Alcohol is not truth serum, but sometimes the wetted tongue speaks with refreshing candor. On Sunday, in the aftermath of Mark O'Meara's victory in the British Open, a man in a dark blazer came up behind Brian Watts, who an hour before had lost to O'Meara in a four-hole playoff and was now sitting on a couch in the almost-deserted hospitality tent. The man handed Watts a champagne glass and filled it halfway. Watts, a Diet Coke man, gave the glass a dubious look. But he took a sip—celebrating, no doubt, his imminent escape from golf exile.
Outside, on a bench by the clubhouse doors, caddie Jerry Higginbotham declined a glass of bubbly offered by a passing waiter. Higginbotham already had a glass of lager in his left hand and another tucked under the bench. In an exultant mood, he raised his glass and toasted himself. "I might have saved Mark O'Meara the British Open!" he crowed.
The waiter carrying the tray of champagne flutes was already out of earshot. He had crossed the driveway and was passing out drinks to a thirsty and clamoring crowd. Why all the champagne? Because this was a major championship that had given many participants—and spectators—reason to celebrate. Within an hour on Sunday, the Royal Birkdale Golf Club offered up no fewer than three 72nd-hole finishes as compelling as any in British Open history. Tiger Woods, a stroke off the lead, dropped a 30-foot birdie putt and arm-pumped his way across the 18th green. Seventeen-year-old Brit Justin Rose holed out a 45-yard pitch for birdie and tied for fourth, the best finish by an amateur since Frank Stranahan's second-place finish at Carnoustie in 1953. And Watts forced the playoff with one of the best long bunker shots ever made under pressure.
There were other developments last weekend that also merited a tip of the glass.
•An ultraexclusive gated community in Florida found itself three fourths of the way to the Grand Slam. (O'Meara, who also won the Masters in April, and U.S. Open champion Lee Janzen are both residents of Isleworth in Orlando.)
•For the second time this summer, the winner of a major had a lost ball reappear as he was walking back to hit another. (A spectator stumbled upon O'Meara's ball in the rough during the third round, saving him at least two strokes; Janzen hit a ball into a tree at San Francisco's Olympic Club in June but lucked out minutes later when it fell back to earth.)
•For the second time this summer, a four-round total of even par took the prize at a major. (At the Olympic Club tight fairways and fast greens humbled the field; at Royal Birkdale, deep rough and wind did.)
Ah, yes, the conditions. The weather in the British Isles has been on the wet and windy side this year. England's northwest shore is so soggy that hedgerows are spilling onto pavements, and articles left outdoors overnight turn into Chia pets. The days leading up to the Open were notable for squalls that whistled through the flags at Royal Birkdale. The rough was so thick that Tom Lehman lost six balls in eight holes during a Monday practice round and so tall that you could almost hide a Texan in it—specifically the defending champion from Dallas, Justin Leonard, who finished 17 over par for the tournament.
Royal Birkdale is something like a maze in a British garden. Its twisting fairways are bordered by high, wild dunes, giving players the sense that they are making their way through an artfully contrived puzzle. Which, of course, they are. In last week's rain and wind, this par-70 links played more like a par-77 lynx, clawing players badly. The scores on Saturday, when the wind never dipped below 25 mph, were the worst: Janzen shot 80, Leonard 82, Phil Mickelson 85. Nick Price, a stroke off the lead after two rounds, signed for an 82 and retired to the clubhouse looking pale and worn.
Only on the opening day could the weather be called ideal, and the field celebrated with 27 subpar rounds, led by Woods and John Huston, who each shot 65. But the second round went to Royal Birkdale as morning rains soaked the course and afternoon winds raked it. Woods got around in 73 and O'Meara shot a splendid 68, but the day belonged to two golfers who had never been on a leader board at a major. The first was Rose, the rosy-cheeked boy from Hook, a town 40 miles southwest of London, who ditched school 18 months ago to play full-time amateur golf. He shot a 66 in Friday's gale, tying Stranahan (1950) and Woods (1996) for the lowest British Open round by an amateur. "My 66 was nowhere near as good," said Woods, "because mine was in calm weather."