2002: Severe Saturday sends leaders tumbling

Gullane, Scotland

In Round 3 of the 131st British Open, timing was everything.

Those at the back of the pack after two trips around the links at Muirfield started early July 20, strolled the fairways in pleasant weather and posted the kind of scores you’d expect from world-class golfers.

The 36-hole leaders weren’t so fortunate.

At about 2:15 p.m., the weather got ugly, and for the next 2 1/2 hours, it rained sideways. In the time it took for a shot to leave the clubface and hit the ground, the wind gusted and changed directions three or four times.

“For about two hours, you had to be lucky,” said Butch Harmon. “Talent had nothing to do with it.”

Harmon’s star pupil can attest to that.

Tiger Woods caught the worst of the weather and shot 42-39–81. Ten over. He fell from two shots off the lead to 11 back. A day later, Woods was faced with leapfrogging 66 players to catch leader Ernie Els; he shot 65, but it gained him only 39 places.

As if Muirfield wasn’t tough enough already.

“It was the worst weather I’ve ever played in,” said Stephen Ames, who also shot 81 and tumbled from a tie for ninth to a tie for 67th. “All you could do was laugh about it. Everybody was watching the leaderboard free fall. It was brutal, absolutely brutal. If it wasn’t the British Open, I would have walked in.”

As they trudged off the 18th green, player after player echoed those sentiments. There were four rounds in the 60s, all posted by players who teed off before 10:20 a.m. There were 10 rounds in the 80s, nine of which were posted by players who started at 12:50 or later and who began their rounds within four shots of the lead. When the carnage was over, 66 contestants were within 10 shots of the lead.

“The guys that were playing in the morning, if they knew what we would have this afternoon, I’m sure they would have played harder,” said Els. “If you asked Justin Rose about his 68, he left quite a few shots out there. I watched him on television this morning, and some of those guys could have been leading right now. It’s the most amazing thing I’ve seen for a very long time at this championship.”

Indeed, it was a day that could only be described as bizarre. Consider:

As the leaders struggled through the outward nine, the grandstands were devoid of spectators, who huddled instead in the tented saloons, merchandise shops and food emporiums.

The two Justins, Rose and Leonard, formed an early pairing and shot 68s before the horrendous weather rolled in. Rose bravely noted: “Paul Lawrie won from 10 back (on Sunday) at Carnoustie in ’99, so it can be done.” (The Justins played together again Sunday, and Leonard won that battle, 70 to 72.)

After shooting himself into contention with a tournament-low 64 the day before, Colin Montgomerie followed with an 84. The pride of Scotland fell into a tie for 75th.

First-round co-leader David Toms shot 81 and tumbled into last place with Lee Janzen, who matched Montgomerie’s 84. Jan-zen started at 7:15 a.m. Sunday with a marker. Toms drew the pleasure of Monty’s company.

At No. 4, a 209-yard par 3, Nick Price hit driver. His ball ended up 2 yards short of being pin high. “Best green in regulation I’ve ever had,” cracked Price.

Only two Americans, Leonard and Scott McCarron, ended the day in the top 10, which featured players from nine different nations.

One of the better afternoon scores, 74, was posted by the oldest man to make the cut, Ireland’s Des Smyth, 49.

In the final analysis, the four playoff participants can attribute their success at Muirfield to the luck they enjoyed Saturday.

Steve Elkington’s early 68 vaulted him into contention, as did Appleby’s 70. Thomas Levet grinded his way through a five-bogey 74 that could have been worse.

Better than most, Els coped with the elements. And luck was with him when Saturday’s weather turned for his final eight holes. As Els birdied the par-4 11th, the rain stopped and the wind began to subside. Els sandwiched a bogey at the 14th with birdies at Nos. 13, 16 and 17.

“I was standing on the fourth tee . . . and you couldn’t believe how the conditions were,” Els said. “At that mo-ment, I really thought we were in trouble.”

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