Forty years ago, in 1983, The Open Championship was held at the Royal Birkdale Golf Club in Southport, England – not far from where this year’s Open is being contested at the Royal Liverpool Golf Course (July 20-23) in Wirral, England. I was fortunate to attend all four days of The Open back in 1983. The memories remain vivid.
During the opening round of the tournament, an R & A official (The Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews) asked me to be a part-time employee. He wanted me to be a ball marker along the first fairway to track and mark stray tee shots coming from the first tee. I declined the job opportunity since I had come to The Open to watch and not to work.
The ’83 Open attracted a record number of spectators – more then 140,000, which was broken the following year at St. Andrews. In order to get a bird’s-eye view of the action, I bought an official Open Championship ‘periscope.’ It only cost a few pounds – a wise investment which reaped numerous visual ‘dividends’ during the tournament. The crowds of people around the television sets in the concession areas were so large that I needed my ‘periscope’ to watch the TVs while I stood in line for lunch – always a pint of lager and a pork pie.
There were two bizarre incidents at The Open that year which took place and impacted how the tournament was played and the final result.
On that Friday night, a group of radicals sabotaged the sixth green by digging small holes, dumping motor oil on the green, and painting a slogan on the putting surface. Why? They were trying to draw attention to the recent court case of Dennis Kelly who had been convicted for the murder of a Liverpool shopkeeper. Kelly had been given life imprisonment. The radical group wanted Kelly released and were publicizing their claim for his innocence. The greenskeeper and his crew were called back to the course at 2:00 am on Friday night/Saturday morning to repair the green. For the balance of the tournament, after players hit their approach shots to the sixth green, a tournament official would measure each putt’s distance to the hole and then give the players a choice to make – either putt from the original spot or choose another point on the green, the same distance away, which was not through a damaged part of the green.
The other big story took place during the third round with Hale Irwin. After leaving a birdie putt on the 14th green on the lip of the hole, Irwin leaned over to tap the ball in the hole, but he missed! Not only did his ball miss the hole, but his putter head missed the ball. Irwin was simply too casual with his effort and as his putter head made its way toward the ball, he lifted his shoulders and ‘whiffed.’ All credit to Irwin’s true sportsmanship and integrity because he’s the one who admitted to the miss. Irwin said he intended to hit the ball,but was unsuccessful. He assessed himself a bogey four. It should have been a par three. In the end, that miss would prove to be very costly.
On the tournament’s last day, four strokes separated the top ten players on the leaderboard, who hailed from four different countries. Those ten golfers had won a total of 21 major championships. The British bookies favored third-round leader and defending champion Tom Watson, who was a four-time winner of the oldest of golf’s four majors.
Every British heart and soul was backing England’s Nick Faldo. In that final round, Faldo excited the British fans with three consecutive birdies in the early going, but he faded to a two-over-par 73 and a share of eighth place.
The fourth round’s biggest story was Australia’s Graham Marsh. He started the round at even par — eight shots off the pace and more than two hours in front of the final two-ball, Watson and Craig Stadler. Marsh was spectacular as he holed many birdie putts that day. When he finished, he was leading the tournament with a four-round total of 277 (seven-under-par), thanks to a Sunday 64. Just as Marsh left the 18th green, the bright, blue skies gave way to a fresh breeze off the nearby Irish Sea and a dark, gray sky. Would all those American contenders — Watson, Irwin, Stadler, Lee Trevino, Fuzzy Zoeller, and Andy Bean — fall by the wayside and allow Marsh to win? Also, South Africa’s Harold Henning, a 48-year-old journeyman, started holing putts and climbed to within one shot of Marsh, but couldn’t get any closer.
In the end, it all boiled down to the final group on the last hole of the tournament. On the 18th tee, Tom Watson was at nine under par, holding a one-shot lead over Hale Irwin and Andy Bean. Watson faced a very difficult finishing hole, a 473-yard dogleg-right par four. To make matters worse, there was a swirling wind whipping off the nearby Irish Sea. A par four or better would give Watson a fifth Open crown; a bogey five meant an 18-hole playoff with Irwin and Bean; and anything worse wasn’t worth contemplating.
With his driver, Watson split the fairway, but he still had well over 200 yards to the flagstick. His ensuing two iron was struck perfectly, as it landed a few feet from the pin and stopped 15 feet past the hole.
After Watson’s final approach shot, the 18th fairway was ringed with thousands of fans, of which I was one of them. This is a longstanding tradition at The Open.
When Watson finally made it through the crowd, the spectators gave him a loud ovation. Watson had two putts to win, which he successfully converted. Game, set, and match to Watson – 67-68-70-70; nine-under-par 275. For Watson, it was rather elementary!
*This story is an excerpt from A Pint and A Pork Pie: The 1983 Open Championship, written by Mike May.