A Royal Birkdale scorcher saw a teenage Spaniard make a run for glory, a qualifier endure 121 mishaps and the stories amass on the Lancashire Riviera
Britain sweltered in record temperatures during the summer of 1976. Office workers cavorted in the fountains of Trafalgar Square. Fire swept across Surrey heathland. Snow machines were deployed to spray melting Cumbrian roads. West Yorkshire police officers were ordered on health grounds not to wear ties between 6am and 10pm. The Automobile Association reported a record number of overheating engines. At the Henley Regatta, gentlemen were permitted to take off their jackets for the first time in 137 years. Even the EEC’s butter mountain began to melt. Metaphorically speaking, that is, with dairy cattle slaughtered because of the lack of grass, but you get the general drift. Phew, what a scorcher!
Out on the sun-drenched Lancashire Riviera, 24 hours before a qualifier for the Open Championship at Formby Golf Club, a sweat-soaked hopeful paced out the course with the help of his niece, then went into the clubhouse to order two restorative pints of ice-cold orange and soda. He was refused service. “Eh?” asked the rookie pro Maurice Flitcroft. The barmaid pointed to his sunhat. Flitcroft whipped it off in irritable fashion and pulled an unambiguous ‘Happy now?’ face. But the barmaid was not. This time she gestured to Flitcroft’s niece. “I’m sorry, I still can’t serve you. This is a men-only bar.”
A progressive thinker and bellicose iconoclast, Flitcroft first explored the contradiction inherent in the club’s gender policy. “What are you doing here, then?” The barmaid replied that the rule did not extend to employees. Flitcroft changed tack. “Why aren’t women allowed in this bar?” Rules are rules, old chap. Flitcroft deemed the explanation “not good enough” and refused to budge. At which point an exasperated member hauled himself out of an armchair and revealed the logic behind the diktat. He flung open a door directly adjacent to the bar, letting light into a wood-panelled changing room full of freshly showered male golfers of assorted shape and size, in various states of disrobe, furiously talc-and-towelling in the intimate manner. Flitcroft’s niece let out a hearty guffaw, while the liberal warrior himself conceded defeat. “OK, that’s good enough.” They repaired to a nearby patio for their much-needed refreshment.
It’s fair to say Flitcroft never quite understood the idiosyncratic world of golf. Teeing it up the next day, he got down on all fours at the first to carefully balance his ball on its peg, then skied his opening drive a mere 40 yards down the hole. He later described the shot as a “real high-flying disappointment”. It was the first of 121 mishaps; his card would include an eight, a nine, an 11 and a 12 with a question mark beside it.
It was the worst round in Open Championship history, no great surprise, given that Flitcroft had never before played 18 holes in his entire life. A 46-year-old crane operator from Barrow-in-Furness, he simply filled out an entry form on a whim, declared himself professional and was given a tee time by the R&A – which understandably, let’s face it – was working on the assumption that nobody below standard would put themselves through the humiliation. But Flitcroft was a dreamer – and determined with it. For a Warholian 15 minutes, this everyman hacker briefly became the most celebrated golfer in the world.
Flitcroft wouldn’t make it to the Open proper at Royal Birkdale. He worked out that he’d have to make at least 13 holes-in-one during his second round to stand a chance of qualifying from the 36-hole event, so politely withdrew. But he wouldn’t be the only golfer to suffer scorecard-related indignities as the story of the 1976 Open unfolded.
On the opening day at Birkdale, the South African star Bobby Cole, who had finished tied for third at Carnoustie the previous year, five-putted the 1st. The last four of those strokes were made inside four feet. Tom Watson, meanwhile, opened his defence with a seven, en route to a disappointing 75. Christy O’Connor Jr reached the turn in 30, only to take a fresh-air swipe while trying to extricate himself from a bush on 13 and ran up an ugly eight.
Play was suspended for 40 minutes while the fire brigade dealt with a serious scrubland conflagration. The greens were also frazzled by the heatwave and proved something of a test. “Freckles of brown spread to disfiguring blotches at a speed almost detectable to the naked eye, making it impossible to judge the pace of the ball as it crossed from living green to dead brown,” the Observer’s Peter Dobereiner reported. “Jack Nicklaus was dismayed by this development and said that it had made putting less a test of skill and more a matter of luck, as there was no telling which way the ball would be deflected when it hit a patch of dry stuff.”
The 1973 champion, Tom Weiskopf, starting out with a one-over 73, claimed he had never played on such bad putting surfaces. “People here are not equipped to deal with this kind of weather and keep the greens in condition.” Our man Frank Keating pointed out that while the greens were indeed in far from perfect nick, they were “hardly responsible for some poor long play, including a lost ball at the 15th and a wild hook off the 17th tee. Weiskopf’s lack of restraint is well known in America and it is a pity that he had to mar what have been invariably good manners in Britain.”
Having read the paper, Weiskopf “spent some time” on a quest to find Keating. “I thought he was out to knock my block off,” the legendary sportswriter admitted later. “When we finally met in the hotel, he explained how he had been misquoted and his intention had never been to be bad-mannered to his hosts. Later, when the wine waiter took my order, we were told that the bottle had already been paid for with Mr Weiskopf’s compliments. A nice gesture. It was drunk with enjoyment.”
