Jack Nicklaus arrived at Royal St George’s golf club at Sandwich in southeast England on Tuesday 13 July 1993, two days after winning the U.S. Senior Open at Cherry Hills, the club in Denver where he had almost unseated the great Arnold Palmer in the 1960 U.S. Open. Nicklaus was in Kent to compete in the 122nd Open, the 12th Open to be held at this venue in a part of the world known as the Garden of England.
As he stepped through the doors of the sturdy, two-storey clubhouse he noticed a brown honours board headed “The St George’s Grand Golf Challenge Cup.” At the bottom were the words “Presented by Mrs RW Anderson 1888.” The winner in 1959, 34 years earlier with scores of 73 and 76, had been one J. Nicklaus. Nicklaus was 19 then and on the cusp of a career as a professional the likes of which we had not seen.
Now aged 53, he stood looking at the board and wondered how much longer could he or should he continue playing. He was in his sixth decade. He had won six Masters, five PGA Championships, four U.S. Opens, three Opens – a record at that time that was thought to be far beyond anyone else. It was arguable that nobody in the history of the game had played so well for so long. He had competed in every major championship since turning professional in 1961 and had won more major championships than most golfers have won tournaments.
Nicklaus’s opening round at Sandwich was a 69, his lowest in an Open since 1977, but the 75 that followed meant he missed the cut. No matter. The point about the Open 28 years ago was more that the stars aligned to help some of the world’s best golfers play dazzling golf and less that Nicklaus didn’t play the last two rounds. Everyone remembers the 1977 Open, nicknamed the Duel in the Sun, at which Tom Watson outlasted Nicklaus at Turnberry. Everyone remembers Tiger Woods in the 2006 Open at Royal Liverpool when he collapsed into the arms of Steve Williams, his caddie, on the 72nd green, an act attributed to his anguish at the death of his father two months earlier.
Everyone remembers Nick Faldo winning the 1987 Open at Muirfield with 18 pars in his last round. And everyone, surely, remembers Shane Lowry’s victory at Royal Portrush in July 2019. For anyone who was there, the sight of a wet and bedraggled Lowry approaching the 18th green on that wet Sunday, and later waving the claret jug to the obvious adoration of the sodden Irish crowd, is unforgettable.
But 1993 wasn’t half bad because so many good golfers were near the peak of their games. They included Faldo, who had won the Open, his fifth major title, 12 months earlier as well as the Irish Open just two weeks before; Bernhard Langer and Lee Janzen, respectively the reigning Masters and US Open champions; Nick Price, who had won the 1992 PGA; Mark Calcavecchia, the 1989 Open champion; Payne Stewart, the 1989 PGA and1991 US Open champion; Ian Woosnam, the 1991 Masters champion; and John Daly, the 1991 PGA champion. Oh, yes, and some Aussie bloke called Greg Norman.
One golfer who was present but not a contender was Seve Ballesteros, still perhaps Europe’s most popular golfer if no longer her best. “I am not getting any better, really,” Ballesteros said. “I used to fight to win major championships. Now I fight to make cuts. Now my troubles make the news. I don’t feel like playing. I feel tired and have done so for a year. I have been trying very very hard. But the harder I try the worse it gets.”
The Open is always part of the sporting extravaganza that takes place in Britain in June and July. Rowers row at Henley, that elegant town on the banks of the river Thames 25 miles northwest of London, and men in striped blazers and white trousers watch and applaud politely. Cricketers perform at Lords in the centre of London and tennis players compete at an ivy-clad Wimbledon in the southwest of London. Cycling enthusiasts can scarcely lift their eyes from the Tour de France going on across the English Channel. And in 1993, in the midst of all these events came the Irish Open at Mount Juliet, a Nicklaus-designed course in Kilkenny, Ireland, followed by the Scottish Open at Gleneagles, where the 2014 Ryder Cup would be held. Then, in case golfers were not sated enough, the professional golf caravanserai moved down to the southeast coast of England for the Open.
But Sunday’s final round was the day that made this a really special event. And the man who won it was not Faldo (though he was close to doing so) but Norman.
