by | Jul 24, 1989 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

TROON, Scotland — All he needed was a miracle — another miracle, we should say, because he’d already seen a few on this magic afternoon: a flying chip shot that landed smack in the cup, a 40-foot par putt that even he didn’t dream of making. Now, here, on the 18th hole — the second time he’d played it in less than an hour — Mark Calcavecchia glanced at the cloudless sky and lined up the shot: five-iron. Two- hundred and one yards to the green. Whack!

“I’ll never forget it,” he would recall. “I watched it rise, on a perfect line to the stick, and I said to myself, ‘Well, that’s it, that’s the best I got, I don’t even care where it lands, I can’t hit it any better than that.’ I mean, it was weird.”

Weird? Yes. Wonderful? Absolutely. For here was a British Open finale so unusual, only an American could win it, so dramatic, only Greg Norman could lose it, so entertaining, that three men were called back for an encore: Norman, Calcavecchia and Wayne Grady, all tied at 275. Playoff time, gentlemen. Four holes. May the best golfer win.

Before it was over, each would have golden chances. There would be bunkers and rough grass and horrible luck. It would end wonderfully, historically, but even the winner will tell you it wasn’t how it ended but how it got there that was the story.

And, oh, man, what a story. . . .

Let us pick up on the 17th hole in regulation play, where Grady, from Australia, was walking down the fairway, clinging to a one-shot lead. A relative unknown, he had been in front since the second day of this tournament. “He’ll choke,” critics whispered. Indeed, Grady had finished second 26 times in his career. From inside the clubhouse, Norman studied his countryman and rubbed his chin. “You don’t root for another golfer to do badly,” he would later say. “Well . . . yes you do.”

Not that you could blame him. What a day Norman had! Came out smoking, birdied the first six holes. By the time the bookmakers finished gagging
(they’d made him a 25-1 shot Sunday morning), he’d birdied three more, was 13 under, and was inside the Royal Troon Golf Club, sipping a Coke in front of the TV set. This was the masterful golf that Norman has always been capable of
— when his reputation as second-banana wasn’t tripping him up. How many times had Norman just missed at majors? The PGA. The Masters. The U.S. Open. Some called him a choker; some called him the unluckiest man in golf. His fate, this time, was in Grady’s hands, and Grady’s hands were shaking. A two-stroke lead had shriveled to one, thanks to a bogey on the 14th, and the 17th had been his undoing all week. He glanced at the leader board. Norman. He kept seeing that name. Norman. Norman.

Poor guy. He’d been playing all day with Tom Watson, whom everyone wanted to win this tournament. Even when Watson lost his putting touch and fell hopelessly behind, the crowds cheered louder for him than for Grady. And Grady was the leader!

Still, his 15-foot putt for par looked good as it rolled toward the 17th hole. So good, in fact, that Grady began walking toward it, about to shake a fist in triumph. But the ball rolled over the hole and two feet past. “OOOH!” The gallery let out a collective groan. “I swear a ghost poked that out,” Grady would say. Back in the clubhouse, Norman put down the Coke and headed for the practice green. He allowed a smile. His day was not over yet.

All this would be drama enough. But somehow lost in this Australian showdown was Calcavecchia, a freckle-faced Floridian who had never won a major in his life. At 29, he was already a reformed beer-drinker, a reformed junk-fooder and a reformed carouser. “I used to do things on a golf course that I absolutely deserved to get punched for,” he would admit. Irreverent, overweight and flaunting a self-taught golf swing that looked, well, self-taught, he lost his tour card five times between 1981 and 1985. Made little money. The top players ignored him the way you ignore the class slob.

In the last few years, however, he turned his life around. Got married. Cut down the beer. Lost weight. Worked on his game. He and his wife, Sheryl, are expecting their first child any day. Calcavecchia (which in Italian means
“old shoe”) didn’t want to play here, for fear of missing the birth. His wife insisted. “Something good is going to happen to you there,” she told him. “I feel it.”

Now, on the 18th fairway, he was about to prove her right. Amazing. Just seven holes earlier, Calcavecchia had been hacking away, from the grass to the crowd to a thorn bush so sharp he had to wear a coat to protect his arms as he swung. Just as it seemed time to pack it up, he made the 40-footer for par on No. 11, then came to the 12th and hit his approach shot into the rough.
“Great,” he mumbled. From a grassy hill to the right of the green, he slapped a desperation wedge shot.

