Few players can claim to have been part of a more remarkable storyline at The Open than Gary Evans in 2002.
The Englishman did not win that year’s Championship and he was not even among the three players who were beaten by Ernie Els in The Open’s first four-man play-off.
However, Evans was undoubtedly at the centre of the final round’s most extraordinary action, as he endured a rollercoaster ride like no other on Muirfield’s par-5 17th hole.
Despite coming into the Championship without a professional win to his name, Evans stood on the brink of a sensational underdog triumph with two holes to play. Eight birdies in the space of 10 holes had lifted him to the top of the leaderboard and he was still two clear when he reached the penultimate tee, albeit with his main rivals still in the early stages of their rounds.
A 4-4 finish would ultimately have secured the Claret Jug with a record-equalling 63 and that scenario appeared likely when Evans found the fairway with his drive at 17.
What followed was one of the most dramatic passages of play in The Open’s illustrious history.
The first twist came with Evans’ second shot on the 17th, as he explains in our new Tales of The Open podcast.
“I had got 256 (yards). It was a perfect 4-wood for me,” said Evans. “I just got a bit short with my backswing and I threw the hands at it a little bit and I pulled it. I just hit a straight pull.
“I’m thinking: ‘Ah, well, it’ll be alright. I’ll be in the rough, but it’ll be alright. I’ll be able to chip on to the green from there.’ We walk up there and everyone’s looking and no one’s got the ball.”
Incredibly, despite the assistance of dozens of spectators and marshals, Evans was unable to find his ball in the five minutes of allotted time. To make matters worse, five separate balls were found during the search, including one that looked sure to be his, only for his hopes to be dashed on each occasion.
“The fifth ball, less than 30 seconds to go before the five minutes is up, someone says: ‘I’ve got it, Titleist 2,’” recalls Evans. “I rush over there, put my marker down, turn the golf ball to identify it and, of course, my marking is not on the golf ball. It’s not my ball. And then the referee says: ‘Time up.’”
A stunned Evans was forced to walk 250 yards back down the fairway to play his fourth shot. He showed immense character to find the green with his 4-wood at the second attempt, leaving a par putt of around 50 feet, but he was not finished there.
“I walked round the putt and as I’m the other side of the hole, down on my haunches, reading the putt, I can hear the sound of my heart thumping,” he added. “It’s just going bang, bang, bang, bang, bang. It’s like loud in my ears. I’m thinking: ‘This is mad.’
“Anyway, I walk round, get over the putt, and I think: ‘Come on, just make a good stroke.’ I struck it perfectly, it went to the right, it went to the left. And it goes straight into the middle of the hole. And the crowd erupts and goes nuts.”
As Evans celebrated passionately and the spectators surrounding the green roared their approval, BBC commentator Alex Hay captured the mood perfectly, stating: “That’s one of the most courageous things any of us have ever seen.”
Unfortunately for Evans, the incredible events of the hole – losing his ball, thinking it had been found five times, finding the green from over 250 yards at the second attempt and then holing a monster putt for par – had taken their toll.
Perhaps understandably, he went on to make a messy bogey on the 18th and, although that was still enough to secure the clubhouse lead at five under, Evans finished one shot outside the play-off contested by Els, Thomas Levet, Steve Elkington and Stuart Appleby.
“That's one of the most courageous things any of us have ever seen.” Alex Hay's reaction to Gary Evans' par-saving putt on the 17th
“At that stage, I couldn’t reset, I couldn’t refocus, I couldn’t find the calmness that you need to operate under those conditions,” said Evans as he recalled how he struggled on the final hole.
“It was absolute relief when that ball disappeared (for a bogey on 18). I forgot to shake (playing partner) Scott Verplank’s hand because I was so gone. I struggled to count the score up in the scorers’ tent, I was so emotionally done at that stage. I would say I was in a proper mess for a good 15 minutes after I finished.”
Evans may not have emerged victorious at Muirfield, but his outstanding final-round performance and the drama on 17 will continue to live long in the memory.
To hear the full Tales of The Open episode with Gary Evans and subscribe to The Open Podcasts, click here.