On sunday, Mark Calcavecchia, an outsized collection of freckles and guts, became the first golfer in modern history to win a major with a round of 81. It was a brilliant 81-68 on the front 18, 13 on the four-hole playoff—and it won Calcavecchia a claret jug, $128,000 and an unforgettable British Open at a dustbowl named Royal Troon, in Scotland. The victory not only made Calcavecchia the first American to win the British since Tom Watson in 1983 but also put him on the growing list of golfers who have been congratulated bravely on the final hole of a major by Australia's Greg Norman, the acknowledged master of the stiff upper lip.
Not that Norman deserved to win. Nah. All he had done earlier on Sunday was come from seven shots behind, birdie the first six holes, score a preposterous 64 to make it into the playoff, birdie the first two holes of the playoff—his 10th and 11th birdies of the day—and lose. Hey, God, if you're keeping track, Norman is now supposed to win everything from here to 2011.
But if the loser played like a champion, the champion played like an angel. Calcavecchia, a former 230-pound burger king, not only birdied two of the last three holes to make the playoff but also birdied two of the last three in the playoff to win. In fact, he birdied the 18th twice.
This is the 29-year-old Calcavecchia's first major, and it came in a tournament he didn't even want to play. Because his wife, Sheryl, was expecting their first child any day, Mark decided he was staying home. Sheryl said uh-uh. "I have some good vibrations about you there," she said. Mark shuffled off to Scotland, but he vowed to fly home the second Sheryl so much as groaned. "No tournament is as important to me as this," he said. He called her three times a day. Sheryl had false contractions last Friday and Saturday that had Calcavecchia reaching for his plane tickets, but she talked him down. If this seemed a strange way to win a British Open, it was only because it was a strange British Open to begin with.
For one thing, Royal Troon felt more like Pensacola than Scotland. The weather was windless and hot, mostly 80-ish, with only one piddling morning of rain the whole week. The only people who didn't like it were the guys in the cashmere-sweater tents.
Not that the prairielike weather was anything new for Troon. The previous 2½ months had brought barely three days of rain. So what you had was a course without trees, without much rough, and it was twice as hard as the Prestwick Airport runways that border Troon. How dry was it? On Saturday, part of the course actually caught fire. A remarkable 46 of the 80 qualifiers were under par after three rounds. This wasn't the British Open. This was the Memphis Classic with haggis.
There was one thing about Troon that remained the same: Tom Watson on a leader board. Maybe they never took his name down from 1982, when he swept by a bedazzled Bobby Clampett to win here. The 1989 Watson looked as skinny as a two-iron—"I've just been eating right," he said—but for a while his game looked like vintage 1977, as he saved outrageous pars with his old bulletproof short game, practically sprinting to his next Scottish bump and run, soaking up every last drop of links golf he could.
"I love the smell of it," he said. "I love the feel of it. I love the bounce of it. I love the lucky breaks you get and the unlucky breaks you get." Does he have any Scottish superstitions? "Once in a while, I'll find a sprig of heather in my bag." (His wife, Linda, sneaks it in for good luck.) Does he collect anything Scottish? "Only Opens," he said.
Not this time. But close. Watson started Sunday a shot out of the lead but finished two out, in fourth place. Still, he had revived a flicker of hope that he can reinvent himself.
The first-day leader board looked familiar too. You had your blond, fun-loving Australian, a dashing Spaniard, a steady Brit and a few Americans. But the Australian wasn't Norman, it was Wayne Grady. The Spaniard wasn't Seve Ballesteros, it was Miguel Martin. (Ballesteros finished third from last, at 299, which was still better than Bernhard Langer, who was dead last at 309.) And the Brit wasn't Nick Faldo (he finished tied for 11th), it was Wayne Stephens, a former assistant plumber whose previous claim to fame was that he once worked on Tony Jacklin's house. At the end of the day, Stephens actually led by two.