And something happened. It flew 60 feet in the air, a perfect arch, and came down in the cup like something out of a Roger Rabbit cartoon. Ker-plop. Birdie. Not even a bounce. “I was more embarrassed than anything else,” Calcavecchia would say. “I mean, how lucky can you get?”

Cue the music, and we’ll see. He took that birdie, took another on 16, and on 18, he lofted an eight-iron as true as love itself, and it plopped down, 161 yards away, to within four feet of the pin. “The second I saw the putt I said, ‘That baby’s not going anywhere but the middle of the hole,’ ” he said.

It did. He was tied with the Australians. To put it in American-ese, he was going to extra innings.

They have never before used a four-hole playoff in the history of the British Open. But then, what a perfect time for change. Hadn’t this been Scottish golf under South American skies? Sunshine? No wind? No wonder all this strange stuff was happening.

The format was to replay Holes 1, 2, 17 and 18. Calcavecchia looked in his bag and saw he had only three balls left. “I had to borrow some from Tom Watson,” he said.

Not that it seemed to matter. Norman began the way he’d left regulation — with a birdie — and Calcavecchia and Grady both made pars. On No. 2, Norman sank a 30-foot putt for another birdie — does this guy ever quit? — and surely now he had proved himself, the golf gods would let him have his major. The night before, no less than Jack Nicklaus, Ray Floyd and Tom Weiskopf had all personally urged him on. “I was,” Norman would admit, “feeling pretty confident.”

Calcavecchia matched Norman’s birdie with one of his own, a 30-foot putt that made your heart race. Grady managed par and fell two behind. He sighed. Forget it. After leading this championship for more than two days, he was doomed, by one lousy putt, to be a footnote.

On to 17. Norman chipped to within 12 feet, and — look at this — he missed the putt! Bogey! Calcavecchia, meanwhile, rolled a 45-footer to within a half-inch of the hole. He tapped in for par.

One hole left. Tie score.

Do you feel destiny owes you one?” somebody would ask Norman when this was all over.

“Bleep,” he would answer, with a look that could melt steel, “I’d say destiny owes me about four, wouldn’t you?”

Hard to argue. At least if you watched the 18th. Norman, whose only major title remains the 1986 British, cracked his tee shot so hard, the ball almost split apart. It bounced in the middle of the fairway — “Great shot, Greg!” fans yelled — and then continued to roll, too fast, like a marble, and look out . . . it dropped in a bunker, 325 yards from the tee.

“The bunker!” Norman would moan, shaking his head. “I didn’t even think about reaching the bunker.” But there lay his ball, and there lay his chances, at the bottom of a four-foot straight drop of sand that was impossible to overcome. His heart sank. What more could happen? The bunker?

From that point, all Calcavecchia needed was to look to the heavens and wink. His final miracle came — where we began — on the approach shot to the green, a five-iron so perfect, it seemed drawn by magnetic force. It landed on the green and rolled to within seven feet of the pin as the grandstand crowd squealed with delight. Norman thrashed in the sand — a beached shark — sending the ball sailing to another bunker, then slapping it from there over the green and out of bounds. He finally surrendered. Calcavecchia stood, holding his club, in a momentary daze. “I suddenly realized I could three-putt

and still win the British Open,” he would say. “I was just praying I wouldn’t hit the ball twice on the same stroke.”

As you know by now, he needn’t have worried. He dropped the putt clean and true, and captured the title that has eluded all Americans since Watson won it in 1983. “WELL DONE, MARK!” they spelled out on the scoreboard. In the press tent afterward, he sneaked a phone call to his wife back in Phoenix —
“She was crying her eyes out” — and when he emerged, the new champion was crying, himself. He asked for a handkerchief and honked his nose.

“I always said if I ever got in a playoff I’d choke,” he said, with refreshing candor. “To think I’m gonna have my name on this trophy . . . my god.”

What else can you say? What a finish! Outside, Norman waited for his car, forcing a grin. He accepted condolences but he is tired of condolences. He had leap-frogged 19 golfers in one day to reach that playoff, only to die in sand. Alongside him stood Grady, his fellow Aussie, who will always wonder what slipped through his fingers. They had waged a beautiful war, and had lost only because someone must lose.

And someone must win. “You guys will probably think I’m crazy,” said Calcavecchia, the one time Big Mac-junkie, “but if I got the call last night that Sheryl was in labor, I’d have been on the plane home this morning.”

And missed this? No way. Troon, thy name was drama. Sometime soon, a baby will be born, and Daddy will tell it one heck of a bedtime story.


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