Only nine players finished the first round under par. Despite that eight on 13, O’Connor Jr led the way with a 69, alongside the willowy Japanese Norio Suzuki and a 19-year-old Spanish kid called Severiano Ballesteros. “If I play like this,” the young man wondered aloud, “I have a good chance. Maybe I win. My driving is very good.” Ahem. But his big stick continued to behave itself on day two, with four full-blooded smacks at the par-fives on the back nine. Those drives were followed by a series of gorgeous approaches – six-iron into 13, one-iron into 15, three-iron into 17 and five-iron into 18 – to set up four birdies. Another 69, and he found himself two clear of the 1973 US Open champion, Johnny Miller, who had followed up his opening-day 72 with a marvellous 68, forensically working his way round the course with repeated use of his one iron, a links masterclass in restraint and precision.
What would happen if he broke his favourite club, Miller was asked? “It would be like a death in the family,” came the deadpan reply. But Miller wasn’t the only player who had located the sweet spot. Shot of the day came courtesy of Tony Grubb, the English journeyman holing his three wood from 280 yards on 17 for an albatross. Grubb still missed the halfway cut and never played in the Open again. It was some way to bow out.
Ballesteros prepared for the third round by visiting a Southport discotheque the night before. Keating, once again selflessly putting in the hard yards so you don’t have to, was also there and spotted the young man “discussing with his brother the merits of two busty local groupies”. So much for the pressure of trying to become the youngest winner of the Open since Young Tom Morris in 1872.
There was a break in the weather in the third round. Dunlop had sold 3,500 hats during the first two sun-drenched days, quickly running out of stock, but umbrella sales surged in the tented village on the third as some good old-fashioned wind and heavy rain swept across the links. There was a run on rain jackets, too, albeit of a wholly criminal variety as 400 windcheaters were relieved from a nearby parked car. That unfortunate entrepreneur wasn’t the only man to suffer in the weather as the defending champ, Watson, shot 80 to miss the second cut, while Jerry Pate ran up a ludicrous 87. A fortnight earlier, Pate had won the US Open.
Seve also struggled, out in the worst of it, seemingly going backwards at pace. The driver finally started to misbehave. But not yet to his cost. Our man Pat Ward-Thomas noted that Seve was leading “a charmed life ... He continued to lash away from the tees with his wide, free swing, but with remarkable recoveries survived the consequences of his wildness ... At the 9th, and 1th, where he pulled wide, and the 12th, where his tee shot soared over the steep bank behind the green, no trouble at all: pars are made every time ... From the rough at 17 he found the green with a remarkably strong shot and holed for an eagle.” Seve in microcosm. He escaped the day with a 73 and at five under remained two clear of Miller going into Saturday’s final round.
At which point his cavalier attitude from the tee box caught up with him. He got away with a wild hook on the first, scrambling par with a 30-foot putt. But another hook on the second led to bogey. Nicklaus, hovering on the leaderboard just behind, effectively scuppered his hopes at 6 by pushing his one-iron approach into a bush down the right and losing his ball: a double bogey. Ballesteros, coming behind, found the same shrub and though he was able to hack out, could only find sand and made double as well. Miller quietly parred and was suddenly in possession of a lead he would never relinquish.
The chickens really came home to roost for Seve on 11. He hooked his drive, shanked his second, hit a spectator, sent another shot into an unplayable lie near the green and ended up with a triple-bogey seven. Watching this performance from the sidelines: one Maurice Flitcroft, who had made it to Birkdale after all! Not particularly well disguised in a sporty trilby, and with his expenses paid by the Sunday People, Flitcroft traipsed across the links in order to be pictured surreptitiously with the leaders. A snap exists of Mr 121 standing a yard or so away from a frowning Seve, the absurdly talented young star lost in a big-number funk of his own. Ironic juxtaposition in full effect.
Miller chipped in for eagle at 13, and ended the day with a six-under 66, nine under overall. It was, at that point in time, the lowest winning final round in Open Championship history. Nicklaus finished with a 69, six behind in second. As for Seve? He’d taken a miserable tumble down the leaderboard to level par after 16 holes. But he rolled in a huge eagle putt on 17, then bumped a gorgeous chip shot between two bunkers on the last to set up a birdie that gave him a share of second. The young genius flashed a smile as bright as the sun beating down again on Birkdale. A final-day 74 wasn’t ideal but his strong finish gave him tangible reward for his huge contribution, and augured pretty darn well for the future.
“Don’t get me wrong but I think it’s a real good thing for Seve that he didn’t win,” Miller opined upon lifting the auld Claret Jug. “He might have been swamped by the resulting pressures. Now lots of lovely things can happen to him because he’s come second. Just like me: best thing that happened to me was not winning the Masters in 1971, but coming second. It gave me just that bit more time to prepare myself for winning the big one.”
Seve’s time would indeed come soon enough, three years later at Lytham, and then some. Miller never won another major, though. Nicklaus, so often the bridesmaid in Britain, finally won his third Open at St Andrews in 1978. And as for poor old Maurice, he’d never realise his admittedly optimistic Open dream, although it turned out he wasn’t much enamoured with the Claret Jug anyway. Clocking the famous trophy while on his manoeuvres at Birkdale, he declared it a “monstrosity”, adding for good measure: “More to my liking would be one of those miniature bronzes by Henry Moore, which I am sure would look infinitely better on my mantelpiece or sideboard.” Ah the dilemmas of the elite sports star.Read more at theguardian.com