Finally, then, it was Bill Rogers over the white cliffs of Dover, up there where his nerve ends send him occasionally when he's on a golf course, which is why he has a variety of nicknames: Buck Rogers, for example; Slam Dunk; Nerve Ends; Panther. But none of these conveys the way Rogers put the British Open to sleep last weekend on the moonscape known as Sandwich down in the elegant county of Kent. In the end, all Rogers did to collect his first major championship, by four strokes, was be steadier than a relatively obscure West German by the name of Bernhard Langer.
The relentlessly methodical manner in which Rogers hit the fairways and greens of Royal St. George's during the final three rounds—especially the last two, on Saturday and Sunday when for a time it had looked as if it might become an exciting tournament, involving the celebrated likes of Ben Crenshaw and Tom Watson—was a better soporific than counting Kentish sheep. But that is what can happen when one golfer strikes his shots so much more accurately than anyone else. And Bill Rogers is, above all, a straight hitter.
Rogers, in fact, pretty much saved this British Open from being a mild disaster for America's professionals. Watson, the defending champion and three-time winner, drove from the tees like a deranged person and slowly took himself out of things. Jack Nicklaus wound up tied with Watson and Arnold Palmer in 23rd place, his worst finish in 19 years, after beginning the tournament with a horrendous 83—his worst single round ever in one of golf's Big Four events. It may well be that the Open at Sandwich will be remembered as much for Nicklaus' 83 as for Rogers' victory.
For two days Crenshaw looked like a serious contender. He was only one shot back of Rogers, a good friend, after 36 holes, but he soared to a 76 on Saturday and finished tied for eighth. And then there was Lee Trevino, a two-time champion. He opened with a sorrowful 77 and never did recover.
July 26, 1981
British Open weather, which often has drastic effects, was a factor only on opening day, Thursday, when wind and rain lashed the course. At the end of the round the lead was shared, at par 70, by Nick Job, a Brit with a nice wit, and Argentina's Vicente Fernandez, who would ultimately miss the final cut. But the really big news of the round came from the other end of the scoring spectrum. People couldn't at first believe that Nicklaus had actually committed an 83.
At midnight on Wednesday, Nicklaus had casually called Columbus, Ohio for a routine report from home and learned that his second-oldest son, Steve, who hopes to catch footballs for Florida State this fall, had been in a car wreck, totaling a Buick station wagon on, of all roads, Jack Nicklaus Boulevard, but had walked away with only a scratched knee. Steve at first was charged with "operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated." Steve told his father he'd had only two beers and simply fell asleep at the wheel at 2:30 a.m. after taking a young lady home. (Police later admitted that the drunk-driving charge had been an error.)
"I believe him," said Nicklaus, who then went out and shot his 83. Henry Cotton had shot a historic 65 in the 1934 British Open at Royal St. George's, a round that inspired the manufacturing of the Dunlop 65 golf ball, so many jokes followed. Nicklaus was told he would be responsible for a Dunlop 83 ball. When he was showered with applause on the 1st tee before the start of his second round, he said, "They were clapping because I dared to show up."
It was also said Steve had sent his father a wire after learning of Jack's 83: "Come home, Dad, all is forgiven."
Rogers took the lead with a 66 on Friday, a round that honestly didn't seem all that spectacular, because 22 players broke par, including Nicklaus. His response to the 83 was a 66 of his own. Crenshaw had a 67 and looked very much in the mood to win a major at last. Someone named Gordon Brand from Baildon even shot a course-record 65 by making one of the three holes in one that were to be accomplished at Sandwich's 16th hole. First-day co-leader Job shot a 69 and found himself tied with Crenshaw in second place, at 139 to Rogers' 138.
At this point, Job cautioned everyone not to worry about the possibility of his winning. "I'm 400 to 1," he said, adding that if he did win, somehow, he would be bigger than "The Wedding." He spoke of trying to calm himself with pills and pot, but nothing worked. He said he had read one of those positive-thinking books, and then found out the author had committed suicide. "Somewhere along the way," he said, "I rather expect the earth will open up and swallow me."
At that, Job wound up tied for 14th—ahead of Nicklaus and Watson. Chemists cheered him on.
What Rogers basically did on Friday—and also on Thursday, Saturday and Sunday—was always hit the ball in the fairway off the tee, and then mystically choose the right club for the shot to the green in the curious winds that affect play on the old links lands. Although he was competing in the British Open for only the second time (he was 19th last year), Rogers proved to be a master of all the blind shots called for over the bumpy and treeless premises of Sandwich.
Having survived the one bad-weather day with a two-over 72, Rogers became nearly impervious when the weather abated for the rest of the proceedings. He had his iron shots tracking the flags like laser beams. He is considered only an adequate putter on the U.S. pro tour, but at Sandwich he slam-dunked the ones he needed. His 67 for Saturday's third round left him five strokes up on the field.
He landed in maybe two bunkers the whole way, and only in the nerve-ridden final round on Sunday when he went out to protect that fat lead did he scare up a double bogey to give some hope to those chasing him, mainly Langer, who turned pro at 15 and unabashedly admits he's the greatest German golfer in history. A poor one-iron second shot was responsible on the par-5 7th. Quickly, however, Rogers gathered himself together and nailed gorgeous iron shots into the 9th, 10th and 12th holes that resulted in birdies. In so doing, he shut the door on the wiry young West German, whose Harpo Marx hairdo made him look more like the lead guitarist in a punk rock group than one of Europe's better golfers. Raymond Floyd, who finished in a tie for third but seven shots behind Rogers, loomed momentarily as a threat, but only if Rogers were to fall completely apart. Which he didn't—and wasn't that fortunate for our side.
One thing about this Open that stirred comment even before it began was that it seemed to be blighted by American absences. Thirty-two U.S. pros had been declared exempt from qualifying, but 10 of them didn't even bother to enter the tournament, and seven more who did enter didn't bother to show up. Several of these chaps had good reasons for not being at Sandwich: Andy Bean, for instance, was suffering from an injured hand, Larry Nelson said he had a bad back and Gil Morgan was in an automobile accident only days before the start. As to the rest, judgment must be suspended. No matter their apprehensions regarding the difficulties of the course and problems with accommodations, and the fact that a flying visit to Britain has become an enormously expensive proposition, an accomplished golfer at the peak of his career ought to have an ironclad excuse for passing up a major championship. The magnitude of the American dropout was disappointing. Besides Bean, Nelson and Morgan, the no-shows included Hale Irwin, Tom Weiskopf, Tom Kite, Curtis Strange, Bob Gilder, John Mahaffey, Lou Graham, Andy North, Howard Twitty, Mike Reid, Bill Kratzert, Doug Tewell, George Burns III and Don Pooley.
Bill Rogers had a word for this group. "I'd been worried about coming over because so many guys told me what a lousy course this was going to be," he said, "and how expensive it was. I don't know how they could feel that way. This is one of the greatest courses I've ever played. There's too much to gain from playing well in the British Open. You can't let the expense part of it spoil the opportunity of coming over here."
This brave sentiment was uttered before the native of Waco, Texas had hitched up his trousers following his double bogey at the 7th in the final round. As things turned out, the closest Rogers came to losing the championship was on the first day. He was idling on the putting green with only a moment to go before he was supposed to tee off. He thought his tee time was 9:45. It was, in fact, 9:25, and the time of day was 9:24. A British journalist saved Rogers by reminding him of that fact. "Oh golly," he said as he sped to the tee, arriving just in time. Had he been one minute later, he would have been disqualified. Which would really have been expensive.