And on the last day Johnny Miller cut ears and tail.
There may never be a stranger and more confounding British Open golf championship than the one played last week on the combustible links of Royal Birkdale in Southport, England. Down where the breezes off the Irish Sea ran into a heat shield, ultimately—and maybe inevitably—a young Spaniard ran into the blaze of a Johnny Miller intent on confirming himself as a superstar and measuring up to all those Sears ads.
In this Open, dust and flames and smoke hovered in the air instead of the traditional fog and mist, and for most of the time the handsome, bewildering Spanish chap was mucho contento in the lead while Miller and everyone else was playing the role of El Perspiro or El Grumpo because of the uncharacteristic weather and a course that was gradually turning to crust.
For three rounds 19-year-old Severiano Ballesteros (phonetically, Severreeanno Bal-us-staire-us) led the championship with a remarkable exhibition of putting and slashing shots out of thickets and up and over towering dunes. He shared the first-day lead with two other impostors, an Irishman and a Japanese, but when he gouged out a second 69 on Thursday he was alone at the top.
July 18, 1976
And when his miracles continued through the third round, even though he was one on one in a pairing with Miller and no longer hidden in the pack, there was a temptation to think that one of the major surprises in the entire history of sport might, just might, be about to take place. El Ouimet at Brookline?
But then Severiano Ballesteros fell prey to catastrophe, and Johnny Miller, gaining control of himself, started firing one of those 66s he produces now and then. The world may not hear more from Severiano Ballesteros, he of the strong left grip, the wristy swing, the whiplash of a full swing and the nose for always finding the golf ball in the bushes. But the world heard what it has been waiting to hear from Johnny Miller since he sent everyone into collapse with his last-round 63 to win the 1973 U.S. Open. Now he has a second major triumph, and that is what he needed to go along with the royalty of his stride and the assumption—his own—that he belongs in a category with Jack Nicklaus.
In fact, Miller's rounds of 72-68-73-66 for 279 buckled the field of this British Open, and as he won by six strokes he enjoyed the luxury on the last several holes of slinging Slazenger golf balls to the crowds as he left the various greens. A day earlier he had slung his visor to the barren putting surfaces and kicked at it. An old Sam Snead, with whom Miller was sharing a house, had given him a lecture. "You don't throw your cap to the ground, son," said Sam. "That's not you. Hit golf shots is what you do best."
Johnny himself said before the start of the last 18, "I'm playing as good as I can play. I'm two behind Sewie but I have to consider I'm really in the lead. I have to think he's going to hit the ball somewhere he can't find it."
There was no particular shot that won it for Miller. It was more a case of the Spaniard's game suddenly eroding. And this juiced Miller up for the birdie-eagle-par-par-par-birdie-birdie finish that he strapped on the last seven holes when something slightly less torrid was what others such as Nicklaus and Raymond Floyd had in mind.
Looking back on his shabby play in the third round, when he was first paired with Ballesteros and they each shot 73, Miller said, "I let his scrambling get to me, and my own game went out of control. He's a good kid, though. He wears Johnny Miller slacks."
The strangeness of the tournament probably was caused by the place and the weather. British Opens are infinitely more normal in Scotland. But Royal Birkdale is in England.
Southport lies on the sea a bit closer to the docks of Liverpool than the old cotton patches of Manchester. In character, Southport combines Atlantic City and St. Petersburg, the dunes and scrub around the roller coaster mixed in with the Victoriana of a rather elegant retirement resort. Huge homes, antique shops and rare book stores are also part of Southport. Everything has seen better days, of course, like the Empire itself—and the heat wave drew vivid attention to this fact. It seemed to be another time in history, as the golfers, led by the Nicklaus family, gathered on the lawn of the massive Prince of Wales Hotel every evening in search of a breeze while the hotels and restaurants ran out of ice, then water, then ice again. The windows refused to open and dust formed a filter over the late-setting sun.
Brush fires had never been a part of the British Open before. In all, there would be six, the first on Monday, a practice day. The largest and most dangerous flared during the opening round of the tournament when a cigarette touched off flames in the gorse, wildflower and buckthorn near the 1st fairway and behind the 2nd tee.
The fire threatened the grandstand at the 18th and caused a 30-minute delay in play as smoke rose over the course. Momentarily, it seemed to be a possibility that the whole tented village would go up, taking all those unnecessary Pringle cashmeres with it, not to mention the hit of this year's exhibition, a $2,000 Canadian sealskin golf bag, an item that looked so peculiar most any American golfer would not know whether to stick a club inside it or give it a platter of Tender Vittles.
Most of the talk at the 105th British Open was about the "imbalance" of the Royal Birkdale course. Even under conditions that might have been considered normal—the gale winds Arnold Palmer won in back in 1961—it is not a layout cherished by anyone. Not the players, the press or perhaps even the Royal and Ancient. It is difficult to warm to a course whose design has been changed so often, and which now has wound up with a peculiar par of 34-38—72 (it was a par 73 when Lee Trevino won five years ago). The first 12 holes are fairly similar par-4s and par-3s, either long or short caverns among the dunes. And all four of the par-5s are held back until the final six, with the prevailing wind usually helping on all but one of them. Thus, par for the last six holes was generally thought to be 3 under, at least, with the competitors hitting 230-yard five-irons and praying for the right bounce.
Proper British Open weather is that which the British like to say is "unfit for anyone but a dog or a Scot." The only sign of it was in Friday's third round when the welcome rains came and it got cool for about five hours. Both the weather and the Spaniard made Johnny Miller feel "soggy." But before and after that it was a case of slowly watching the golf course die.
