LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England – When the last of his 22 putts at the 18th hole – or was it 23, because it’s so hard to keep track from beneath an umbrella? – had been rolled and Morten Orum Madsen had completed his practice round in preparation of the 141st Open Championship, the pride of Silkeborg, Denmark, acknowledged the marshals standing to the rear of the green.
“Did you enjoy yourself today?” the marshal asked – playfully, of course, for like everyone else in the United Kingdom during this incessantly wet summer, Madsen was soaked to the core.
Yet, his face shone brighter than a pair of Rickie Fowler pants.
“I did,” Madsen said. “It was a great day.”
Genuinely pleased, the marshal accepted the bib from Madsen’s caddie and said it would be in the usual place come Wednesday. Then he issued a warning, of sorts.
“That is, if you’re mad enough to go out, because the forecast is horrendous.”
The caddie laughed heartily and so did Madsen, because given the way the week, the month – heck, the summer – has gone, it’s difficult to decipher what qualifies as “horrendous” anymore. It’s seemingly Groundhog Day every day, so miserably wet that you half expect to see a guy named Noah setting up a boat-building shop next to the first tee at the Royal Lytham & St. Annes Golf Club.
What’s that? You’ve heard? Of course. Hasn’t everyone? There’s waist-high rough so treacherous that tournament officials are considering sending in search parties – and that’s to find players and caddies. There is a forecast that includes “outbreaks of rain” and “heavy downpours” and “persistent rain” – and darned if anyone knows the difference. And there are more than 200 bunkers, most of them so deep and fiendish that they should have red or yellow stakes around them.
Sounds like a recipe for misery, eh? Guys have to be bemoaning the trip over, huh?
Well, guess what. Through all the rain and discomfort, smiles abound, and those who taking on the challenge of this Open Championship wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
“The best week of the year,” David Duval said, and if you think that’s because he’s consumed by memories of what happened here at Lytham 11 summers ago – his Open Championship victory – take note that it goes deeper.
“It’s kind of cool. It was dumping (rain) yesterday and people were out here,” Duval said, shaking his head.
Like many of his colleagues, Duval considers Open Championship fans to be the sport’s best, knowledgeable and hearty, respectful and diligent. He made his debut in this championship in 1995 and has grown to love it. That he once was called “championship golfer of the year” means everything to Duval. Forget the rain and wind, the rough and deep bunkers. He feels the uniqueness to this very special major championship.
“The one thing that people told me that is true, that over here, people never forget you’re the Open champion,” Duval said.
It’s a sentiment that is seconded by Todd Hamilton, the stunning winner over Ernie Els in a 2004 playoff at Troon. For all the ups and downs to his career since, Hamilton relishes the accomplishment and wouldn’t miss this annual summer pilgrimage.
“It’s a blast,” he said. “Just the atmosphere of the majors, but this one, for us Americans, is even more different.”
Having played his Tuesday practice round in serious precipitation – be it “outbreaks of rain” or “persistent rain” – Hamilton wasn’t disconcerted in the least at the narrow fairways or the beguiling rough. Tough? Most definitely, but what comes with the Open Championship is a badge of honor that cannot be matched.
“If you’re the guy who wins at the end of the week, you had to put up with bad weather, the wind, the rain,” Hamilton said. “(So) you can look back and say you survived and you grinded it out more than anyone else in the field.
“That’s rewarding to know (that) you played in tough conditions and had the moxie or the mettle or mental attitude. Sometimes during tournaments, you only need that moxie for 50 of the 72 holes, but out here, there are guys who are going to play pretty good and they’re going to shoot 76 or 77.”
For all those times during the PGA Tour season when you suspect some of these guys are perhaps getting a bit soft, a tour of Royal Lytham & St. Annes on yet another miserable day showed the flip side of that argument. There’s serious commitment here, in conjunction with a heavy dose of appreciation. The end result: Smiles, such as those flashed by Phil Mickelson and Fowler, who thoroughly enjoyed their four-ball win over Dustin Johnson and Nick Watney.
Up by two holes at the 15th, Mickelson hit a weak tee shot, was wide right with his long second shot, and fatted a wedge out of gnarly rough. The hole all but lost, because Johnson and Watney had their par, Mickelson drained a 40-foot putt to halve the hole and pretty much seal the win.
It was vintage Mickelson, but as he and his mates played the 18th, Wayne Grady, a PGA champion who is known over here as having been in that playoff against Mark Calcavecchia at Troon 23 years ago, meandered out to the back of the green and studied the area where the clubhouse juts in.
“Where was (Gary) Player?” he asked. “Here? Or there?”
Secure in his Open Championship history, the marshal pointed to the area where Player 38 years ago in the final round had to play a delicate shot left-handed, an unforgettable play that nailed down his third Claret Jug. If he were to recall the 1974 Open Championship, Player no doubt would talk of that shot, but just as likely he’d tell you how it was cold and wet, the conditions so tough that he survived a third-round 75 to win.
Player would perhaps be comforted to know that many of today’s best players embrace that same sort of challenge.
“At times, it is fun, but (Monday) wasn’t much fun in the rain,” Jason Dufner said. “It can be difficult conditions, but that’s no reason to not want to be over here.”
Though he has missed the cut in each of his two Open Championship starts, Dufner is feeling comfortable with Lytham and with the preparation this links golf demands. That explains the fun rounds he has played at Birkdale, Hoylake, and Formby with swing coach Chuck Cook and longtime friend Layne Savoie, part of Dufner’s allegiance to doing as so many of his colleagues do, embrace this links golf culture.
Harris English doesn’t quite have that comfort zone. Playing in his first major championship, the PGA Tour rookie wants to be ready come Thursday, so since Sunday he has studied Lytham & St. Annes, though that’s not to say he hasn’t enjoyed the experience.
“It’s awesome,” English said, brushing off any concern about steady rain and knowledge that the rough will get only thicker and tougher.
“When you’re getting ready for this tournament, this is what you expect. Conditions tough, weather tough, course is hard. It’s all of that.”
Mind you, he said it all with a smile and minutes later, a veteran of every Open Championship since 2000 at St. Andrews, Adam Scott, stood in the rain and marveled about this grandest of golf tournaments.
For sure, he agreed that the weather is miserable, but added that cannot be said of the spirits of the players.
“It’s quite the opposite,” the Aussie said, caring not the least that his practice round had labored.
“If you can’t handle a six-hour practice round at the Open, then you should probably go home, because there’s nothing better than being out there, really. This is what you’ve got to get up for.”
Scott was totally drenched – and totally enamored, for good reason.
“We play nothing like it,” he said.