GULLANE, Scotland – It was a vicious storm, even by Scottish standards.
But then the storm that blew away many an Open Championship dream in 2002 didn’t have the look of a normal hoolie. This wasn’t a Scottish storm, this was straight out of the midwest – black and ugly and unforgiving.
“It was like Kansas and you never see that over there,” said Davis Love III of the storm that descended on Muirfield 11 years ago. “When the sky just turns that weird green color, you just don’t see that over there.”
Blackish green Saturday – the stuff of Open lore.
Love was one of the fortunate on that dark Saturday at the 2002 Open Championship. He’d narrowly made the cut following rounds of 71-72, was one of the first groups off on Day 3 and beat the tempest to the clubhouse.
“It went from decent to awful in a space of 30 minutes,” Love said.
When Love teed off early Saturday he was tied for 50th. By the time the sun set on golf’s meanest day he’d climbed into a tie for 23rd thanks to an even-par 71. Justin Leonard made an even more meteoric rise, beginning the day tied with Love, signing for a 68 just as the chaos began and climbing into a share of third place by sunset.
“We were staying in Greywalls,” said Love of the iconic hotel that sits adjacent the ninth hole at Muirfield. “Justin had the end room and we were close by and I kept running into his room yelling, ‘You’re in the top 15.’ Then I’d run back and yell, ‘You’re going to be leading.’”
The third-round lead went to Ernie Els, who carded a heroic 72 in some of the day’s worst conditions.
To put the Big Easy’s 1-over card in context, there were more than twice as many rounds in the 80s (10) as there were in the 60s (four) and the field average for Day 3 was 74.6.
“I'm just happy to be in the house. That was a very difficult day today. Especially the front nine. I mean, it was some of the toughest conditions I've ever seen in an Open Championship,” Els said at the time.
Els finished 72 holes tied with Stuart Appleby, Steve Elkington and Thomas Levet at 6 under and claimed the claret jug in a playoff.
If Els won the first of his two Open titles on Day 3 in 2002, Tiger Woods certainly lost his bid for his third consecutive major championship on that wind whipped, frigid Saturday.
Woods was fresh off victories at the Masters and U.S. Open when he opened his week along the Firth of Forth with rounds of 70-68 and was tied for ninth place, just two shots out of the lead, when he set out in Saturday’s storm. In other words, exactly where he wanted to be.
Things quickly unraveled for the world No. 1 with a bogey at the first and a double bogey at the par-5 fifth hole. He went out in 42 and did little better on his inward loop, carding a 39 that included his only birdie of the day at the 17th.
Woods’ 10-over 81 still stands as his highest round in a major as a professional.
“I was playing with (Mark) O’Meara at the time, and we were just about ready to go out, and it just hit. You can see this wall of rain coming in,” said Woods, who closed with a 65 on Sunday to tie for 28th.
“The forecast was just for maybe some showers, no big deal, whatever. But no one had forecast for the wind chill to be in the 30s. For it to be that cold ... that was the thing.”
For Woods, and everyone else, the contrast to how the course had played for the first two rounds was jarring.
At the par-3 fourth hole, for example, Woods said O’Meara couldn’t reach the green with a 3-wood. At the fifth, where Woods said he played driver, 6-iron earlier in the week, he hit driver, 2-iron, 2-iron on Saturday ... and still hadn’t reached the putting surface.
The rub of the draw is part of tournament golf, particularly if that tournament is played in Scotland, but the ’02 Open was a wildly exaggerated personification of that truth.
“You could be the guy to tee off at 6:50 or 6:40 (a.m.) and get the worst end of the weather. Or you can get the guy who has the late tee time and have the perfect weather coming in. You just don't know,” Woods said. “I just happened to be at that time when we got the worst of it right when we started.”
As bad as the wind and the rain were that Saturday at Muirfield, it was a thermometer that bottomed out in the 30s that made things so difficult. At one point during the worst of it, Love and Leonard were running dry towels and jackets out to players on the ninth hole from their hotel rooms.
“It just got so cold that nothing was working, and no one was prepared for that. No one had enough clothes. Everything was soaked,” Woods said. “It got to the point where the umbrella was useless. It was raining too hard, and it was too windy.”
Woods was hardly the only contender blown off course on Day 3. Colin Montgomerie, who began the third round tied with Woods at 4 under, went out in 41 and home in 43 for an 84, the day’s highest round. According to links lore, Woods jokingly told Monty on Sunday morning, “I whipped your butt yesterday.”
Truth is it was Mother Nature who doled out the ultimate butt whipping on that stormy Saturday in 2002.