HIGH NOON AT TROON

Mark Calcavecchia won a memorable British Open by outdueling Greg Norman
July 30, 1989

On sunday, Mark Calcavecchia, an outsized collection of freckles and guts, became the first golfer in modern history to win a major with a round of 81. It was a brilliant 81-68 on the front 18, 13 on the four-hole playoff—and it won Calcavecchia a claret jug, $128,000 and an unforgettable British Open at a dustbowl named Royal Troon, in Scotland. The victory not only made Calcavecchia the first American to win the British since Tom Watson in 1983 but also put him on the growing list of golfers who have been congratulated bravely on the final hole of a major by Australia's Greg Norman, the acknowledged master of the stiff upper lip.

Not that Norman deserved to win. Nah. All he had done earlier on Sunday was come from seven shots behind, birdie the first six holes, score a preposterous 64 to make it into the playoff, birdie the first two holes of the playoff—his 10th and 11th birdies of the day—and lose. Hey, God, if you're keeping track, Norman is now supposed to win everything from here to 2011.

But if the loser played like a champion, the champion played like an angel. Calcavecchia, a former 230-pound burger king, not only birdied two of the last three holes to make the playoff but also birdied two of the last three in the playoff to win. In fact, he birdied the 18th twice.

This is the 29-year-old Calcavecchia's first major, and it came in a tournament he didn't even want to play. Because his wife, Sheryl, was expecting their first child any day, Mark decided he was staying home. Sheryl said uh-uh. "I have some good vibrations about you there," she said. Mark shuffled off to Scotland, but he vowed to fly home the second Sheryl so much as groaned. "No tournament is as important to me as this," he said. He called her three times a day. Sheryl had false contractions last Friday and Saturday that had Calcavecchia reaching for his plane tickets, but she talked him down. If this seemed a strange way to win a British Open, it was only because it was a strange British Open to begin with.

For one thing, Royal Troon felt more like Pensacola than Scotland. The weather was windless and hot, mostly 80-ish, with only one piddling morning of rain the whole week. The only people who didn't like it were the guys in the cashmere-sweater tents.

Not that the prairielike weather was anything new for Troon. The previous 2½ months had brought barely three days of rain. So what you had was a course without trees, without much rough, and it was twice as hard as the Prestwick Airport runways that border Troon. How dry was it? On Saturday, part of the course actually caught fire. A remarkable 46 of the 80 qualifiers were under par after three rounds. This wasn't the British Open. This was the Memphis Classic with haggis.

There was one thing about Troon that remained the same: Tom Watson on a leader board. Maybe they never took his name down from 1982, when he swept by a bedazzled Bobby Clampett to win here. The 1989 Watson looked as skinny as a two-iron—"I've just been eating right," he said—but for a while his game looked like vintage 1977, as he saved outrageous pars with his old bulletproof short game, practically sprinting to his next Scottish bump and run, soaking up every last drop of links golf he could.

"I love the smell of it," he said. "I love the feel of it. I love the bounce of it. I love the lucky breaks you get and the unlucky breaks you get." Does he have any Scottish superstitions? "Once in a while, I'll find a sprig of heather in my bag." (His wife, Linda, sneaks it in for good luck.) Does he collect anything Scottish? "Only Opens," he said.

Not this time. But close. Watson started Sunday a shot out of the lead but finished two out, in fourth place. Still, he had revived a flicker of hope that he can reinvent himself.

The first-day leader board looked familiar too. You had your blond, fun-loving Australian, a dashing Spaniard, a steady Brit and a few Americans. But the Australian wasn't Norman, it was Wayne Grady. The Spaniard wasn't Seve Ballesteros, it was Miguel Martin. (Ballesteros finished third from last, at 299, which was still better than Bernhard Langer, who was dead last at 309.) And the Brit wasn't Nick Faldo (he finished tied for 11th), it was Wayne Stephens, a former assistant plumber whose previous claim to fame was that he once worked on Tony Jacklin's house. At the end of the day, Stephens actually led by two.

It kept Wayning the next day, with Grady taking a three-shot lead over Stephens. But it also Payned, with Stewart, in L.A. Raider black-and-white, just birdieing, baby, on his way to a 65, a course record until Norman undid it. Stewart eventually wrinkled on Sunday with a 74, but this guy has a second, a fourth, a seventh and an eighth in the British since 1985. If he ever says he's not coming over here, somebody sic Sheryl on him.

Meanwhile, running on the hard, brown beaches of the Ayrshire coast Sunday before his round, Calcavecchia, a new man with a new passion—La-maze coach—was beginning to look at golf in a new way. "I thought about what it would be like to win a major, what it would feel like," he said. "I decided to just go out and play, just let it happen."

While Calcavecchia was running, the Shark was in a feeding frenzy. As Norman teed off an hour in front of the leaders, his caddie, Bruce Edwards, said to him, "Let's play an Arnold Palmer round today." Norman takes direction well. His six consecutive birdies at the start of the round put him 11 under to tie Watson and trail Grady by one, and those two hadn't yet pierced Scottish soil with their first wooden tees of the day.

Norman did the unthinkable on 7—he parred it—then bogeyed the tiny 8th for the second time in the week. ("We never did lick that thing," moaned Edwards.) But he came back with birdies at 11, 12 and 16 and a chilling chip-in from 20 feet on 17 for a 31-33-64, 13 under for the tournament. "This is the greatest round I've ever played," Norman said afterward. "I never root against anyone, but right now, I'd like to see everyone else fall away."

