Hawk's Nest: Best British Opens in last 20 years


The 15th hole at my club is a short par 3 framed by a pair of towering sycamores. Neither tree is really in play. Both are handsome, healthy and more than 150 years old, but the chairman of the golf committee wants to them cut down.

As noted British pessimist and gifted musician Joe Jackson once griped, you give a man some power and he’ll use it for a while.

A political football is what the matter has become, shaped by strong opinions from men who make a lot of money looking after hedge funds or managing other people’s wealth. Frankly, I don’t know how anyone could justify the removal of such magnificent natural specimens, but then, I don’t have a two-year license to make such decisions or the urge to change the world with a chainsaw.

The hole is 135 yards long. The green is significantly undulated but plenty wide enough for a short iron, and there are no air-circulation issues that might cause undue duress to the putting surface.

When the whole tree-reduction movement became en vogue a while back, that was the very purpose: to improve course conditions. Winged Foot and Oakmont were among the clubs that embarked on such a project – better air flow means firmer, faster greens, which means you can host U.S. Opens and make millions in the merchandise tent.

Trees are like teeth, however, and when you take one out, you can’t put it back.

THERE AREN’T A whole lot of trees at Royal Liverpool, or on any British Open site, for that matter. I made my first trip overseas to cover the tournament 20 years ago – Nick Price roared from behind down the homestretch to clip Jesper Parnevik – and I was floored by the simple, stunning beauty of Turnberry.

We won’t be getting those scenics this week. With all due respect to its dues-paying membership, Liverpool is the least appealing venue in the British Open rota – flat as a bowling alley and astonishingly unmemorable. A least Royal St. George’s, which I consider the world’s largest unmade bed, has some contours, a hint of definition.

For whatever reason, the R&A decided to return to Hoylake, as it is also called, in 2006 after a 39-year absence, perhaps because the old boys thought the tournament needed another venue in England. Without question, the Scottish sites as a whole are far superior to those of its southern neighbor. Birkdale is the only English layout with the type of character and inherent challenge you’d expect at a major championship, but that’s one reason why this tournament is so cool.

It’s about the people playing in it more than the ground they’re playing on, so my list of the five best British Opens in the last 20 years plays no favorites in terms of course quality.

5. Troon, 2004. An outrageous sequel to Ben Curtis’ mind-blowing victory a year earlier – we could go 100 years and not see bigger back-to-back upsets. Todd Hamilton gets the nod over Curtis for a few reasons. He beat Ernie Els in a playoff. Phil Mickelson was in it until the very end, and the golf from all contenders was superb.

Lasting memory: Els was in a very foul mood after losing by a stroke in the four-hole tiebreaker. The Big Easy stormed off to the car park without taking questions. Mickelson had nipped him at the Masters three months earlier, and now this.

4. Turnberry, 2009. Tom Watson’s agonizing loss proved one thing: The golf gods have a sick sense of humor. The rotten-luck bogey on the 72nd hole was bad enough, but to see the man totally fall apart in the playoff against Stewart Cink was unbearable. Cink would emerge as the ultimate villain, but he did sink a putt on that same 18th green in regulation to force the issue.

Lasting memory: Upon reaching the media center, the first words out of Watson’s mouth were priceless: “This ain’t a funeral, you know.” Under very similar circumstances a year earlier, Sergio Garcia couldn’t have behaved more childishly.

3. Liverpool, 2006. The 1997 Masters and 2000 U.S. Open stand alone, but otherwise, this was the finest performance of Tiger Woods’ career. A rare dry season had turned the ground to concrete, which allowed Woods to abandon his driver and lead the field in fairways hit. He was paired in Sunday’s final group with Garcia, whose bright yellow pants inspired Tiger to quip afterward, “I think I just bludgeoned Tweety Bird.”

Lasting memory: It was a brutally warm week in northern England, and the house we were living in had no air conditioning. I walked two miles to a drug store to buy a fan, arriving in a sweaty heap. “Sorry, sir,” the clerk told me. “We sold our last one no more than 10 minutes ago.”

2. St. Andrews, 1995. It’s hard to rank this baby second, seeing how John Daly turned into a superhero and won his second major title in a 40-mph breeze over Costantino Rocca, who holed a three-mile putt from the Valley of Sin to force a playoff. This was a never-a-dull-moment week, full of wild twists and wicked turns, but Daly got on the leaderboard early and stayed there. Throughout the week, his putting was as good as you’ll ever see.

Lasting memory: Daly’s post-round news conferences were ridiculously funny. Friday’s was the best, as the big fella was more than happy to provide details on the four massive donuts he ate while waiting for traffic to clear on the eighth tee.

1. Muirfield, 2013. A year later, it only seems more amazing because Mickelson hasn’t come close to winning a tournament since. He had just fumbled another U.S. Open at the goal line. His British Open history wasn’t as bad as some made it out to be, but you could have offered 20-1 odds that he’d never win one – and nobody would have taken the bet. Few performances over the last 20 years have done a better job of shaping a player’s legacy.

Lasting memory: When I saw Mickelson in the locker room at the PGA Championship a month later, I congratulated him on the win and joked that I never had a doubt. Instead of giving me the aw-shucks reply that has become his trademark, I could see him basking in the accomplishment for a moment or two. It was a response I’d never seen from him before.

WE CAN TALK about this week’s favorites. Justin Rose? Hottest golfer on the planet, but his last (and only) top-10 finish at a British occurred when he was 17 years old. There have been three missed cuts in his last four starts – that’s not exactly stellar.

Rory McIlroy? The kid talks a good game, and he obviously means well, but he’s a parkland course player, an Irish lad with Americanized skills.

The Dude in the Red Shirt? Please. Woods sputtered like a jalopy at Congressional, then took two weeks off. Besides, this ain’t 2006.

Jordan Spieth? Nice player. Big-game performer. And he remains stuck on one victory – at a weak-field event last summer, no less.

Truth of the matter is, nobody will arrive at Hoylake playing at a level that will set him apart from anyone else. The funny thing is, Woods is still the odds-maker’s favorite in the United States, priced in the 10-1 to 12-1 neighborhood, but the British bookies no better. They’ve been watching, and Tiger is priced at an average of about 17-1.

You can listen to your heart or wager with your head. Here’s how the first row of favorites stack up through the cumulative tallies of eight overseas agencies:

Rory McIlroy 12.5
Justin Rose 12.75
Adam Scott 15.5
Henrik Stenson 16.5
Martin Kaymer 18.25
Tiger Woods 17
Phil Mickelson 22.13

I can’t remember the last time every player reached the week of a major above 12-1 – the golden age of parity is upon us. Looking for some sleepers, guys who are underpriced? Brandt Snedeker immediately stands out. He has a relatively strong history at the majors for someone in the 50-1 range and he holes putts – at least, he used to. Zach Johnson is another. Very good tough course player, outstanding putter who gets up and down from everywhere, and I can guarantee you, length will not be a huge factor this week, rain or shine.