Troon witnesses the first of the four-hole play-offs
It was approaching 7.15pm on July 23, 1989, and history was about to be made.
Standing over a putt of no more than six feet at the 18th hole of Royal Troon, Mark Calcavecchia was soon to become the first player to win the Claret Jug by way of a four-hole play-off. The American had effectively seen off the Australian challenge of Greg Norman and Wayne Grady, and had the luxury of knowing he could take three putts and still finish the day as the Champion. His smile said it all.
This was the tenth play-off in the history of a Championship dating back to 1860, the first since 1975, and the first using the four-hole format introduced by The R&A in 1985 to guarantee a same-day finish. Previously, play-offs had been played the following day, first over 36 holes and then over 18. This was also the first time more than two players had met in a play-off for the most yearned-for trophy in golf.
All three had contrasting rounds in regulation play. Norman started the day trailing Grady, the third round leader, by seven, and Calcavecchia by four. He set himself a target of 63 and went about his task with great gusto, coming up just one stroke short after opening his round with a stunning run of six straight birdies.
The champion at Turnberry three years’ earlier, Norman set the clubhouse lead on 275, 13 under par, a score that was matched by Calcavecchia when he birdied the 72nd hole after hitting a majestic approach shot to within four feet of the pin. Grady, playing in the final group, needed a par at each of the last two holes for victory, but bogeyed the 17th. His momentum had all but gone.
Norman birdied the first two holes of the play-off, but when Calcavecchia was the only one of the trio to make par at the short 17th, he and Norman arrived at the final hole level, with Grady two behind and seemingly out of contention.
It was here that it all went wrong for Norman. With his adrenalin pumping, and on bone-hard fairways, he hit an enormous drive but found a fairway bunker 310 yards from the tee. His ball nestled close to the wall of the hazard, making it virtually impossible to reach the green. It was a prospect made even more daunting when Calcavecchia hit a stupendous 215-yard approach shot close to the hole from out of light rough.
Norman’s second shot hit the lip of the bunker and finished in sand 65 yards short of the hole. His next shot flew over the green and out of bounds. His race was over. This was the third play-off Norman had lost in major championships. He was beaten by Fuzzy Zoeller at the US Open in 1984 and was denied victory at the 1987 Masters Tournament when Larry Mize chipped in at the second extra hole.
''Happy as I was, I felt very bad for Greg,'' Calcavecchia said. ''The things that have happened to him in Major championships, where it looked like he would win, have just been amazing.”
Since 1989 there have been eight four-hole play-offs at The Open. In fact the last Championship to be contested at Troon, in 2004, was also decided this way, when the unheralded Todd Hamilton beat Ernie Els, who himself had won a four-man play-off at Muirfield two years’ earlier against Stuart Appleby, Steve Elkington and Thomas Levet.
Hamilton, a 38-year-old Texan, may have been unfancied against such a rival but he was made of stern stuff. Outwardly calm, he shared the first two holes in par, then took the lead at the third, when Els hooked his ball wide of the green and failed to get down in two for his par. At the fourth, Els was 12 feet from the hole in two, only for Hamilton, for the umpteenth time during the day, to run an innovative little chip shot all along the ground to about three feet. It meant that Els had to hole simply to extend the play-off, but his putt tailed away on the low side.
The others to have won four-hole play-offs are: John Daly (St Andrews, 1995); Mark O’Meara (Royal Birkdale, 1998); Paul Lawrie (Carnoustie, 1999); Padraig Harrington (Carnoustie, 2007); Stewart Cink (Turnberry, 2009); Zach Johnson (St Andrews, 2015).