I’ve watched a lot of golf over the years. And I’ll still never forget the Saturday of the 2002 British Open. You tend to remember a day when giants fall, when the infallible are suddenly fallible. You tend to remember when Tiger Woods shoots an 81.
As the British Open returns to Muirfield for the first time since 2002, let’s take a moment to reminisce.
I’ll remember the backwards hat, the absence of a hat, the cupped hands in front of the mouth, the huddling behind grandstands to try and stay warm. I’ll remember watching the whipping winds, the torrential rain and the freezing temperatures wash away the chances of a man most had pegged the champion before play even began, something we tend to do in the presence of giants. The Jordans, the Federers, the Alis.
I’ll remember him raising his arms in mock celebration after carding his first and only birdie of the day at the 17th hole. I’ll remember him walking off the green with, for some reason, a huge smile on his face and Mark O’Meara’s arm draped over his shoulders. I’ll remember wondering how in the world he could be smiling during what was undoubtedly the lowest moment of his professional career. But I’ll also remember respecting him for it. And liking him for it. At the time, that smile endeared him to me perhaps more so than any of his career highlights. Tiger Woods the giant was suddenly a regular golfer for a day. And all he could do was laugh about it. And I thought that was pretty cool.
At the 2002 British Open, Tiger was at the competitive apex of his career. He was only 27 and had seven major titles to his name, the same total that Arnold Palmer and Sam Snead had over their entire careers and one more than Nick Faldo and Lee Trevino would ever get. He had achieved the “Tiger Slam” one year prior, winning the final three majors of 2000 and the first of 2001, giving him all four major titles at the same time. Unprecedented stuff.
Furthermore, in 2002, leading up to that fateful Saturday, he had won the first two legs of the single-season grand slam of golf, both of them by a comfortable three-shot margin. The golf scribes were predicting four in a row, a single-season grand slam, which would have been the first time that’s ever happened.
But then the Saturday storm hit in the afternoon, a vicious piece of bad luck after a calm morning. Tiger finished with an 81 that was, and continues to be, his only golf score as a professional to start with an “8.” His hopes for a historic victory were dashed by Mother Nature. Looking back now, it’s the unpredictable and often nasty weather conditions that make this tournament special. We’re talking weather conditions that not even the most golf-obsessed would attempt to play in. Weather conditions where a 10-handicapper would struggle to break 100. Or even 110.
That’s why I’m excited for the 2013 edition, being staged this week. Will Tiger exact some revenge on the course that yanked the grand slam from under his feet in a matter of hours more than 10 years ago? Winning his first major title since 2008 at the course that bit him hard at the peak of his powers would be extra sweet. I can’t wait to see how it plays out.