Grady fell a little, but just enough to tie, needing four pars over the last four holes to win but getting only three, bogeying the 17th. What Norman didn't expect to see, as he lay on his hotel bed watching the rest of the tournament, was the chunky sharpshooter Calcavecchia standing on the 18th tee at 12 under. "Here's the one," he said to Edwards then. "We've got a bullet to dodge."

Calcavecchia had knocked it in from 50 feet on 11 to save par, then chipped in on the fly from 60 feet on 12 for a birdie. "I've always said, 'When it's your turn to win, you're going to win. You're picked,' " he said. Did somebody order a 3 to tie? At 18, Calcavecchia stepped up and clobbered his drive 304 yards, then hit an eight-iron within a flagstick of the flagstick and rolled it in effortlessly. And made his 3.

What followed was the first-ever four-hole playoff in the history of the majors. Under British Open rules they would play holes 1 and 2—probably the two easiest on the course—and end with the 17th and 18th, maybe the two toughest.

The people of Troon know history when they see it, and they leaned out of roadside manors, hung from scaffolding, and peered out between backward-facing grandstand seats to watch. What they saw was what they had seen all day—Greg Norman making birdies. He birdied the first hole while his two opponents made pars. Just Norman's luck. If this had been the Masters or the PGA, with their sudden-death playoffs, he would have been heading back to the presentation stand thinking up witticisms for his acceptance speech. When Larry Mize chips in from Mississippi at the Masters, it's over. But when Norman birdies the first hole of a playoff, what's the rule? Play three more, boys; then we'll decide.

Norman was on his way to still another birdie on the 391-yard 2nd when Calcavecchia did something crazy. He rolled in a 25-foot putt of his own for birdie. Norman was unblinking. He stepped up to his 20-footer, heard a radio announcer broadcasting live, stepped off to glare at him, stepped back up and drained it. Two holes, two under; 10 under in his last 20 holes. Calcavecchia said later that he thought to himself, "If he doesn't deserve to win it, then who does?" Grady made par.

At 17, the third hole of the playoff, Norman hit a three-iron so pure that Calcavecchia later said, "If there's such a thing as hitting a shot too perfect, Greg Norman did there." Even the crowd gasped—it narrowly missed the hole—but it bounced by the pin and carried barely off the green. Grady would bogey the hole out of a bunker, and Calcavecchia would two-putt for a par from 50 feet, but Norman would get just one more piece of buzzard's luck.

He had a cruel lie less than 12 inches off the fringe. He couldn't putt, and he couldn't control the speed of the chip. He wedged it 10 feet past the pin and missed it coming back. It was his first bogey on 17 all week, and it left him in a tie with Calcavecchia. Grady was two shots back.

Calcavecchia hit an awful drive on 18. It sailed into the crowd, hit a spectator and fell 20 yards short of the one he had hit an hour before. But Norman has a knack for losing in his own impossible way, like hitting a drive on the final hole so far that it finds hazards nobody has thought of before. This thing went 325 yards and carried into a bunker few, if any, players had driven into all week. "That didn't roll into that bunker, did it?" Norman asked Edwards as he stepped off the tee.

"No chance," said Edwards.

It did. You know the rest. This tragedy is so old it's out in video. Calcavecchia pulled out a five-iron and hit his ball out of the rough so well it nearly brought tears to the eyes. "I just stood there watching it," he said later. "And I said, 'I don't care where it ends up, because that's the best shot I've ever hit.' " It ended up six feet from the cup.

Norman, meanwhile, faced an impossible shot on the lip of a bunker 120 yards from the green. To top it off, as he was standing over this most miserable of shots, he heard the live feed of BBC commentator Peter Alliss saying, "Oh, he must be most careful with this. He must not even take one grain of sand."

Norman, bless him, laughed. "The guy's telling me how to hit my own shot!" he said. But even Alliss couldn't hit that shot. It caught the lip of the trap, rolled into a trap 100 yards farther up and left him another unstrikable shot. Across the way, Norman's wife, Laura, turned and headed in.

What she missed was Norman hitting the shot too far, up the slope to the Troon clubhouse, out of bounds, and off the leg of Troon caddie master Bill McKnight. Norman now lay 4 in the trap, having to play from his previous lie, and said to hell with it, taking the most famous "X" in British Open history. Calcavecchia, lucky man, got to walk up to an 18th-green ovation for the second time of the day. "I said to myself, 'I can three-putt from six feet and still win the British Open!' "

He used one putt, kissed the trophy, made his speech ("How's my name going to fit on this thing?") and tried to schedule the first flight to Phoenix. "I'm getting home as fast as I can," he said. And if the baby isn't here by the August 10 start of the PGA? "I'm not going."

He called his wife. She was crying. "No," she said. "I haven't had the baby yet." They've got a name, if it's a girl.

Brittainy.

TWO PHOTOSJACQUELINE DUVOISINCalcavecchia (above) had three putts to spare on the last hole but needed only this one for the victory; Norman (right, top) and Grady fell to fate and a few unplayable lies. PHOTOJOHN IACONO[See caption above.] PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISINWatson led briefly and showed signs of reviving his once devastating short game. PHOTOJOHN IACONOThe 49-year-old Lee Trevino fired a first-round 68, but his aim was off thereafter. PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISINOn Saturday, Stewart danced to a 69 and trailed by only two.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)