By Duncan Simpson
New Zealand PGA Secretary
Michael Hendry will continue a record of strong New Zealand representation in The Open Championships at Royal Birkdale when he tees it up this month at this iconic links.
In the nine previous British Opens at Birkdale, we have had players in eight of them, going back to when Peter Thomson won here in 1954. At the time of writing, Michael was our only representative, with others relying on qualifying tournaments or entry points such as the Scottish Open.
Considering the Royal Birkdale course was designed originally in 1889 by George Low, who also had a hand in nearby Royal Lytham & St Annes, Birkdale was a late addition to the Open roster, and didn’t host the championship until 1954.
Royal Birkdale’s dominant feature is its massive sand dunes — this stretch of the English west coast is renowned for them, and like all British Open venues, the weather can and usually does play a major part.
It plays to a tough par of 70. Padraig Harrington’s winning score at the last Birkdale Open in 2008 was three over par, and the one before that (1998) saw Mark O’Meara beat Brian Watts in a four hole playoff after both had finished regulation play on even par.
Greg Turner recorded our best Birkdale result that year: a tie for 15th at nine over par. Trailing some distance behind were Michael Campbell and Michael Long, who both finished 66th on 19 over. Frank Nobilo and Steven Alker also started, but missed the cut.
We also had five players in the field in 1971, when Lee Trevino had a famous victory. Back then the course played to a par of 72. Bob Charles finished 18th on one over par, John Lister 25th (+4), Walter Godfrey 40th (+8), while Alistair Palmer made it through three rounds, but missed the cut for the fourth round. Alan Snape was the fifth Kiwi, missing the cut after the second round. A feature of Opens at that time was the two cut process, with only the top 50 and ties playing the final round.
Another rule that has since been dispensed with is the 10 shot rule. Anyone within 10 shots of the leader after 36 holes got to play the weekend. In the 1991 Open, won by Ian Baker-Finch, this led to a staggering 113 players making the cut, creating a nightmare for the R & A officials and those trying to calculate the prizemoney split. Frank Nobilo was 73rd that year; Greg Turner was among the 43 players who missed the cut.
There have been many memorable moments at Royal Birkdale, none more so than Arnold Palmer’s extraordinary shot on the 15th hole in the final round. Palmer had narrowly missed out in the centenary Open at St Andrews the previous year, and came to Birkdale determined to put his name on the Claret Jug trophy. Wild weather wiped out the entire Friday’s play (in those days the Open finished with 36 holes on Friday, Saturday being reserved for a 36 hole playoff if required, and the Sabbath being sacrosanct).
Palmer’s tee shot on the 15th finished in deep rough behind a small gorse bush — most players would have taken a penalty drop at that point. Not Palmer. He went directly at the green with a six iron, removing a large divot and the entire bush, to somehow get the ball 140 metres over cross bunkers onto the green. A plaque commemorates the spot. That was enough to win by one from perpetual runner-up Dai Rees.
Palmer came back the following year to win again at Royal Troon, by which stage the Open Championship was firmly established amongst the top US golfers, leading to victories at Birkdale by Trevino, Johnny Miller, Tom Watson and Mark O’ Meara.
Hale Irwin, who played in the 2013 NZ PGA Championship, could well have been another American player with his name on the trophy. Those of you who have butchered the odd short putt will relate to this. In 1983, Irwin missed a one inch putt to finish second one shot behind Tom Watson. He somehow stubbed his putter on the green, resulting in an air shot.
Irwin, who had won two US Opens in 1974 and 1979, was never to win an Open Championship, but recovered from what must have been a shattering experience at Birkdale to win a third US Open at Medinah in 1990, sinking a 15 metre putt (obviously more his length) on the final hole to enter a playoff with Mike Reid, which he won comfortably.
So Michael Hendry is following in the footsteps of a rich history, and although he is playing in his first golf major, he has the game to acquit himself well. Bad weather will not be an issue, thanks to a good grounding in Charles Tour events at courses like Ngamotu during the spring equinox.
Go well Michael.