2005: Perspective - Faxon embodies Open spirit

St. Andrews, Scotland

Brad Faxon was having dinner with two prominent PGA Tour professionals in St. Andrews one night five years ago, crestfallen that he’d fallen short in his bid to qualify for the British Open at the Old Course.

One of the multimillionaire pros with whom he was dining looked at Faxon and said, “You came over here to do that? I wouldn’t do that.”

Faxon returned a quizzical glance.

“Part of me was proud that I did it and he wouldn’t have,” Faxon said, recalling the conversation, “and part of me was like, ‘Well, why wouldn’t you do it? Don’t you want to play in the Open?’”

The man across the table was David Duval, who would collect a Claret Jug a year later at Royal Lytham. All Faxon did the next morning was fly all the way back home.

He’d win the B.C. Open later that week. His odyssey across the pond had not gone unnoticed.

The golf gods had smiled kindly upon him.

Faxon was back in Fife last week, and he was no accidental tourist. He’d arrived days before most others, this time to partake in yet another qualifying sojourn, this one a bad-odds crapshoot in which 97 players tussled for three Open spots at Lundin Links, where he’d failed to qualify in 2000. Of the 350-plus players who showed up at four sites, two had “U.S.” next to their names: Faxon and Ronald Won.

Faxon, who turns 44 Aug. 1, is a pretty astute guy, and his Tour brethren might be enlightened to get in on an amazing discovery of his: Huddle real close, boys, and listen up. See, you can’t win the British Open unless you play in the British Open.

To land a spot, all Faxon did was drop about $7,000 on a plane ticket to Glasgow and a reservation at a B&B called The Sporting Laird (where, omen of omens, he was given a key to the Ben Hogan Room). No guarantees. Funny what can happen when you decide to live a little and roll the dice. He knew he’d done the right thing when, three holes into a practice round at Lundin, he had 50 locals following him like the Pied Piper. “That doesn’t happen at my home course,” he mused.

Faxon, who has played in Walker Cups and Ryder Cups and won eight times around the world, shot 64-69 at Lundin, earned his starting assignment at the Old Course and proceeded to have an absolute blast – one of the finest weeks of his golf life.

Hey, you never know how many times you’ll get to tango with the Grand Old Lady in the famed Auld Grey Toon.

Sunday night before the tournament, Faxon reveled in well-wishes and enjoyed a pint over dinner at the Dunvegan Hotel. Tuesday, when the Association of British Writers honored captain Bernhard Langer and the victorious 2005 European Ryder Cup team at a dinner, the most thunderous ovation of the evening was reserved for an American guest in the back of the room. Guess who. (“I was shocked,” Faxon said.) Irishman Darren Clarke made his way over to Faxon on the practice tee one morning and actually thanked him for what he’d done. Imagine that.

Said Faxon, “It’s the most sincere thing I think I’ve ever heard from a player.”

Wednesday, a late sunset found Faxon and his longtime English friend, Nick Hunter, the part-time baker, part-time instructor carrying his bag, plotting through one final practice round, trying to solve the many intricacies of one of the most magical, mystical courses in the world. As night closed in, Faxon sat on a rail behind the first tee, peering out over the Old Course, a place American Sam Snead once described as “the sort of real estate you couldn’t give away.” Apparently, beauty really is in the eye of the beholder.

“Nothing would make me feel better than to play great here and have a chance to win this tournament,” he said. “But I’m going to go home with a great taste in my mouth anyway.

A lot of people have noticed. That doesn’t put you anywhere on the money list, I know, but it sure puts you up there on the feel-good meter, doesn’t it?”

By Friday, when he shot 6-under 66, Faxon was on the leaderboard of a tournament he seemingly had no reason being part of. Or maybe that should be every reason? The golf gods in action again?

“Maybe we’re a bit hard-nosed with that idea,” said Hunter, “but if you believe in dreams, they occasionally do come true, don’t they?”

In an Open that included Jack’s tearful farewell, Monty’s chest-puffed home-field charge and Tiger’s march toward major history, Brad Faxon, Open qualifier, was a big story. A very big deal. The fans let him know it every chance they could, treating him like Tom Morris VII.

“I feel strongly that a player – if he wants to be a great player – should be out here,” he said. “If you haven’t ever been to St. Andrews, I mean, why are you playing the game?

“I know there are a lot of reasons not to come, but you’ve got to make this a reason to be here. It’s one week out of your life. How many times are you going to play St. Andrews in an Open Championship?”

Faxon began the final round tied for fifth, four shots behind Tiger Woods. He hit two well-struck shots on the short first hole, only to see his approach splash into the burn fronting the green. Double bogey. He fought hard, then dropped two more shots with a double at 12.

Faxon shot 76 and tumbled all the way to 23rd place by day’s end. The golf gods must have taken the day off. As disappointed as Faxon was, he could not help but bask in what had been such a glorious week. Why, there’s even talk Lundin Links might make him an honorary member.

A top-10 finish would have secured a spot in next year’s Open at Royal Liverpool, where 22 years ago, at the Walker Cup, Faxon received his introduction to the links game he now loves so dearly.

If he’s not exempt next July, might he consider coming across to qualify?

There was no hesitation in his response.

“Absolutely.”

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