The night before the final round of the 1997 British Open, I was feeling pretty disappointed. I had shot sixty-nine and sixty-six on the first two days and entered Saturday just two shots out of the lead, but I hadn't putted well at all. A mediocre seventy-two, on a relatively windless day, had left me five shots back. I felt like I'd let one slip away.
As I was sitting eating dinner that night, Barbara Nicklaus walked by, stopped at my table and looked me square in the eye.
"You know, you can still win this, Justin," she said. I looked up at her and replied, half-heartedly,
"Yeah, I think you're right."
"Oh, no," she said. "You can. You really can."
I imagine that over the years Barbara has said similar things to her husband on the Saturday nights of quite a few majors. And perhaps she was just being nice. But it's amazing the impact one comment can have—especially when it comes from the partner of the man who's won eighteen professional majors. From that moment on, I stopped licking my wounds from Saturday's play and started thinking about trying to win the golf tournament.
And why not?Six weeks before, I had come back from a five-stroke deficit on the last day to win the Kemper Open. I was hitting the ball well. Plus, I was paired with Freddie Couples for Sunday's final round, as fun and relaxing a partner as a guy could ask for. (In fact, walking up to the seventeenth green on Saturday, I had looked at the leaderboard and realized that one more birdie would get me paired with Freddie. I was thrilled when I sank a putt to make it happen.)
But most encouraging was the course itself. I had never played Royal Troon before that week; if I spend too much time at a site, I get worn out before the tournament even starts, so I'd arrived only on Sunday. But once I saw it, I knew it set up well for me. It's a classic links routing, but a fair course that rewards good shots, which is not always the case with some of the British Open venues. Like most links courses, the fairways run fast and firm, negating some of the advantage that the long hitters have over guys like me. The greens are generally small and well guarded, and if you hit good approaches into them, you're going to have realistic birdie chances—in my estimation, the sign of a great course.
By my tee time for the final round, I was back to feeling excited about my prospects—and confident in my approach.
Coming into the Open, I knew a few things about Royal Troon. In 1878, twenty-four local men had formed the Troon Golf Club, carving five holes from a stretch of rough dunesland on the west coast of Scotland, thirty-five miles south of Glasgow. Since then, although the course lies just north of the links at Prestwick and Turnberry and south of Western Gailes, the gale-force winds that buffet the area have always bit hardest at Troon. During its first eighty years, tons of sand were routinely blown onto the course. Erosion from violent sea storms has claimed hundreds of yards of its land.
Despite all this, Troon persevered and developed a reputation as a challenging links with some of the finest greens in all of Britain. It played host to its first British Open in 1923 and has since held six others, boasting a list of Open champions that includes Arnold Palmer, Tom Weiskopf, Tom Watson and Bobby Locke—who was so smitten with Troon during his victory in 1950 that for the rest of his life he sent the club a Christmas card each year bearing the same compliment: "Still the best greens in the world."
I was also well aware that the course was famous for possessing two of the most radically different nines in golf: a docile start, a deadly finish. A true links construction, Troon sports a front nine that primarily hugs the seashore as it heads south, along the path of the prevailing wind. These are the scoring holes, where most players feel as if they have to make their birdies. On windy days, many of the par fours are reachable off the tee, and some players try to hit drivers close to the greens, leading to easy birdies. But that can also lead to trouble. Hit into a fairway bunker at Troon and, just like at St. Andrews, you're blasting out sideways.
I'm not the longest hitter on Tour, so I took a different approach: At the time, I was putting well and hitting really good wedge shots, so I opted to hit irons off the tees for placement and rely on my wedges to get me close. This proved to be my key to avoiding trouble at Troon—and scoring well. In fact, I'm not absolutely certain about this, but I don't recall hitting into a bunker during the entire Open. I definitely didn't find any off the tees. I don't remember anyone making a big deal of it at the time—certainly not as much as when Tiger did the same thing three years later at St. Andrews—but I'm still proud of it.
There was a downside to this approach, though, and each day it arrived for me on the tenth tee, the point at which Troon's routing turns inland, back to the north and into the wind. Probably the two hardest tee shots on the course are on the par-four tenth and the par-four eleventh, but because of my conservative approach on the front nine, by the turn I felt like I hadn't hit a driver in two hours.
I've never played a golf course that changes so drastically from the front side to the back. Eight of the nine hardest holes are on the home stretch, and par, even a couple over, can be a pretty good score on the final nine. When the wind is blowing, it might be the hardest back side in major-championship golf—and come Sunday, that stretch would be where the tournament was won.
Entering the final round Sunday afternoon, I was five shots behind Jesper Parnevik, but I could tell on the driving range that my game was on. And once on the course, my conservative approach began to pay off: My wedge play was sharp, and all my putts from ten feet in were falling. I carded six birdies on the front side to go out in thirty-one and get within one stroke of the lead—including a birdie on the now 601-yard par-five sixth, the longest hole in British Open play, and a par on the tiny but treacherous par-three eighth, the "Postage Stamp," which is the shortest hole in the Open rota. Playing with Freddie was indeed a blessing; we were relaxed and enjoying one another's company. Then came the back nine.