SOUTHPORT, England - Former champions amid these majestic sand dunes took the stage as the 137th British Open officially got under way at Royal Birkdale today. Tom Watson, who earned the last of his claret jugs in 1983, and Mark O'Meara, who prevailed in a playoff 10 years ago, both had fond memories of this seaside layout that forever will hold special memories for them.
Watson's involves a legendary 2 iron into the par-4 18th that sealed his one-stroke win in '83 over Andy Bean and Hale Irwin.
"At the moment, that was the greatest 2 iron I ever hit," said Watson, the only man to win British Opens on five different courses. "It was nice seeing the ball come down right at the flag, but I never saw it land. The crowd just collapsed and I never saw the ball hit the ground. It took me a while to find out how close it was, but when I got up [to the green], I said, 'I think I can get it down in two.' "
As for O'Meara, his playoff win over Brian Watts in 1998 capped a season in which he won two major championships. What he remembers most of all - no surprise to British Open fans - is the weather.
"[It] was pretty severe, pretty windy," said O'Meara, who had a third-round 72 when so many of his competitors like Tiger Woods (77), Justin Rose (75), Davis Love (77), and Thomas Bjorn (76) were blown away from the hunt. When he closed with a 68 to tie Watts, O'Meara got into a playoff, which he won by going 1 under in the four-hole aggregate, to his opponent's 1 over.
Though Woods, the young phenom whom O'Meara helped mentor, is not in the field, another rising star is. Anthony Kim crossed paths with O'Meara last year and they've kept in touch. After he toured Birkdale's front nine and felt like the course beat him up Sunday, Kim, the 22-year-old with two PGA Tour wins this year, put a call in to O'Meara for a bit of guidance. They then went out on the back nine late yesterday.
"I said this last year when I played with Anthony in Greg Norman's tournament in December," said O'Meara. "I called a bunch of people - Tiger included - and said, 'You know what? This kid here is the best young player I've ever seen come along, besides Tiger Woods.' He has the most skill, the most talent."
Kenny Perry may not have felt the inspiration to head toward Royal Birkdale, but it was a different story for Jay Williamson. The onetime Trinity College golfer was on the famed links layout at 4:10 for a practice round, barely 17 hours after having been the 156th and final player to qualify. Williamson lost a three-way playoff Sunday night in the John Deere Classic, but through a chain of events earned the final qualifying spot, which goes to the highest finisher not previously qualified for the British Open. That was not Perry, who already had turned down his exemption into the Open Championship, so it was extended to the runner-up, only that created a problem because Williamson and Rhode Islander Brad Adamonis were tied for second. Royal & Ancient officials had decreed that in the event of a tie, the low fourth-round score would earn the exemption and that went to Williamson, who shot 69 to Adamonis's 70. Adamonis wasn't the one hopping a jet to England, but the good news is he earned $369,000 and jumped from 135th to 88th on the money list, with $721,036.
Kaymer to play
Martin Kaymer, the talented young German, confirmed he'll play at Royal Birkdale, despite the death of his mother less than two weeks ago. "It's been a sad time for our family, but everyone has been wonderful," said Kaymer, who won the BMW International Open in his native home a few weeks ago . . . Williamson wasn't the only one to earn a last-minute exemption. So, too, did Englishman Simon Khan, the highest finisher in the Scottish Open who was not previously qualified. Khan closed with a 72 -275 to finish fifth . . . Take note that there's an Appleby (Stuart) and an Appleyard (Peter) in the field. The former's an Aussie, the latter an Englishman . . . Maybe it was a convenience to the large contingent of Asian media, but the 10:20 practice pairing had Danny Chia of Malaysia, Chih-Bing Lam of Singapore, Angelo Que of the Philippines, and Wen-Chong Liang of China together. Then again, it was a bonus to those looking for vowels . . . There are five amateurs in the field - Rohan Blizard of Australia, Benjamin Hebert of France, Reinier Saxton of the Netherlands, and Thomas Sherreard and Chris Wood of England.