Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 20, 2014

A Claret Jug, Silver Salvers, And A Betting Slip

With its lengthy history golf has no shortage of symbols. At the Open Championship, the oldest of the four men’s majors, the venues themselves often qualify, with most dating back to the 19th century. Royal Liverpool, host to this year’s Open, is the second-oldest seaside links course in England. It hosted the first British Amateur in 1885 and in 1921 an informal duel between English and American amateurs that presaged the Walker Cup. This year’s Open was the 12th to be staged at the course in Hoylake, across the narrow Mersey Estuary from the city that gives the links its formal name.

Wherever the Open is played, even next year when it returns to the game’s traditional home at the Old Course in St. Andrews, its preeminent symbol is the trophy awarded to the winner. The Claret Jug can’t be worn, like the Masters green jacket, it is smaller than the U.S. Open Trophy and tiny compared to the massive Wanamaker Trophy awarded to the winner of the PGA Championship. But especially for golfers from outside the United States, it is the ultimate prize, symbol of victory at the sport’s oldest championship.

That much was clear on Sunday as television cameras zoomed in on 25-year old Rory McIlroy; standing in a tunnel underneath the grandstands next to the 18th green during the tournament’s closing ceremonies. When he was called out to accept the trophy with the traditional introduction as “champion golfer of the year,” McIlroy looked to the heavens, a wide smile of both satisfaction and relief spreading across his face. Moments later, the Claret Jug firmly in hand, the former and likely future world #1 dedicated his third major title to his mother who was standing nearby after being home in Northern Ireland when he won the U.S. Open in 2011 and the PGA in 2012. He then assured the throngs surrounding the final green that “The Open is the one we all want and the one we strive for. To be holding the Claret Jug is an incredible feeling.”

McIlroy went on to point out unlike his two previous major wins, this one did not come easily. That seemed possible when he and playing partner Rickie Fowler made their way to Hoylake’s 1st tee, for after a furious finish to Saturday’s third round that featured eagles at both the 16th and 18th holes McIlroy started the final 18 at 16-under par, six shots clear of Fowler and seven shots ahead of Sergio Garcia and Dustin Johnson, the penultimate pairing. That lead naturally brought back memories of McIlroy routing the fields by a matching eight strokes at both Congressional in 2011 and at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course in 2012. On Sunday he played the difficult 1st hole perfectly, rolling in a birdie putt to expand the lead to seven.

But after leading the field in putting and greenside saves for three days, McIlroy’s game was just a shade off on Sunday. Fowler matched the leader’s birdie with one of his own on the 2nd hole, and ahead Garcia birdied three of the first five holes to climb to minus-12. When McIlroy recorded consecutive bogeys at the 5th and 6th holes the lead was down to three. The pride of little Holywood in County Down made a crucial birdie at the par-3 9th hole, but just moments later the Spaniard kept the pressure on by rolling in a 12-foot putt for eagle one hole ahead, cutting McIlroy’s advantage to just two shots.

In the end though, the pursuers would come no closer. McIlroy followed Garcia’s eagle with a birdie of his own on the 10th; and while Sergio birdied both the 16th and 18th, the two closing par-5s, his chances were effectively dashed just before them on the par-3 15th hole. There his tee shot found a bunker to the right of the green. As his sand wedge descended toward the ball viewers could plainly see him flex his knees and drop his right shoulder. It’s an involuntary move that golfers make, trying to scoop the ball or help it out of the sand. One expects it from a weekend player, but not from a seasoned professional. But whoever is guilty of the move the result is always the same; the club catches too much sand and the ball advances only weakly. In this case only enough to bounce off the bunker’s steep face and fall back.

The sand shot on the 15th, as well as a missed putt from less than two feet during Saturday’s third round, will no doubt stay with Garcia for some time. So too will a number of stray shots stay with Rickie Fowler, who putted extremely well all day but for too much of the round only to save par. The pair finished joint second at 15-under par, two shots shy of forcing McIlroy into a playoff. Each received another symbol of the Open, a silver salver that is the second place trophy at both this major and the Masters. As McIlroy took the usual traditional champion’s walk in front of the grandstands with the Claret Jug, pausing to look down at his own name now etched on it for all time, Fowler and Garcia were left holding their sterling silver consolation prizes.

For Fowler there has to be hope hidden in the disappointment of the day. His tie for second on Sunday follows an identical result at the U.S. Open and a tie for fifth at the Masters. He has the best cumulative score in relation to par among players who have contested all three events this season. Still just 25 like McIlroy, Rickie Fowler seems ready to start producing results that begin to match his celebrity.

For Garcia the loss has to be felt more keenly. He now owns a pair of Open silver salvers, symbols of a career that has also included a pair of runner-up finishes at the PGA Championship, among nineteen top-10 finishes at major tournaments. Yet all without that first, career-defining, major title.

They all now move on to Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville for next month’s PGA Championship. But not before one other decidedly lucrative symbol was revealed on Sunday. A decade ago Gerry McIlroy, Rory’s father, went in with three friends to place a wager at one of England’s legal betting parlors. The elder McIlroy’s bet was that his then 15-year old amateur golfer son would win the Open before turning 26. The broker was happy to give the delirious punter and his buddies 500-1 odds. Sunday the $700 bet returned $341,730.

A symbol of victory, and a young career that once again seems limitless. A symbol of disappointment, and the age-old question of whether one can find within it a renewed purpose. A symbol of the unshakeable faith of a parent that transcends sports. All were there at the ancient course at Hoylake, as fans saluted the 2014 champion golfer of the year.

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Responses

  1. Nicely done!


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