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The Open's toughest weather
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Muirfield 2002
Tiger Woods battles the elements at Muirfield in 2002

Rotten weather can blight any round of golf, but the impact of the elements is significantly heightened on the naturally exposed links courses that host The Open.

Our new series looks back on days when players at golf’s original Championship faced particularly extreme conditions.

We begin by recalling a diabolical Saturday storm at Muirfield in 2002, which caused some dramatic movement on the leaderboard.

“It's the most amazing thing I've seen for a very long time at this Championship.” Ernie Els, the Champion Golfer at Muirfield in 2002

The calm before the storm

Many players will have been dismayed as they saw ominous dark clouds building ahead of their third-round tee times.

However, the incoming bad weather arrived just at the right time for 1997 Champion Golfer Justin Leonard, who had been among the earlier starters after ending round two at one over, two strokes inside the cut line.

“I went out on Saturday and played a nice round (of 68),” said Leonard. And then as I was finishing, you could see this storm start to roll in, and it was just havoc the rest of the day!”

Leonard’s three-under round lifted him to two under for the Championship, a score that appeared increasingly impressive as the afternoon starters battled driving rain, strong winds and a significant drop in temperature.

“By the end of the day I'd picked up 30 spots,” added Leonard, who eventually found himself in a tie for third, one behind Soren Hansen and three adrift of Ernie Els.

“Ooh, that doesn’t look too good”

Els’ caddie, Ricci Roberts, had just finished his pre-round reconnaissance as the worst of the weather began to loom over Muirfield.

“I’d walked the course in the morning because I went to check the pin positions,” explained Roberts in an episode of Caddie Stories. “Even though you get the pin sheet, I like to go and have a look at the pins, because you sort of get this picture in your mind of where to hit it, where's the best possible spot for you to putt from, what could be the easiest putt.

“And I looked out and I saw this black mass coming in over the water, and I thought, 'ooh, that doesn't look too good'.

"Anyway, I came off 18 and Tiger (Woods) was about to go to the first tee as this weather moved in. We've played a lot with Tiger and, in his eyes, I could see he was like 'wow, what is this coming through here?'

"We were fortunate in a way that we only had to play 14 or 15 holes in this monsoon, but I have to say it was probably right up there with one of the hardest days ever on a links golf course that I've ever seen. That weather was brutal.”

Tiger’s Grand Slam hopes blown away

After two solid opening rounds, Tiger Woods was still on course for an unprecedented calendar year Grand Slam in 2002 following his victories in The Masters and U.S. Open.

However, the World Number One suffered more than most in the gusting winds of Saturday afternoon, as he carded an 81 to slip from four under to six over.

Woods was at least able to see the bright side when he birdied the 17th, raising his arms in triumph and fist bumping his close friend and playing partner Mark O’Meara with a broad smile on his face.

Colin Montgomerie fared even worse than Tiger. The home favourite had completed a magnificent 64 on day two to join Woods at four under, but he needed 20 more strokes in round three as he slumped to a painful 84.

Spectators take cover under umbrellas during a storm at Muirfield in 2002

“As bad as I can ever remember”

Even those who remained in contention for the Claret Jug were left amazed by the severity of the conditions on Saturday afternoon.

Experienced Irishman Des Smyth shot a 74 to share third place before stating: “The weather was as bad as I can ever remember. It's almost unbelievable it should happen in July. It was more like a December or January day."

Gary Evans, who would go on to make a sensational challenge for victory on the final day, also managed a three-over 74 despite bogeying the final three holes.

“We had the worst storm and I just ground out par after par after par,” said the Englishman. “I remember birdieing 15 to go back to level par for the day, and I felt that was like five under par. That’s what I felt it was, for the conditions.”

Els, who had begun the day in a five-way share of the lead at six under, opened up a two-stroke advantage courtesy of his one-over 72, a brilliant, battling round that ultimately helped him to secure the Claret Jug.

"I'm really pleased,” said the leader at the end of the third day. I cannot explain it well enough, I don't think.

“I never thought I'd get it to five under. I thought, at best, to have broken 76 or 77 today would have been a hell of a score, the way the conditions were.

“It's the most amazing thing I've seen for a very long time at this Championship. It was one of the most difficult days that I can ever remember. You just can't believe how the conditions were.”

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Enjoy all of the best action from Muirfield in 2002, including Saturday's battle against the elements and a hugely dramatic final day, by watching the Official Film of The 131st Open via the player below.

Official Film | The 131st Open | Muirfield 2002