Weathering the storm: a windswept history of the Open

After the monsoon-like conditions at St Andrews, we look back at the famous old competition and its wonderful habit – through sheer force of nature – of bringing elite golfers down to earth
Golf - The Open Championship 2015 - Day Two - St Andrews
Course officials clear standing water as rain suspends play during day two of the Open. Photograph: Danny Lawson/PA
Course officials clear standing water as rain suspends play during day two of the Open. Photograph: Danny Lawson/PA
at St Andrews

Last modified on Mon 27 Nov 2017 10.02 EST

“The perfect place for the grand finale” ran the headline in the local newspaper, but as the early starters began to arrive in howling wind and pouring rain for the start of the second round on Friday they were greeted by the sight of flooded fairways, the Swilcan Burn swollen and close to overflowing, and desperate mopping-up operations already under way.

Play started at 6.32am but was suspended after 14 minutes with the hoolie still blowing. When play resumed at 10am, with the first trio on the 1st green and their balls marked from earlier, Jaco van Zyl, of South Africa, completed one of the most time-consuming birdies in Open history.

St Andrews has previous in this regard, and back in 1960 torrential rain rendered play impossible for the final day, 36 holes, then played on Fridays. The Scottish professional Ian Smith recalls standing on the 1st, waiting to tee off, when the heavens opened and water began cascading down the steps of the R&A clubhouse, with the Valley of Sin submerged, and the players were called in and told to reconvene on the Saturday. In the final analysis, Kel Nagle won by a shot from Arnold Palmer, with Smith – who recalls being given three balls by the Dunlop rep to play the first two rounds and another three for making the cut – finished in 16th place, taking home £60 of prize money for his efforts.

In 1988, late finishing took on a completely different complexion after conditions at Royal Lytham worsened in Saturday’s third round with rain flooding several greens and the scores were scrapped as nobody had finished 18 holes. Sunday saw all of the players start and complete 18 in threeballs and, for the first and so far only time, the tournament finished on a Monday, when Seve Ballesteros, playing in a threeball with Nick Faldo and Nick Price, lifted the Claret Jug for the third and final time. The first of his wins, incidentally, came on a Saturday at Lytham in 1979 and the second at St Andrews in 1984, by which time the Open finished on a Sunday.

Royal Birkdale had its problems in 1961 and, on day two, was completed in howling winds which blew down the luncheon tent, overturned trailers and reduced the place to a shambles. Nine players recorded scores in excess of 80 with another dozen on 78 or 79, though Arnold Palmer played one of his best spells of golf at the height of it, with four birdies in his first six holes as he punched his ball under the wind with a one iron on his way to a 73.

“What hadn’t been blown away had been washed away,” Palmer said and the tournament was again completed on the Saturday, with the R&A decreeing beforehand that if it could not be finished that day then the Championship would be declared null and void as it was not allowed to charge gate money on the Sabbath under the old Sunday trading laws. The weather relented sufficiently to complete, however, and Palmer won his first Open, by a shot from Dai Rees.

Birkdale again had its problems with high winds in 2008, with balls moving on some of the more exposed greens out by the coast road and causing play to be suspended for 40 minutes in the third round. Players stayed out on the course and sheltered to be ready for the resumption and were rewarded for their patience with a lie-in the next day, though none of them beat par for the third round.

“I’ll put this down in the top three hardest rounds of golf I have played,” said Greg Norman, the leader at the end of it. “I have played in tougher weather but this being the third round on Royal Birkdale golf course, it was brutal.” An hour’s play was lost at St Andrews in 2010 on the Friday evening because of similarly high winds, causing a handful of games to return on the Saturday morning before the cut could be made. Rory McIlroy was out at the height of it and added an 80 to his first-round 63, which all but ruled him out of contention.

Last year at Royal Liverpool an early weather forecast suggested that the mother of all storms was heading towards the Irish Sea and was anticipated to hit the Wirral coast in early evening on the Saturday so the R&A took pre-emptive action and, for the first time in Open history, opted for double tee-times to get the day completed swiftly, with half the field setting off from the 10th.

They all completed under grey but dry skies and the eventual winner, McIlroy, was outlining his thoughts about his final round in the media centre when a huge clap of thunder announced that the Met Office had indeed been correct and the R&A’s controversial decision had been vindicated.