The sun was dropping behind the Firth of Forth, casting a glow on the links of North Berwick. Scott McCarron was in a hotel across the road from the West course's sixteenth hole, finishing dinner two days before the start of the 2002 British Open. He was not happy with the way he'd been playing in practice. As he sipped at his post-meal pint of Guinness, he was seized by an impulse. He "just had to play" North Berwick.
McCarron grabbed four clubs—driver, seven-iron, sand wedge and putter—and stepped out into the gloaming. "I played numbers three and four alone," he says, telling the story in the basement of his home in Reno, Nevada. "Then a kid was on five, and he waved me to join him. He had a three-wood, a nine-iron and no putter. We played through the sixteenth or so, when it got too dark. He'd use my driver; I'd use his three-wood; he'd use my putter. I had a blast, hitting the ball well, just being out there. It really got me back into loving the game again."
McCarron, who has Scotland in his blood (from his father's side of the family), repeated the experience every evening of that week. Playing casually and creatively, improvising links shots with his four clubs, seemed to sharpen his game. When the tournament proper opened on Thursday, down the road from North Berwick at Muirfield, he posted a seventy-one. He followed that with a sixty-eight, and on the rainy, windy Saturday of the third round (when Tiger Woods shot eighty-one), McCarron managed a seventy-two. He was only three shots from the lead.
He went out again onto the North Berwick links that Saturday evening. The day's storm had passed. He played through the thirteenth hole, which features a low rock wall very close to the green. The sun was setting. McCarron hit a nine-iron to about a foot, then savored the moment. He sat on the wall and watched the daylight disappear, daring to think that this might be his year to win the British Open.
He moved to the fourteenth, a hole named "Perfection," whose infamous rise in the fairway forces golfers to attempt a blind approach shot. Players are supposed to ring a bell located near the green to let those behind them know when the hole is clear.
McCarron hit his tee shot into the gathering night and followed it. He found himself thinking about the late Payne Stewart and about his own grandparents, who had died a couple of years before. When he got to the bell, he rang it in their honor. "It was a real Golf in the Kingdom, mystical sort of experience," he recalls.
The next day, he got to the first tee at Muirfield and found that the kid he'd met on the North Berwick links a few evenings before was the standard-bearer for his group. If life were a novel, that would have been a clear sign from on high that McCarron had only to trust in true gravity and the Open Championship would be his.
Life, unfortunately, is not a novel. McCarron missed short putts on the ninth and tenth, bogeyed the fourteenth and fell out of contention. He wound up with a seventy-one and was four strokes shy of the playoff that Ernie Els eventually won. "It would've been a great story if I'd won the British Open," he says. "But I finished tied for eighteenth, so no one's ever heard it."
Though he had wanted to win, McCarron tells this story with more relish than regret. Scott McCarron is not the sort of pro who would only go out on the links at North Berwick for an appearance fee, nor the sort who thinks the only place for twilight golf is the practice range. McCarron knows that not all of golf's peak experiences involve kissing a trophy. And while he savors the game, he knows its place in a life that gives due priority to family and friendships. The question he faces at this stage in his career is whether he can be that sort of atypical pro and still win all the championships he'd like to win.
Of course, just participating in a major would have seemed an unrealistic ambition for the thirty-eight-year-old McCarron only a decade or so ago. Though he was a successful junior player in his native northern California and went to UCLA on a golf scholarship, he didn't graduate as the player most likely to succeed. In fact, he barely made the Bruins' traveling squad.
"I wasn't really ready for it," he says of college golf. "It was a grind. Being on scholarship, having to do everything that everybody said, was tough. And not performing the way I wanted to perform. It wasn't that fun." His putting stroke got so shaky in college that for two seasons he putted left-handed.