Final hole of British Open delivers year after year

By Doug FergusonJuly 15, 2012, 9:03 pm

LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England – The cheer was so loud, the moment so big, that Padraig Harrington forgot what he was doing. It was his major championship debut in 1996 at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, and he finished off his second round of 68 by holing a bunker shot next to the 18th green.

''I got so excited, I took the putter out of the bag,'' Harrington recalled. ''I've never been as excited on the golf course. The hairs on the back of my head stood up. It was just an unbelievable cheer that went up when I holed it.''

The lasting memory of that moment, however, was more about the stage than the shot.

''It's like no other major,'' Harrington said.

No matter the links course, there is nothing like the atmosphere on 18th hole at the British Open anywhere in golf.

The grandstands are enormous, about 10 feet above the ground and stretching 20 rows to the top, just below the iconic yellow scoreboard. They are on both sides of the fairway, starting about 50 yards before players reach the green.

''It's the best finish in golf,'' Robert Allenby said. ''Nothing would be more incredible than coming down here on Sunday winning the tournament, that's for sure.''

Dustin Johnson can appreciate what that's like – as a bystander. He played in the final group last year at Royal St. George's as the thousands of people in the stands celebrated Darren Clarke winning the claret jug.

''Pretty cool,'' Johnson said. ''It's almost like you're in a stadium.''

The stadium was relatively empty Sunday on a surprisingly sunny afternoon at Royal Lytham & St. Annes. Six people sat on the right side watching Clarke finish his practice round. Four others were on the left side when Robert Rock came through.

It won't be like that a week from Sunday. There are 6,705 seats, and all of them will be occupied.

One of them was taken on this quiet day. Alan Clarkin of nearly Ormskirk was on the top row, three seats from the end, eating his lunch before wandering back onto the course. He plans to be in the same spot a week from now.

Clarkin goes to all the Opens in the Lancashire region – Lytham & St. Annes, Birkdale, Hoylake – and he sticks to the same plan. He walks the course during the practice days and the opening three rounds. He will be at the course 10 minutes before the gates open at 7 a.m., and head straight to the top row of the grandstands.

The top row is critical. Behind him is the par-3 first hole, so he can watch every player start the final round. More importantly, he'll see every player finish. Clarkin was there in 2001 when Ian Woosnam discovered he had 15 clubs in his bag – a two-stroke penalty – and when David Duval removed his wraparound shades and squinted into the sun to hold the claret jug in his lone major triumph.

''It raises the hair on the back of your neck,'' Clarkin said. ''You see the players come through, and the cheer is almost like a crescendo.''

That's how it was for Harrington.

He always told Ronan Flood, his brother-in-law who eventually became his caddie, that there was no greater feeling than walking up the 18th at the Open, with the gallery crammed behind ropes and metal railing, the grandstands full of people sitting elbow-to-elbow in the green chairs aligned so perfectly.

''I kept telling Ronan for years, 'You've got to be coming down the last on a Sunday afternoon. There's no experience like walking down the last and getting cheered onto the green,''' Harrington said. ''The first time Ronan ever got to caddie on the 18th hole was Carnoustie. It took us three years to get there.''

Harrington won his first Open at Carnoustie in 2007, despite a double bogey on the 18th hole. Sergio Garcia made bogey on the last to set up a playoff, and Harrington wound up beating him by one shot. So he made the trip down the 18th fairway five times that week – four in regulation, one in a playoff.

''But I actually lied,'' Harrington added. ''There's a better experience. It's going down the 72nd hole when you're actually winning The Open,'' he said. ''Then the crowds really come alive – if they have not been alive already. It's a very special feeling.''

Sunday before a major is getting busier, with a couple of dozen players getting in a practice round.

One of them was Tiger Woods, who arrived at a nearby airport at 7 a.m., drove straight to the golf course and walked right onto the first tee. He stretched briefly, and without a practice swing, uttered his first words of his British Open week: ''Get in.''

He nearly holed the tee shot.

