Letter from Europe
Remembering the greatest individual tournament finish in golf history 30 years later
Have a wee think about this one: In the long history of professional golf, what constitutes the best-ever finish to a tournament by the eventual winner?
There are many contenders, Cameron Smith’s 64 at St. Andrews on Sunday to win the 150th Open joining the list. Some could point to Charl Schwartzel’s four straight closing birdies to clinch the 2011 Masters. Shaun Micheel’s wondrous 7-iron to within six inches of the flag on the final hole at Oak Hill will no doubt provide the 2003 PGA champion with some support. And those of a more elderly vintage might go for Arnold Palmer’s final-round 65 at Cherry Hills in 1960, a score that gave “The King” his only U.S. Open victory.
There are plenty of others, of course. And everyone, no doubt, comes with a powerful/logical argument in its favor. But, in the end, they all come up short.
Here is your champion, your No. 1, the undoubted best of the best, the finish and finisher that finishes any and all debate about finishing.
The record book baldly states that Peter O’Malley—“Pom” to his friends—shot 262, 18 under par, at Gleneagles to win the 1992 Bell's Scottish Open by two shots from eight-time European No. 1 Colin Montgomerie. Nick Faldo, who would go to Muirfield and win the Open Championship for a third time a week later, tied for third. Two other Masters winners, Bernhard Langer and Ian Woosnam, occupied spots in the top 10.
But even that star-studded list of the vanquished only hints at what transpired three decades ago on the endlessly scenic Kings Course that this week plays host the British Senior Open. Here, ladies and gentlemen, is how the genial O’Malley, a stocky Australian known for his metronomic full swing and sometimes dodgy putting stroke, performed over the closing stretch that momentous day to win the first of three European Tour titles:
No, not a misprint. Seven under par. For five holes.
“When Nick Faldo and I arrived on the 14th tee, there was a bit of a delay,” recalls O’Malley, 27 at the time, who was one under par for the round at that point. “Nick isn’t known for talking much, but we actually had a conversation. I can’t remember what he said … I was probably too surprised that he was actually speaking to take anything in. Then again, at that stage I was more concerned with winning one of the five spots available in the Open.”
Faldo had the honor and found the front-left bunker at the green on the drivable par 4. O’Malley’s drive finished maybe 20 feet from the hole, which is when the soon-to-be champion got his big break.
“Nick’s bunker shot finished just outside my ball and on the same line, which was a big bonus for me,” O’Malley says. “He hit a great putt, but it broke a huge amount in the last couple of feet. So I got a great read. I’m sure I wouldn’t have holed my putt had it not been for Nick showing me the line. I probably would have hit the putt he did. But I didn’t. I can still remember the roar I got when I holed it. The noise was incredible. There was a big crowd watching us, Nick was World No. 1, and the atmosphere walking to the next tee was amazing. I had goosebumps when I got there.”
O’Malley’s drive off the 15th tee was uncharacteristically wayward, “the worst shot I hit all day.” But he got lucky.
“I hit it far enough right that I was on the spectator’s walkway,” explains O’Malley, whose other claim to fame in a long career came 10 years later, when he defeated Tiger Woods in the first round of the 2002 WGC-Accenture Match Play at La Costa (“Tiger putted like Pom and Pom putted like Tiger,” jokes former European Tour player Mike Clayton). “That was a big break. I had a good lie. And I hit a really good 5-iron to about 15 feet. When the putt was halfway to the cup, I knew it was going in. The 16th is the little par 3, and I hit an 8-iron to about 15 feet again. I was feeling pretty confident by that stage, and it went in again for birdie. It wasn’t until then that I thought I could win. Although I was really pumped up, that was the first time I had felt adrenaline and been able to control it.”
Montgomerie remembers O'Malley's play from that day … and the Scottish saltire on his sweater.
After another birdie on the par-4 17th, that surge of internal energy was to prove useful on the par-5 18th. The closing hole features a saddle across the fairway at what was an awkward distance for O’Malley. For him, an average drive would fail to carry the rise and leave him unable to reach the distance green in two. Happily though, for a pumped-up Pom it proved no problem.
“I hit one of the best drives of my life there,” he says. “I was still using a persimmon driver and flew it over the hill. Faldo couldn’t do it. He wasn’t that long off the tee for such a big man. I hit a 6-iron right at the flag and had about 15 feet for eagle. I saw the line and just stroked the putt. It wasn’t until the ball struck the back of the cup and jumped up that I realized I had maybe hit it a bit too hard. But it went in. At the time I didn’t realize I had won. There were a few groups still on the course. But I was aware of what I had just done.”
A couple of hours later, O’Malley and girlfriend (now wife) Jill were back at the Gleneagles Hotel. Due to pre-qualify for the Open at North Berwick the following day, he had checked-out that morning.
“They were very nice and gave us a suite at the same room rate I had paid for the previous nights,” O’Malley says. “We had dinner with a group of friends. I spent more on that meal than I had for everything else that week. The next day we checked into a B&B at North Berwick. When we went to a local pub for something to eat, everyone in there knew me. It really brought it home to me what a big deal golf is in Scotland. I’ll never forget that.”
Oddly, the same cannot be said for Faldo. Asked for his memories of O’Malley’s incredible finish, the CBS commentator was stuck for words. Actually, not quite. “I love it when people think just because you were there you can remember what someone else did,” shrugged the six-time major champion.
O'Malley celebrates his out-of-nowhere victory.
Runner-up Montgomerie, who played that day in a sweater emblazoned with the Scottish Saltire, hasn’t forgotten though. Years later, the Scot bumped into O’Malley at a tournament.
“I was thinking of you yesterday,” said Monty, who shares a birthday, June 23, with the Aussie.
“Oh really? Why was that?”
“I got a couple of boxes in the mail from my ex-wife. In one was that bloody Saltire jumper.”
Three decades on, O’Malley still gets people reminding him of what went on July 11, 1992.
“It’s amazing what happened,” he agrees. “I’ve always had bursts like that though, where I start to make putts one after the other. But that was the most significant of those. It was a fantastic feeling and finish.”
The best ever actually.