Evans reflects on memorable Sunday at Muirfield in '02

Gary Evans celebrates on the 17th green during the final round of the 131st Open Championships at Muirfield Golf Club.

Being the age of 24-hour TV and the never-ending need to fill air time, Golf Channel was scheduled Tuesday night to show highlights of the 2002 Open Championship from Muirfield.

Gary Evans mused about that. “You know, I’ve never watched a replay of that (championship) in the 11 years,” he said. “Can you believe that?”

Actually, yes. The man, after all, lived that 2002 Open Championship; he doesn’t need to see the movie.

It is cemented into the record books that Ernie Els raised the Claret Jug that year and that three men – Thomas Levet, Stuart Appleby and Steve Elkington – fell short in the four-way playoff. It also is part of Open Championship folklore that an epic storm blew away Tiger Woods (81) and Colin Montgomerie (84) in Saturday’s third round.

But you’d be hard-pressed to say that any of them played as memorable a role in the proceedings that summer as did the former winner of the English Boys Championship and 1991 Walker Cup member. To this day, Evans concedes “I don’t have any regrets; it was what it was,” but he does wonder what may have happened had fate unfolded a bit differently.

His emotional roller-coaster ride started late Saturday when after holding court throughout the storm, Evans finished bogey-bogey-bogey in calmer conditions. “Really sad,” he said. “It went from a very, very good score to a slightly better-than-average score.”

At 74–214, Evans started the fourth round six strokes behind the leader, Els, and while he didn’t have designs on winning, he was committed to his game plan. “I was just playing golf, getting out of my own way,” and for so much of that beautiful Sunday it went to perfection.

The bogey at the first hole was easily forgotten thanks to birdies at Nos. 2, then 3, 5, 6 and 7. Evans was emotionally charged, but he pulled his caddie, Dominic Bott, aside and said as they walked to the eighth tee, “I’m not sure what’s going on, so stay right with me. Don’t stop talking to me, but don’t talk about golf. For 2 1/2 hours, we talked absolute (rubbish).”

Evans birdied the eighth, turned in 31, then birdied Nos. 10 and 11, too. Els and Co. were just going off, but way ahead, Evans, the journeyman playing in his seventh Open Championship, was the leader. And, yes, Bott was right there with him, talking and talking and talking.

“I just didn’t want to think about golf,” Evans said.

Having split the fairway at the par-5 17th, Evans had 256 yards and loved the hole location, middle right. “Perfect for me. I aimed for the left edge of the green and would fade it in there.”

That was the plan, at least. But what happened next started a wild, up-and-down flow of emotions. “Out of the blue,” Evans said his swing was short and tight and he dead-pulled the 4-wood. It came up 20 yards short and left of the green, but no worries. He figured he’d be looking straight at the flagstick, but as he and Bott got closer, Evans noticed that a crowd of people were looking for his ball.

“I never thought that it wouldn’t be found,” he said.

But the first ball wasn’t his, nor was the second, nor the third. “Mentally, it was frustrating,” Evans said, but then a No. 1 Titleist Pro V1 was found. Exactly what Evans was playing. He was excited, until he saw it did not have his identifying mark. Deflated, Evans was told by the referee that the time was up. The ball was declared lost, so back down the fairway went the player and his caddie.

Bott, who now caddies for Paul Casey and just two weeks ago teamed to win the Irish Open, “kept telling me, ‘Come on, we’re fine,’ " Evans said. The positive talk served him well, for after taking his drop, Evans flushed his fourth shot, again a 4-wood, to the back left of the green. It was roughly 40 feet “and when I saw it, I promised my caddie, ‘I swear to you, I’m going to hole this putt.’ "

He did, too, and the incomparable par-save ignited a roar heard from Gullane to St. Andrews. “It was off the scale,” Evans said. “But that putt clear knocked my head off my shoulders.”

Eleven years later, Evans knows he did not compose himself. “I was shot to pieces,” he said. “I couldn’t get back to where I was supposed to be.”

The prudent play at 18 was to avoid a dastardly bunker left, so driver was out of the question and so, too, was 4-wood. “Anything to get it in the fairway; I didn’t care how far back I was,” Evans said. He chose 2-iron, but as he stood on the tee he started thinking about how to play the hole instead of just making the shot. Uncommitted to his play, Evans flared it right, weakly, and into the fescue.

He knew he wasn’t handling it well; heck, he even started thinking of the mess Jean Van de Velde had made of the 72nd hole three years earlier. Trying to lay up with a 9-iron, Evans caught “a flying hook,” and the shot went left into the grandstands. He recovered with a decent wedge shot, but from just outside of 20 feet, Evans missed the attempt at par. The 8-footer for bogey was true, however, and with a closing 65 the unheralded Englishman was your clubhouse leader.

Evans sat in the locker room with Bott – “We were both in shock,” he said – and waited. And waited. And waited. For a time, his 5-under 279 was atop the leaderboard, but then Appleby posted 65–278, so Evans was free to pack his stuff. Levet and Elkington were next in at 278, then Els. But by the time the four of them walked to the first tee to begin their playoff, Evans was miles away.

He’s now 11 years away from that Open Championship, retired from tour life since 2006 and living in Orlando, Fla., and rightfully proud of how he held it together under the most intense pressure for most of that glorious final round. Regrets? None.

Just one thought creeps into his mind once in a while.

“One never knows, but if I made a boring (par) 5 at 17, what might have happened?”

• • •

Asked to describe the third-round weather in which he and the other leaders had to play during that 2002 Open Championship, Els called it as “brutal” as anything he has witnessed.

“I shot 29 for the front nine on Friday and on Saturday did well to shoot 40, which says a lot.”

Like a lot of players, Els needed driver at the 215-yard, par-3 fourth, and his mentality was simple. “Basically, you’re trying to adapt as best you can – in some ways, just trying to survive.”

Els was not overly concerned, however, with the decision by R&A officials to split the four-man playoff that year into two groups of two. Appleby and Levet, two of the other participants, expressed surprise, but Els said, “There’s such a lot of commotion going on at times like that, but you’re just trying to get yourself together and stay focused on winning that old Claret Jug. That’s the only thing that matters. To be honest, I can’t remember if I was surprised or not, but it certainly didn’t bother me that we went out in twos.”

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