Rain and sunshine play important roles in the presentation of Open courses and by mid-July 1993 experts considered the St George’s course to be one month past its best. In the previous month, rain and sun had combined to make the semi rough thick and luxuriant, ideal for an Open championship. But since then the rough had shrivelled. St George’s in 1993 was going to be one of the firmest Open courses in recent memory.
Except that in the first round the course had been softened by a heavy rainstorm the previous evening and the consequence of this was the players went to town on a softened venue that welcomed high-flying approaches. On the first day of the 1985 Open at Sandwich there were only 10 rounds under the par of 70. On the first day, eight years later, there were nearly 50 under par. Norman, Calcavecchia, the Australian Peter Senior and Fuzzy Zoeller all had rounds of 66.
In Friday’s second round, Faldo set a new course record with a 63 to take the lead after 36 holes. The Englishman and world No.1 stood motionless for a moment on the 18th green, arms raised, acknowledging the roars that rang out from the stands. It was the sixth lowest score in the Open and made him favourite to win his sixth major title.
But Sunday’s final round was the day that made this a really special event. And the man who won it was not Faldo (though he was close to doing so) but Norman. Good as Faldo’s 63 had been on Friday, Norman’s 64 on Sunday was even better considering the pressure of the last day when so many good players were in contention. Of the leading 11 after 54 holes, eight had won major championships. There were 15 winners of major championships among the last 17 pairings.
Norman grabbed hold of matters from the first hole, which he birdied, and then birdied two more of the next five. It was a pre-emptive strike. And it worked. By the time Norman walked off the 14th, he was three strokes clear. He became the first man to record all four rounds in the sixties. His was the lowest final round by a champion and he beat by one stroke the previous lowest winning aggregate of 268 set by Tom Watson at Turnberry in 1977.
Yet perhaps what meant most to Norman was that he took on the best golfers in the world when they were playing their best and he vanquished them. His best was better than their best. He won by playing brilliant golf and by keeping his nerve in a way he had not always in the past. No one holed a bunker shot to beat him as Bob Tway had at the 1986 PGA. No one chipped in on the second play-off hole to beat him as Larry Mize had in the Masters a year later. No one outplayed him over the last few holes as Fuzzy Zoeller did to win the 1984 U.S. Open. Langer, Norman’s playing partner in the last round at Sandwich, paid him a gracious tribute as the two of them walked up the 18th fairway: “That was the greatest golf I have ever seen in my life. You deserve to win.”
In the past, Norman had had a tendency under pressure to block shots to the right, as he had done in the 1986 Masters when he only needed a par on 18 to tie Nicklaus and force a playoff. If ever he was under pressure, he was in that last round in Sandwich in 1993. But he withstood it. The moment that revealed this came on the 14th. He watched Langer hit a drive out of bounds over a fence and onto the adjoining Prince’s golf course. The Norman of previous years might have taken a 1-iron for safety and aimed well down the left side of the fairway. Instead, Norman chose his driver and hit an enormous shot that sent his ball into the prime position. “His golf was sensational,” Sir Michael Bonallack, secretary of the R&A at the time, said. “He hit every fairway, hardly ever played safe. I have never seen anything like it.”
By the time the championship had been decided on Sunday evening, 11 men finished with lower scores than the previous lowest at this venue. Norman’s 267 was nine strokes better than the previous best, set by Bill Rogers in 1981. One important bystander could hardly believe the scoring. Gene Sarazen, 91, had won the Open at nearby Prince’s in 1932. He knew a thing or two about golf and what he saw at Sandwich over those four days in July 1993, when he made a sentimental return as a guest, made him rub his eyes in disbelief. “This was the greatest championship I’ve seen in my 70 years,” Sarazen said. “I never saw such scores. Are they [American] football or golf scores?”
The last two sentences in the report in The Times on Tuesday 20 July summed up the championship. “A fine championship had been decided by a great round by an outstanding player. What could be better than that?”
What indeed? It was a privilege to have been there and seen it.
Top: Greg Norman acknowledges the crowd as he walks to the 72nd green of the 122nd Open Championship at Royal St George’s in 1993. Photo: David Cannon, Getty Images
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