Somebody said the Birkdale greens resembled camouflage jackets. Nicklaus couldn't get a feel for the brown spots, for the speed of them. The fairways were a mottled green and yellow and the cracked earth created an unusual number of ground-under-repair areas. The players spent half their time dropping balls over their shoulders, free of charge.
It was the ground-under-repair rule that led to the embarrassment of the U.S. Open champion Jerry Pate, who was playing in his first British Open. Years from now, when people look at the record book and see his rounds of 73-71-87, they are likely to think that he caught pneumonia the third day. Jerry Pate will remember it as the time he caught a "case of the R and A" and missed the cut.
His trouble really began in the second round when he was very much a contender. After his tee shot at the par-5 15th, Pate was in ground under repair, hopeful of getting the gimme birdies on the road home that might even give him the lead. In ground under repair, normally, the golfer is allowed a free drop two club-lengths from the area, no closer to the hole. But a rather militant R and A official on the scene told Pate he had to go 60 yards backward to a special drop area in high grass, an act which of course would deny him the opportunity to reach the green in 2, and thus blow the birdie he wanted and needed.
"Is this ground under repair?" Jerry asked nicely.
"Yes, it is," said the official.
"Then I can drop right here," Pate said.
"No you can't," said the R and A.
"Why not?" Jerry asked.
"Because you've just been told you can't," said the R and A, and that was all there was to it.
When the experience was repeated on Friday, Pate lost his composure, made a double bogey, began kicking at the dust and then tried to see how badly he could play. He later made an 8, and four more double bogeys, and it called to mind that every young player has his rank side, and Jerry Pate's simply came out suddenly and uncontrollably.
That evening, as he sat laughing about his exhibition in the Prince of Wales, he was told that his career had further followed the lines of Jack Nicklaus'. Pate's first pro victory had been in the U.S. Open, as had Jack's. And Nicklaus' first and only rank performance had been in his first British Open the same year, 1962. Jack hadn't missed the cut at Troon that year, but he had tried to, stubbornly hacking in the bushes of the 11th hole for a 10 and a humiliating 80. "Hey, that makes me feel better," Pate said. "But I wish I hadn't done what I did."
If Jerry Pate had been trying to win the child-of-the-week award, he had no chance against a 14-year-old caddie named Jackie Nicklaus. When the elder Nicklaus' regular British Open caddie, Jimmy Dickinson, injured a foot tendon on the hard sod before the championship, Jack gave the bag-toting job to his oldest son rather than fly over his American tour caddie, Angelo Argea.
Jackie held up well under the spotlight, and he never tired from lugging around his father's 8,000-ton bag, as evidenced by the fact that after the tournament's second round Jackie had himself driven over to Blackpool so he could see what it was like to play Royal Lytham and St. Annes, another of the courses on the British Open rotation.
Jackie knew everything to do, every proper place to be. "I didn't have to tell him anything," his father said. "When you saw us talking out there, I would usually be explaining to him why I had hit the shot I'd hit. For his own experience." The only real embarrassing moment for Jackie came in practice when he was shagging eight-irons for the contender. Backing up for one, he stepped in a hole—a rabbit scrape, perhaps—and fell down backward.
Because of the nature of the courses and the conditions, British Opens tend to sear into the memory especially audacious golf shots. For some reason, Birkdale seems to produce an abundance of such recollections. There is, after all, the monument in stone and bronze to Arnold Palmer, commemorating a five-iron he struck into the wind and onto the old 15th green, taking with it a bush and a half acre of brush, to rescue a par and preserve his victory. There is no plaque but there should be on Birkdale's 6th for the five-wood that Lee Trevino hit in 1971, which won him his first of two British Opens, a blind screamer of more than 250 yards that came to rest within two feet of the flag for a birdie on maybe the toughest hole in Britain—a hole that led to Ballesteros' undoing. Last week Jack Nicklaus hit such a shot at Birkdale in the third round that kept him well in contention, and it cries out for description because of its uniqueness.
Jack was playing the par-5 17th, and he had driven into the calf-deep right rough and he badly need a birdie. Nicklaus took out a six-iron and you could no more see even a glimpse of the ball in the grass than you could see his shoes. Later Nicklaus confessed it was the hardest swing he had ever taken at a golf ball. Laying open the face of the club, Jack attempted what he described as an intentional "flying cut." The ball soared an incredible 245 yards—two hundred and forty-five yards with a six-iron, mind you—and it reached the green only 20 feet from the pin.
While it was a golf shot for the ages, it merely led to the thing that kept Nicklaus continually out of range of Miller and the championship, another putt that singed the cup rather than dropping in.
What was left for Nicklaus was a tie for second with the unpredictable Spaniard, who, after all his messing about, closed with eagle-birdie and won that thunderous roar of approval that only comes from the grandstands at a British Open. It was the fifth time Nicklaus had been a runner-up in the oldest of the Big Four championships, this against his two victories, both of which have come in Scotland.
Nicklaus was those distant six strokes behind Johnny Miller at the end, however, which is what happens when you give Miller an opening and find him swinging well. Jack needed to put pressure on Miller earlier in the week, and earlier on the final day of Saturday, and he never really did.
In effect, this was Johnny Miller's tournament after the second round when he found himself trailing Ballesteros by only two strokes. Sooner or later a clump of some weird botanical species had to claim one or two of those wild shots the young Spaniard kept hitting. A triple bogey at the 11th did it for sure.
It had taken a while but it finally happened, and when it did Johnny Miller was there to strike his own match to not so jolly old Birkdale.