Woods meticulously worked his way through all 18 holes, taking notes, hitting a 2-iron off a par 5 into the wind to avoid some of the 206 bunkers. One reason for being so meticulous on a Sunday was the weather might not be this pleasant the rest of the week. The forecast was for rain just about every day, starting on Monday on the first official day of practice.

The grandstands are made by a company called Wernick Events Link. The grandstands will hold some 20,000 people across Royal Lytham & St. Annes, but it's the three sets around the 18th – two on either side, one to the back left corner so as not to block the clubhouse, that are so majestic. Workers began installing them in April.

The last three winners have been able to soak up the moment on the 18th. Stewart Cink in the playoff at Turnberry, Louis Oosthuizen at St. Andrews and Clarke last year all had safe leads. The engraver already was at work on the claret jug. Justin Leonard won at Royal Troon in 1997, though he was in the penultimate group and was busy grinding to make par. Still, he can't think of a better stage than the closing hole of golf's oldest championship.

''There's a lot of things you can understand just from watching on TV,'' he said.

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Berger more than ready to rebound at Travelers

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:54 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Daniel Berger hopes that this year he gets to be on the other end of a viral moment at the Travelers Championship.

Berger was a hard-luck runner-up last year at TPC River Highlands, a spectator as Jordan Spieth holed a bunker shot to defeat him in a playoff. It was the second straight year that the 25-year-old came up just short outside Hartford, as he carried a three-shot lead into the 2016 event before fading to a tie for fifth.

While he wasn’t lacking any motivation after last year’s close call, Berger got another dose last week at the U.S. Open when he joined Tony Finau as a surprise participant in the final group Sunday, only to shoot a 73 and drift to a T-6 finish.


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“It was one of the best experiences of my professional golf career so far. I feel like I’m going to be in such a better place next time I’m in that position, having felt those emotions and kind of gone through it,” Berger said. “There was a lot of reflection after that because I felt like I played good enough to get it done Sunday. I didn’t make as many putts as I wanted to, but I hit a lot of really good putts. And that’s really all you can do.”

Berger missed the cut earlier this month to end his quest for three straight titles in Memphis, but his otherwise consistent season has now included six top-20 finishes since January. After working his way into contention last week and still with a score to settle at TPC River Highlands, he’s eager to get back to work against another star-studded field.

“I think all these experiences you just learn from,” Berger said. “I think last week, having learned from that, I think that’s even going to make me a little better this week. So I’m excited to get going.”

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Rory tired of the near-misses, determined to close

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:46 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Rory McIlroy has returned to the Travelers Championship with an eye on bumping up his winning percentage.

McIlroy stormed from the back of the pack to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March, but that remains his lone worldwide win since the 2016 Tour Championship. It speaks to McIlroy’s considerable ability and lofty expectations that, even with a number of other high finishes this season, he is left unsatisfied.

“I feel like I’ve had five realistic chances to win this year, and I’ve been able to close out one of them. That’s a bit disappointing, I guess,” McIlroy said. “But at least I’ve given myself five chances to win golf tournaments, which is much more than I did last year.”


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The most memorable of McIlroy’s near-misses is likely the Masters, when he played alongside Patrick Reed in Sunday’s final group but struggled en route to a T-5 finish. But more frustrating in the Ulsterman’s eyes were his runner-up at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, when he led by two shots with eight holes to go, and a second-place showing behind Francesco Molinari at the BMW PGA Championship in May.

“There’s been some good golf in there,” he said. “I feel like I let Dubai and Wentworth get away a little bit.”

He’ll have a chance to rectify that trend this week at TPC River Highlands, where he finished T-17 last year in his tournament debut and liked the course and the tournament enough to keep it on his schedule. It comes on the heels of a missed cut at the U.S. Open, when he was 10 over through 11 holes and never got on track. McIlroy views that result as more of an aberration during a season in which he has had plenty of chances to contend on the weekend.

