The indelible image will always be the hat.
In the summer of 2001, a time when we all basked in the illusion of pre-911 peace, a Welshman hit the finest final-round opening tee shot in recent major championship history.
Of course, opening tee shots aren’t normally that exciting. Splitting the middle of the first fairway is like firing the engine of a finely tuned car: it’s a nice start, but until you put the thing in gear, it doesn’t mean much.
But the opening hole at Royal Lytham & St. Annes is a par-three, 206 yards with all the bumps and rolls expected from an Open Championship venue. And that sunny Sunday afternoon, Ian Woosnam came within an inch of making a one. The ball seemed destined for the hole. Two more rotations and his perfectly struck 5-iron shot would have certainly found the cup.
The stout former boxer showed little emotion – “I knew it was close, but didn’t realize how close” – he said afterward. Instead, he marched off the first tee with his jaw clinched in determination. A tap-in birdie tied Woosnam for the lead at 7-under. David Duval, the third round leader, had yet to go off.
Then, on the second hole, a small but memorable fit ensued. Woosnam’s caddy, a weathered Irishman named Myles Byrne who moved a cigarette around in his lips with a long-practiced ease, seemed to stumble. I happened to be standing to the right of the second tee in a sea of long grass, inside the gallery ropes but outside the field of play: a perfect spot to witness the last couple of groups going through the opening holes. When Byrne’s knees wobbled, I felt myself reflexively lean forward as if reaching for a falling cup from across a room.
From my vantage point, I couldn’t hear what Byrne said to Woosnam (and given the thickness of his Irish accent, I likely wouldn’t have understood him if I had), but I did see Woosnam stomp around the tee box, take off his hat and throw it to the ground. I had seen Steve Spurrier throw similar tantrums on college football sidelines many times, taking his coaching frustrations out on an innocent visor. But I’d never seen a tour player in a major championship lose it so completely, especially after tapping in a birdie to share the lead.
Then I heard Woosnam say, “Take it out.”
A driver came out of the bag and Woosnam tossed it the weeds beneath a tree just a few feet from me. That is when I realized what had happened. The caddy (and his player) hadn’t counted clubs before teeing off. They had played the first hole with 15.
Extra golf clubs don’t magically appear in most amateurs’ bags, so the penalty wasn’t one most people couldn’t relate to at the time. If the average player at a local club goes off with 15 or 16 clubs, nobody cares.
Even greats fudge on the maximum club rule during casual rounds. When Arnold Palmer invited me to join him for a Tuesday game at Latrobe Country Club, I wanted to sneak a peek into Arnie’s bag before heading to the first tee. When I sauntered over to his cart, I realized that he had two bags. And they were both full.
“He’s playing with 44 clubs,” I said to the third member of our group, a local dentist and former club champion at Latrobe.
“Oh, he’s taken some out,” the dentist said. “He normally plays with 60.”
But golf and major championship golf are distant and dissimilar relatives. Arnie never teed off in a tournament with more than 14 clubs. Woosnam teed off with 15. The penalty was two shots. Rather than pulling into the lead, he had fallen two behind.
He said something else to the caddy as he put his hat back on his head at an impossibly crooked angle. The hat sat perched like a birds nest on a broken limb, askew and teetering.
From my hide in the rough, I covered my face to conceal my laughter, not at Woosnam’s misfortune or the misery he was suffering, but at the absurdity of the scene. More than anything, I laughed at the hat. And I felt instantly ashamed.
Almost every avid golfer knows that part of the story: the extra driver Woosnam had been testing on the range that didn’t get noticed on the first tee because the opening hole was a par-three; the two fingers that R&A rules official John Paramor held up to indicate Woosnam’s penalty, and, of course, the driver pitched into the brush.
Unfortunately, the next shot – the one that marked the true measure of Ian Woosnam the man – is largely forgotten.
After receiving the most devastating penalty of his career -- the one that would ultimately rob him of the championship he wanted most and deprive him of a spot of the 2002 Ryder Cup team -- the tough little Welshman striped a long iron into the middle of the second fairway.
He went on to shoot even-par 71 and finish tied for third, a more than respectable showing given everything that had transpired.
And he didn’t fire Byrne, at least not right away.
The caddy attempted to hide after the round, but a swarm of reporters enveloped him, the first question being shouted in a Geordie accent: “Are you sacked Myles?” At the time Byrne didn’t know. His boney hands shook as he held another cigarette, mumbling between puffs in a voice as saggy and brittle as the windows in the ancient clubhouse.
Woosnam gave Byrne another chance, one the caddy blew by showing up late and hung over at the Scandinavian Masters.
But Byrne was never the story. Nor should the error be how Woosnam is remembered this week as the Open returns to Royal Lytham & St. Annes. How he handled it is what counts.
“It was my responsibility,” Woosnam said immediately afterward. “The player is responsible for the number of clubs in his bag. At the end of the day, it’s my job.”
Visibly disappointed but without waver or hesitation, Woosnam stood much taller than he measured that afternoon in Lytham.
And in so doing, he set a worthy example for us all.