The words read simply: ‘Mark Townsend: Open champion, 1996’ – and underneath them a signature: Mark Townsend.
This was fairly out of character given that I wasn’t hugely in to self-promotion or self-talk at the age of 14 and slightly delusional given that I was the seventh-best junior at Wimbledon Park at the time, playing off 13.
But I had just returned from the Friday of the 1985 Open Championship at Sandwich and I was smitten. The first shot that four school friends and I had witnessed on an Open property was by an English pro called Peter Harrison who holed his approach to the 2nd, spinning it six feet back into the hole.
From there we bundled ourselves over the dunes and mounds to locate Seve at the 11th, who huffed and puffed his way to a 74 in the morning mizzle, before the afternoon gave way to bright skies, distant cheers and four hours spent following the champion-inwaiting Sandy Lyle and Bob Charles.
Other things we learned on that tremendous day were that Mark O’Meara was able to wolf whistle, Philip Parkin could hit drives so pure that I can still visualise the one at the 8th in every detail, Greg Norman looked like he belonged on a Hollywood film set and, should you want to mingle with at least half the players, then most would be milling about in the tented village where. How things change…
By the time the 1996 Open did come round I didn’t miss a shot, though not quite how I had envisaged. I was now working in William Hill’s head office/call centre taking bets on the 125th Open. My own golf had been reduced to six rounds a year at a local muni due to a lack of funds, friends and interest.
But 21 years later and here I was back on Open property. The stands were up, the Royal Birkdale course looked immaculate and I had my clubs by my side, all courtesy of an invite from Mercedes-Benz.
I had been driven over from Leeds the previous evening, I had a caddie for the day, I had a new pair of trousers on, along with a new glove and so, in my head, I was basically playing in the Open.
Thirty-two years on from my eerily imprecise premonition, I would get the chance to walk the same greens on which Ian Baker Finch had rolled all those putts in over the weekend in 1991, no doubt try and gouge a succession of recoveries from the deep bund like dear old Arnie and maybe even do something special on 18 like a young, and very pallid, Justin Rose.
Or just do what I normally do, the first course-management masterclass being to take the driver on any opening hole unless it’s a par 3.
See also: Royal Birkdale course guide
The last thing I had read about Birkdale’s notorious 1st, just the day before, was how Lexi Thompson had taken a 10 in the Women’s British Open.
It’s a fiendish hole, doglegging this way and then that, and so I came to the simple conclusion to try and advance the ball as far as possible away from where I was standing despite a bunker dominating my thoughts and eye-line 232 yards away.
A decision which was helped by the Claret Jug, around 50 other players, caddies and dignitaries and a nine-time major champion in Gary Player standing just behind me.
Despite pulling it 30 yards left of where I was aiming Player seemed blown away by the shot. It had bounced at least once, I wasn’t in the sand, I would get to play a second shot and I should be able to break double figures. We were away…
And before too long putting for a birdie after a 9-iron ‘jumped out of the semi’ – this is how I would describe the shot to Claude Harmon on the Sky Cart later on. A par four where the hole average would likely be around 4.318 and I would most likely be on the second page of the leaderboard immediately.
The 2nd requires a skilled shot-maker to find the green while the 3rd, with the wind helping, might well present a birdie opportunity for the better player, particularly when left with a 70-yard pitch.
And so I exited stage left for the 4th tee with a pair of bogeys in the satchel, slightly disconcerted but otherwise fine.
My initial observations were that I was over-reading every break and that the rough wasn’t too bad. This was the same week as Erin Hills and, unless something very strange happens in the next few weeks, the players are going to find this major layout very playable from the not-very-thick stuff.
Otherwise there seemed little that could go wrong; it was a format of the two best scores from the team of four, I had a caddie, Chris, who had worked out my game within three shots, the sun was out, the water was flowing and even the course was being kind – as a fatted, almost twice-hit pitch bounced up to six feet at the 5th.
A birdie, a look at the electronic scoreboard and a quick calculation that I was back to one over and most likely now on the sixth page of the leaderboard.
We’ll gloss over the next three holes as two of them involved unsuccessful hunts to locate my ball while there were three putts on the other.
I had become discombobulated in the meantime and, had Chris not been there to give me a friendly pep talk walking up the side of the 8th hole that we were sadly no longer playing, I’m not sure where my day was heading.