“I didn’t necessarily play that badly last week. I feel like if I play similarly this week, I might have a good chance to win,” McIlroy said. “I think when you play in conditions like that, it magnifies parts of your game that maybe don’t stack up quite as good as the rest of your game, and it magnified a couple of things for me that I worked on over the weekend.”

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Sunday run at Shinnecock gave Reed even more confidence

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 9:08 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – While many big names are just coming around to the notion that the Travelers Championship is worth adding to the schedule, Patrick Reed has been making TPC River Highlands one of his favorite haunts for years.

Reed will make his seventh straight appearance outside Hartford, where he tied for fifth last year and was T-11 the year before that. He is eager to get back to the grind after a stressful week at the U.S. Open, both because of his past success here and because it will offer him a chance to build on a near-miss at Shinnecock Hills.

Reed started the final round three shots off the lead, but he quickly stormed toward the top of the leaderboard and became one of Brooks Koepka’s chief threats after birdies on five of his first seven holes. Reed couldn’t maintain the momentum in the middle of the round, carding three subsequent bogeys, and ultimately tied for fourth.


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It was a bittersweet result, but Reed is focusing on the positives after taking a couple days to reflect.

“If you would have told me that I had a chance to win coming down Sunday, I would have been pleased,” Reed said. “I felt like I just made too many careless mistakes towards the end, and because of that, you’re not going to win at any major making careless mistakes, especially on Sunday.”

Reed broke through for his first major title at the Masters, and he has now finished fourth or better in three straight majors dating back to a runner-up at the PGA last summer. With another chance to add to that record next month in Scotland, he hopes to carry the energy from last week’s close call into this week’s event on a course where he feels right at home.

“It just gives me confidence, more than anything,” Reed said. “Of course I would have loved to have closed it out and win, but it was a great week all in all, and there’s a lot of stuff I can take from it moving forward. That’s how I’m looking at it.”

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Koepka back to work, looking to add to trophy collection

By Will GrayJune 20, 2018, 8:53 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Days after ensuring the U.S. Open trophy remained in his possession for another year, Brooks Koepka went back to work.

Koepka flew home to Florida after successfully defending his title at Shinnecock Hills, celebrating the victory Monday night with Dustin Johnson, Paulina Gretzky, swing coach Claude Harmon III and a handful of close friends. But he didn’t fully unwind because of a decision to honor his commitment to the Travelers Championship, becoming the first player to tee it up the week after a U.S. Open win since Justin Rose in 2013.

Koepka withdrew from the Travelers pro-am, but he flew north to Connecticut on Wednesday and arrived to TPC River Highlands around 3 p.m., quickly heading to the driving range to get in a light practice session.

“It still hasn’t sunk in, to be honest with you,” Koepka said. “I’m still focused on this week. It was just like, ‘All right, if I can get through this week, then I’m going to be hanging with my buddies next week.’ I know then maybe it’ll sink in, and I’ll get to reflect on it a little bit more.”


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Koepka’s plans next week with friends in Boston meant this week’s event outside Hartford made logistical sense. But he was also motivated to play this week because, plainly, he hasn’t had that many playing opportunities this year after missing nearly four months with a wrist injury.

“I’ve had so many months at home being on the couch. I don’t need to spend any more time on the couch,” Koepka said. “As far as skipping, it never crossed my mind.”

Koepka’s legacy was undoubtedly bolstered by his win at Shinnecock, as he became the first player in nearly 30 years to successfully defend a U.S. Open title. But he has only one other PGA Tour win to his credit, that being the 2015 Waste Management Phoenix Open, and his goal for the rest of the season is to make 2018 his first year with multiple trophies on the mantle.

“If you’re out here for more than probably 15 events, it gives you a little better chance to win a couple times. Being on the sidelines isn’t fun,” Koepka said. “Keep doing what we’re doing and just try to win multiple times every year. I feel like I have the talent. I just never did it for whatever reason. Always felt like we ran into a buzzsaw. So just keep plugging away.”