SANDWICH, England – Mark Calcavecchia long has waltzed to the beat of his own symphony, so it is not surprising his Open Championship preparation would qualify as unorthodox.
Fly here from San Francisco, get no sleep, arrive at noon Tuesday.
Play only five practice holes at Royal St. George’s, by himself, all on Wednesday.
Get his game face on when sampling various kinds of beer and wine while dining with his wife and friends on Tuesday and Wednesday nights. “Dinner, a few drinks, the usual routine,” he said.
Go off early Thursday, lead for a while and shoot 1-under 69 after bogeying the last hole.
This is his favorite tournament. You can’t tell by the prep work. You can tell by the result and the lift in his voice.
“I get fired up when I come here,” he said after finishing four strokes behind early leader Thomas Bjorn, who shot 65. He ticked off myriad reasons – the atmosphere, links golf, wind, weather, the big grandstands.
“Everything about it,” he said. “Even if I hadn’t won it (Royal Troon, 1989), it still would be my favorite tournament.”
The playful Calcavecchia is beefy 51. His love of the good life has packed on many extra pounds. Thursday, it appeared he hadn’t shaved since arrival.
Despite the outward appearance and the fact that he spends almost all of his competitive days on the Champions Tour, Calcavecchia still knows how to operate a golf club well enough to stand out on a world stage. He has placed among the top 15 finishers in 10 of his 12 starts this year on the over-50 tour. A streaky putter, he has done so primarily because of ballstriking, for he ranks eighth in greens in regulation and 24th in driving accuracy.
“I’ve hit it good all year,” he said.
The British is his lone major now. He doesn’t get in the others anymore, but as a past champion he can play this Open through age 60. Gladly, he plans to do so.
“I promise you, unless I’m lame, I’ll be at every one,” he said.
Recent history, of course, suggests elderly golfers can contend in this ancient championship. Greg Norman, at 53, led during the final round in 2008 at Royal Birkdale before falling behind eventual winner Padraig Harrington. Tom Watson, less than two months shy of 60, led outright through 71 holes two years ago at Turnberry before losing a playoff to Stewart Cink.
“I’m young compared to that,” Calcavecchia said.
Last year and now, we find Calcavecchia as the senior in the spotlight. In 2010 at St. Andrews, his least favorite course in the British rota, he opened with 70-67 and played in the final twosome Saturday with eventual runaway winner Louis Oosthuizen.
A 13-time winner and cash cow during his PGA Tour career, Calcavecchia got blown away on a windy weekend at St. Andrews. His fade was no match for the high left-to-right current and he fell mightily with 77-80.
“(St. Andrews) is kind of the Augusta of Scotland,” Calcavecchia said. “It’s one of my favorite places to get to. But by the end of the week, I’ve about had enough of it. When I first played it, I loved it. And I loved it for a couple of days last year.”
Yet, that wretched result does not deter him from fantasizing about the highly improbable.
“The long-range, wild-dream goal is to win it,” he said. “But wherever I finish, I finish.”
When he starts is a different story. About a decade ago, Calcavecchia mentioned to Peter Dawson, the chief executive of the R&A, that he enjoys playing early. Apparently Dawson hasn’t forgotten. Calcavecchia was in the second group off Thursday, at 6:41 a.m. That merely was par for the past decade.
“It seems he has treated me well,” Calcavecchia said. “I’ve been first or second off every year.”
He prefers being part of the dawn patrol because he’s an early riser and figures you get a weather break then, before the wind wakes up, though that wasn’t necessarily the case Thursday.
Whatever, a check of the scoreboard reveals that the top two were early starters but, like Calcavecchia, not early in years. Bjorn, who kicked away the 2003 Open here when experiencing late sand trouble, is 40. Miguel Angel Jimenez – whose nickname is The Mechanic but whose look inspires the commercial phrase “Stay thirsty, my friends” – is 47 and a shot behind.
Either Calcavecchia or Jimenez would be the oldest Open champion. Old Tom Morris has held the record since 1867, when he won at Prestwick at 46, beating nine other men in an era when finishing in the top 10 merely meant filling out an entry form.
These days, links golf clearly seems to level the playing field for older men. It shrinks the generational divide. Because the ball runs out, length is not nearly as much of a factor as, say, on softer American parkland courses. Links experience helps immensely, too, as Norman and Watson showed. And the greens here are slower, not scary-fast as in other majors and, thus, are easier on old nerves.
“If you play this enough years, you know what happens,” Calcavecchia said. “You need a huge amount of imagination here.”
He had imagined playing a pre-8 a.m. Wednesday practice round with Wisconsin natives Steve Stricker, Jerry Kelly and Mark Wilson. But they chose not to brave the cold, windy weather that early, leaving Calcavecchia as a onesome behind a couple of foursomes.
“They all stiffed me,” Calcavecchia said.
One of the game’s fastest players and not the most patient person, Calcavecchia thus opted for only five holes – Nos. 1, 2, 9, 17 and 18. That is not unprecedented for him. Nor is it a personal record.
One year he prepared for the Masters by playing only four practice holes –Nos. 1, 2, 8 and 9.
“That,” Calcavecchia said matter-of-factly, “was enough.”
So far, the same could be said for this week.