Broken bottles and dreams: Irish near misses at the British Open
Until Harrington’s victory in 2007, Major championship brought only tales of woe
Pádraig Harrington on the 14th tee during the second round of the British Open at in 2002. Photograph: Harry How/Getty Images
The legendary National Hunt jockey AP McCoy used to have a great quote about complacency. “There is no place for arrogance or complacency in racing because you are up there one minute and on your backside the next.”
In terms of lifting the Claret Jug, Irish golfers, albeit without having to hit the earth at speed, are mindful of how good the past decade-plus has been in terms of claiming golf’s oldest prize and of the need to avoid complacency.
Where there was a drought of 60 years from Fred Daly’s 1947 success until Pádraig Harrington won at Carnoustie in 2007, the succeeding years have been part of a golden generation for players from this island.
Indeed, only the powerhouse that is the US can match Irish achievements: since 2007, Harrington (2007 and 2008), Darren Clarke (2011) and Rory McIlroy (2014) have won the British Open, for a hit rate of four. The US (4), South Africa (2), Sweden (1) and Italy (1) are the other countries to have produced a winner in that period.
Yet, before Harrington led the way, opening the floodgates, there were a number of near misses for Irish players and (indeed) caddies to end the drought . . .
Harry Bradshaw at Royal St George’s
Just two years after Fred Daly’s triumph, Harry Bradshaw had his chance but was the victim of a bizarre incident, in which his ball finished in a broken bottle during his second round.
The incident which occurred on the fifth hole was to prove critical. Unsure of the rule (which was ambiguous in its wording) and with no official nearby, Bradshaw opted to play, shutting his eyes on impact. The glass shattered everywhere and Bradshaw managed to move the ball some 25 yards but lost his composure and signed for a second round 77.
Bradshaw actually would have been entitled to relief if he’d waited for a rules official and, even with that second round setback, finished tied with South African Bobby Locke after 72 holes but was heavily beaten in the 36 holes playoff.
Christy O’Connor jnr at Royal St George’s
It’s a marathon, not a sprint; but it seemed as if Christy jnr had one hand on the Claret Jug when he opened the championship at Sandwich with a sizzling 64 to establish a four-stroke lead over a group of five players which included Sandy Lyle.
O’Connor’s second round, though, saw him dragged back to the field and he would reach the midpoint a shot adrift after a 76. There was more to that score than meets the eye, though. As O’Connor recalled: “I had the best 76 I probably ever had in my life, in a hurricane.”
As it happened, O’Connor remained very much in the hunt and was in the penultimate pairing with Lyle for the final round. The big break went the Scot’s way on the Par 5 14th, where Lyle’s ball was buried in heavy rough and he was on the brink of heading back to reload when his ball was found just inside the then five-minute limit.
Lyle’s swipe at the ball enabled him to get it back on to the fairway, from where he hit a 1-iron 290 yards and sank the 30-footer for birdie. He’d managed to turn a potential bogey or worse into a birdie. Lyle ultimately went on to win by a stroke from Payne Stewart with O’Connor jnr – who took 37 putts in that final round – tied for third in his best-ever career Major finish.
Darren Clarke at Royal Troon
Clarke would eventually get his hands on the Claret Jug – in 2011, finding some sort of redemption in his 20th career appearance in the championship – but he’d had a golden chance to achieve his life’s ambition much, much sooner.
It was at Troon in 1997 that Clarke entered the final round as chief pursuer to Sweden’s Jesper Parnevik.
But Clarke didn’t have to wait long for his moment of anguish. On the Par 3 second hole, Clarke – with three-iron in hand – took his time before hitting. He probably wished he’d taken even longer, as the shot – sssh! at the mention of the shank word – was sent unceremoniously out onto the beach.
Clarke was forced to reload and would sign for a double-bogey that effectively ruined his chances, ultimately sharing the runner-up spot with Parnevik as American Justin Leonard leapfrogged up to the top of the leaderboard.
Myles Byrne at Royal Lytham and St Anne’s
Ian Woosnam was the player, Myles Byrne the caddie; but their story comes as one. Woosnam – whose only career Major came in the 1991 US Masters – was in contention heading into the final round and got off to a flying start, with a tap-in birdie on the Par 3 opening hole.
Except, the birdie didn’t turn out to be a birdie.
In the run-up to the final round, Woosnam had been unsure which driver to use and had practised with two on the range beforehand.
It was only after playing the first hole – and getting a “birdie” two – that Byrne realised that the two drivers were still in the bag and that there were 15 clubs in the bag, one more than that allowed. “You’re going to go ballistic,” Byrne told the Welshman, who responded by throwing the unwanted driver to the ground.
Woosnam was given a two-stroke penalty for the rules infringement and struggled to regain his composure, ultimately finishing in tied-third four shots behind winner David Duval.
Pádraig Harrington at Muirfield
Some five years before he managed his first victory, Harrington had a chance, right to the 72nd hole.
The statistic will say that the Dubliner finished in tied-fifth but it was much closer than that. Harrington led after the second round and started the final round in tied-10th, four shots adrift of Ernie Els, but he moved his way through the field with an impressive final round.
On the 18th tee, Harrington – believing he needed a birdie – went for the aggressive play, with driver rather than 3-wood, and pulled his tee-shot into a fairway bunker and ran up a bogey five to finish. A par would have got him into the playoff, from which Els emerged champion.