The past 30 years’ experience suggested a score in the very low 20s Stableford wise.
See also: Brilliant Birkdale set to shine again
“The next two holes will be played as a Scramble…” came a very familiar South African twang from the 9th tee.
The three-time Open champion would prove to be my lighthouse in the short-term gloom, like a guardian angel sent from above to help me bogey a couple of holes. I found the fairway only to be outdriven by the 81-year-old.
Player changed clubs three times, not for dramatic effect, rather for being as competitive now as he was 60 years ago and settled on a 5-hybrid which produced a trim draw into the wind to 20 feet.
I thought of all the other octogenarians I know. My mum is the same age which brings all this home – and you wonder how on earth he can still do this.
The energy and mind is equally as impressive – he hadn’t hit the 6-iron as he did that at the 72nd hole of the 1970 Masters, underclubbing at the last which led to a bogey and saw him miss out on a play-off which Billy Casper won the next day. He still looked disappointed by how things turned out in Georgia that day.
I do hit the 6, based on not really trusting the 5, and, for once, do something right at the right time. It lands next to the hole and before it has come to a halt I am double-high-fiving someone nearly twice my age.
We all miss the six-footer but we have saved our trump card until last and, using his left-below-right grip (the biggest thing he would change if he could turn back the clock), Player rolled her home.
The next few minutes proved very strange. If you don’t know the 10th at Birkdale, it’s an inverted C which requires a mid-iron to the corner to avoid five bunkers.
Or, obeying the golden rule of unsheathing the driver at least 14 times a round, smashing one into oblivion. I’ll now attempt to blame everything bar myself – the have-a-go nature of the format, trying to emulate an 81-year-old who had whipped one over the corner, the gentle persuasion of others – but the simple truth was that I then pretty much hit the driver between my own legs.
— Mark Townsend (@MarkTownsendNCG) June 14, 2017
If the Protracer had been in operation it wouldn’t have even made an impression on your TV screen.
Approximately 15 yards from where Player and I were now standing in near silence, just to the side of the ladies’ tees, was my ball in some tufty rough.
Still, despite wanting to join it there, now wasn’t the time to let things overwhelm me. We birdied the hole, which felt a bit hollow, got to high-five Player once more and parted with some shared experiences.
This is all just personal preference of course but, in my humble opinion, I would suggest Birkdale’s 12th and 13th holes might be the best back-to-back holes on the Open rota. With 15 collective bunkers I manage to avoid any of them and go 6-3, the good bit being a 35-footer which again got me thinking of what might have been in 1996.
The par-5 15th looked different to how I remember it, more open and inviting, despite there still being 15 bunkers lining the fairway and I visited Palmer’s plaque on 16, giving it a little thumbs up as I walked past and spared a thought for what he did for the whole thing. When he came over he was one of just two Americans. Look at it all now with the stands and the cranes. Last year at Troon, there were 52 of Palmer’s countrymen.
And so on to 17 and a very different conversation with my caddie Chris to the one Padraig Harrington had with Ronan Flood. The Dubliner, knowing he was two clear, decided to take the shot on in the hope that a birdie might secure back-to back Opens.
I was quite rightly advised that a) I was on a shot, b) a five for three points could get the team over the line and c) I had ‘a hooky lie’.
Given the amount of time I had spent in the left half of the course I knew what he was saying. So I took the 6-iron and, once in the 60-yard kill zone, pitched it into a bunker and made seven (for one).
Onwards to 18, a par 4 for our heroes but a par 5 for us mere mortals which was particularly welcome given that the tee had been pushed forward.
Rather than enjoying the walk up 18 I spent the bulk of it scuttling around in the left rough, plus ca change, before locating my ball and conjuring up a mental image of Rose in ’98. And fatting a wedge to 20 feet.
Then I rolled it in. What I wanted to do was hurl my putter skywards like Jack did when he nearly decapitated Doug Sanders and, while the club was on its way down, start shouting something in Spanish as I began my Seve fist pumps.
Instead I acted like a normal human being, something I struggled to do growing up as that 14-year-old, and thanked my lucky stars for the opportunity of a lifetime.
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Mark played Royal Birkdale courtesy of Mercedes-Benz, an Official Patron and the Official Car of the Open.