By Iain Carter.
It was coming in sideways. The rain was being driven by a fierce wind and water gushed down my neck, penetrating waterproofs that were giving up the ghost. With numb hands notes were impossible, not that it mattered. The scoresheet on my notepad had long since turned to unintelligible papier-mache. This was the first day of the Open at Royal Birkdale nine years ago and a morning I will never forget for the hostile conditions that rendered the game of golf an absolute misery.
And yet, I was loving it. Nothing spoils The Open.
This was – and remains – my favourite event being played on my favourite course in England and it is why I can’t wait for next week and our return for the 146th running of the greatest championship in the game. Naturally we would welcome an improvement in the weather from 2008 when Padraig Harrington won by four strokes, finishing three over par. But whatever the conditions it will be a fantastic week with the world’s best challenging for golf’s oldest and most prestigious title. And despite all the changes the sport has gone through in centuries of development, the game played on a seaside links remains the ultimate form of golf. A fast and firm course, peppered with penal bunkers and rough that keeps a player guessing about fliers and spin is the canvas golf was intended to be played upon. Add coastal winds into the mix and it provides the ultimate test, one that is far more authentic than, say, a typically tricked up US Open venue which can often hamper players from displaying their best skills.
Open winners have complete games and ally guile with power and patience en route to lifting the coveted Claret Jug. The winning score does not matter. It is all down to the weather – Harrington’s three-over-par might not make the cut this year if it is calm and dry. Whatever happens, it is a contest between the top players in the world and that is what we all want to see. From my point of view, the Open is the championship where I’m able to witness the action from inside the ropes. Commentating for BBC 5Live, we are in the privileged position of sharing not just the theatre of the action but the stage.
Back in 2008, my sodden clipboard was struck by an errant Lee Westwood drive – such are the hazards of the job. More recently, I walked each of the last 36 holes with champion Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson as they separated themselves from the rest of the field at Royal Troon last year. The Swede finished 20 under-par, three strokes clear of his American rival. JB Holmes, who was third, finished fourteen shots behind. Stenson and Mickelson were both at the very top of their game that week on the Ayrshire coast. Challenging as was the course, the set up was so fair it enabled them show their immense talent to the world. No one else could live with them – proving that Troon was no pushover. The two leaders emulated Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus in their famous dual in the sun at Turnberry in 1977.
Such separation is far more difficult in a modern era where sweet-spots are more forgiving and there is such strength in depth and so many potential winners. This makes the “dual of the sons” all the more remarkable and Stenson’s was one of the most impressive victories in Open history. Picking a winner is nigh on impossible these days. All of the big names will fancy their chances if they bring decent form to the Southport area. But the list of potential champions stretches much further and how the inform local man Tommy Fleetwood will relish performing in front of his own folk during the season of his life.
My own fancy (and I attach all sorts of caveats) is the rising Spaniard John Rahm, who undoubtedly possesses an X-factor that is consistent among the greatest champions. Birkdale was the venue where Seve Ballesteros announced himself to the world in 1976. The Spanish giant finished runner up to Johnny Miller and it would be fitting for this 22 year old compatriot to contend at a major after a fabulous start to his pro career. As Miller proved, Birkdale usually identifies winners of the highest calibre. The list includes, Watson, Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino and Peter Thomson twice.
But, it must be stressed, there are no certainties, although I have just thought of one. I will definitely be packing my waterproofs!