley of Sin but left him a perfect opportunity for an up-and-down that would give him a chance at the Claret Jug. In the next minutes, Rocca went from embarrassment to ecstasy.
His chunked pitch never had a chance. In the immediate aftermath, broadcaster Peter Alliss took an excruciating pause as the crowd murmured in disbelief. As the camera switched to Daly hugging his wife Paulette, seemingly celebrating victory before it was certain, Alliss spoke softly.
“Not quite yet, my darling,” Alliss said. “It ain’t over, but I must say the odds are in your favor.”
And then the ecstasy. Rocca, needing his second miracle in two holes, rattled his last gasp through the valley and watched as it tracked like a magnet, disappearing into the bottom of the cup. In disbelief, he slammed his fists repeatedly into the green and then lay motionless with his hands over his head.
Daly, who had started his morning by eating a half-dozen chocolate croissants and dancing in his hotel room with his wife to Wilson Pickett CDs, also had experienced a reversal of emotion. Suddenly, there was golf to play.
As has so often been the case in the four-hole playoffs for the Claret Jug, the real drama had already passed. Rocca made a sloppy three-putt bogey at the par-4 first to fall one behind and then Daly sunk a monster birdie putt on No. 2. On the Road Hole, Rocca found himself in the greenside bunker and took three strokes to get out, creating a five-stroke gap between the two as they played the 18th again.
The miracles and oddities were over, with Daly claiming his second major championship.
“What the hell do you want me to say?” Daly said after accepting the trophy. “This is unbelievable. I’m just lost for words.”
He did win golf tournaments again, but the rest of his career never matched the heights of what happened at St. Andrews. Daly is still the only two-time major winner from the United States or Europe not to be selected for the Ryder Cup. In the 57 major appearances that followed the 1995 Open, Daly missed the cut or withdrew 38 times and finished no better than a tie for 15th – in the 2005 Open at St. Andrews.
It may not have fit the traditional script, but Daly winning in a battle of unknowns is every bit as poetic as each time a legendary figure outduels another star. It’s a reminder of how human the game is, a challenging test taken by unpredictable people.
Top: John Daly, sporting a bleach-blonde mullet, tees off at No. 1. Photo: R&A via Getty Images
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