Why the 1989 British Open at Troon resonates
Some tournaments stay in the mind longer and more vividly than others. Though all golf courses are beautiful, sometimes there’s something particular about the physical stage where the key moments play out that imprints indelible images and accompanying sensations.
Such events don’t have to be major championships. But because its stark and elemental links atmosphere enhances all the senses, the Open Championship is best for creating such scenes.
Troon in 1989 was such a place. It’s far from the most picturesque of Open venues. Even though the town and course lie hard on the coastline of the Firth of Clyde, the setting is spare and dour, accented by unlovely things like a trailer park, the institutional Marine Hotel and a suitably ancient but not particularly charming clubhouse.
From afar, the course seems flat and featureless. But close up, from a golfer’s perspective, the layout’s subtle humps and bumps create lies that with varying winds make it endlessly interesting. Troon is a mixture of easy holes and incredibly hard ones, especially coming home against the wind. The club’s motto, “As much by skill as by strength,” might be even better than Hoylake’s “Far and sure.”
The ’89 championship gained momentum each day. It marked my first encounter with David Feherty, then a 30-year-old, two-time winner on the European Tour. Through 54 holes, Feherty was three off the lead (he would finish T-6) and had regaled the press with tales of the yips, sport psychologists and being a former opera student who relaxed by doing arias from Verdi’s “Rigoletto” and Puccini’s “Turandot.” He possessed a kinetic intelligence and a startling sense of humor. The idea that he would become one of golf’s all-time characters wouldn’t have been implausible.
Wayne Grady played the steadiest golf, keeping the lead for nearly all of the final 36 holes. But two bogeys over the last five holes cost him.
Greg Norman, who started the day seven strokes behind, sent a jolt through the proceedings when he birdied the first six holes. His only bogey of the round would come on the 123-yard Postage Stamp eighth, where he bunkered a 9-iron. After he finished with a 64 an hour and a half before the leaders, Norman said, “I’ve had a few majors taken from me. Maybe it’s my turn to have one handed to me.” He might have added to his all-time total of hot rounds in a major championship, but the words were not great karma.
Then Mark Calcavecchia, a rumpled 29-year-old whose combination of power and touch was under-appreciated, hit a lucky streak. As described in his entertaining Calc-speak, he hit “a duck slice into the right gunch” on the railway-bordered 11th, then a par 5, but made a 40-footer for par. From greenside rough on the 12th, he called on the 60-degree wedge that he was a master of before Phil Mickelson. The flop shot flew about 20 yards, one-bounced into the bottom of the stick and fell straight down for birdie.
I went out to watch Calcavecchia play the 18th. After a big drive that he noted finished just in front of a death bunker 305 yards from the tee, he striped an 8-iron to seven feet and made the putt to tie Norman. Then Grady finished with par for a three-way tie.
The trio went out for the first four-hole playoff in a major championship. Just before gloaming, in a golden light amid the lightest of winds, with the sea in the background, the scene had the artificial perfection of a big-budget movie. Norman, looking like an action hero, birdied the first from six feet. After Calcavecchia ran in a 35-footer on the second, Norman topped him with a 10-footer. The Shark was still up by one.
Then Norman, as he had before in majors he should have won, let it slip. On the 223-yard 17th, he flushed a 3-iron—“He over-pured it; he over-smoked it,” Calcavecchia said—through the green. The ball stopped about six feet past the putting surface and 45 feet from the hole, but in just enough rough that Norman felt he couldn’t putt, though Calcavecchia said he was surprised that he didn’t. Norman gunned the chip, the ball hitting the left edge of the hole but running 10 feet past. When he missed, he and Calcavecchia were tied.
On 18, I was parked right behind the tee as Calcavecchia hit first, pushing his drive into the right rough on the 452-yard par 4. “I knew the bunker was reachable, and that was why I hit a flare in the playoff,” he said.
Norman, the best driver in the game, then stepped up and screamed a hard cut through the light wind down the right center. “His caddie, Bruce Edwards, said, ‘Beauty, Greg,’ “ and he bends down to pick up his tee,” Calcavecchia said. “I’m on the other side of the tee, and I saw it just catch the left edge of this bunker and roll up and pop back down. And I’m like, Whoa, he’s going to be pissed.” As Jack Nicklaus said on the ABC telecast, “Oh my gosh, he reached the unreachable bunker."
Calcavecchia was left with 202 yards from a not-great lie. As he prepared to hit a 5-iron, I remember being struck by his relaxed intensity and fluid movement. It was his time, and the sound produced was unmistakably that of a perfect strike. “I hit it so good I was just watching it and almost didn’t care where it went,” Calcavecchia would say. “It was like, Wherever the hell it ends up, it’s all right with me because that’s the best I got.” Landing on the front of the green, it rolled within seven feet of the hole.
With the ball looking even closer than that, Norman went for broke. But even though he had only 156 yards to the hole, the ball was just three feet from the steep face and sitting down in the sand. His 8-iron shot hit the bank, and expired in another bunker, from where he would blade it O.B. over the green. On the telecast, Nicklaus said softly but firmly, “He needed to give himself a chance to make a 4.” It was a microcosmic moment.
Calcavecchia went on to win by three over Grady. Norman was magnanimous, but this came after four years of cruel close calls, including bogeying the 72nd at the Masters three months before to miss a playoff by one. Norman would go into the biggest slump of his career, from which he would not fully emerge until he won the 1993 Open at Royal St. George’s.
Both players were star-crossed in their way. As Golf World showed in 2014, Norman was second only to Tiger Woods as the game’s best player since 1980. Yet Norman's legacy is more defined by what could have been. As for Calcavecchia, who still plays successfully on the PGA Tour Champions, if he were allowed to redistribute only slightly his 13 career victories against 27 seconds, he would be heading for the Hall of Fame.
I can still see them both at Troon.