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Wayne Grady estimates he has played in or watched live at least 25 Open Championships, and the 1989 version is the one that got away from him. The memories keep coming back, especially when the Open returns to Royal Troon, scene of that remarkable three-man playoff 27 years ago. "It's funny, we were in a bar the other night and it came on TV,'' he told Golf Australia this week.
Grady never won an Open, though he loved it so. "It's my favorite,'' he said as he prepared for his annual commentary stint at the oldest professional tournament in the world. "It's the main one for us, because of our connection with Britain and the Commonwealth.''
But he probably should have won at Troon in 1989. He was 32 and at the peak of his career. "I came here after winning the Westchester in the US a couple of weeks earlier, so I was playing pretty nicely, and the course was good for me because it was hard and fast. I got plenty of run. I didn't hit it in one fairway bunker all week, which is always a key to playing links golf. I was plying good and I felt comfortable.''
His opening 68 left him a shot from the lead, and by the time he posted a second-round 67 he was on top of the leaderboard by two, then he held the lead right through the third round, when he carded a 69.
He played with Tom Watson on the final day, starting with a lead of a shot, and it was not until the par-three 17th hole that he conceded the outright lead with a bogey. Greg Norman, meanwhile, had torn Troon apart with six consecutive birdies to start the day, a 64, and had posted 275. So had Calcavecchia, the American who had closed with a 68.
Grady knew what he needed; a birdie at the 72nd hole would have taken him to 14-under and won his first major championship. But he could not manage it. "I hit my tee shot in the right rough, in the first cut, and the second shot ran through the back edge so I had to chip it. It was right on line, but it stopped this far (indicating less than a metre) short.''
Looking back, he is still a little wistful about the way it unfolded elsewhere on the course. "Calc holed a 50-footer on 11 for par and then bombed a pitch on 12 that flew into the hole, it was going over the green and it flew straight in the hole.''
As for Norman, he played one of his greatest single rounds and when the four-hole playoff began, the Shark came out of the gates with birdies at the first and second holes to take the momentum. To this point, Norman was 10-under par for 20 holes on the day, incredible golf.
It was the first time that the R and A had declared a four-hole playoff for an Open Championship over the first, second, 17th and 18th holes; previously the playoff would have been over a full round of 18 holes, a change Grady applauded. "I think they've got it right, it's a good thing. Sudden death is too quick for a major and the logistics of bring everyone back the next day is a nightmare for everyone.''
Had it been sudden death, Norman would have won with his birdie at the first. But Calcaveccia birdied the second and the 17th to lock it up as they went down 18. By this time, Grady had bogeyed the 17th for the second time on the day, and he needed a miracle. Or to be precise, a hole-out eagle at the par-four 18th, since he was two back of the other pair.
Norman had also bogeyed 17 to concede a share of the lead. "Greg hit it over the green on 17 and for some reason, chipped it with an eight or nine iron instead at least a sand wedge, because it was downhill and quick, and he finished 10 or 12 feet past.''
The Shark's tee shot at the last of the playoff holes has been discussed for years. It was a pure strike, aimed left and curving back, but it trickled into a fairway bunker that was so far down (almost 300 metres) that it was not meant to be in play. Even Grady was stunned. "He hit this 30-yard carve, aimed it at the left edge and it carved back towards the bunker, but we all thought it was perfect. He bent down and picked up his tee, and at the same time I was teeing to hit my shot, and we heard the crowd groan, and we both went: 'What the hell was that? It couldn't have got into the bunker''.
It had, nestled up toward the front lip of one of those penal Scottish links bunkers, and it cost Norman the tournament. Calcavecchia flushed his second with an eight iron from the rough up to just more than a metre from the flag and made birdie, Norman hit his second into the trap in front of the green and effectively surrendered, not even holing out, and Grady could not conjure the miracle eagle. "Calc hit it close, so I had to hole out. That's what I was thinking. I actually hit it to four feet, and I missed the putt, but I didn't even need to worry by then.''
Grady had begun his journey into the funky world of links golf not understanding it, but he came to embrace the game. "The first time I came in '79 and it didn't suit me, but once you learn to play it, links is fantastic. It's your imagination and the way you can use the ground to play golf instead of all through the year. You can move it around, it's a lot of fun, you have to land it in the right area to get the ball where you want it to finish.''
But he never again truly contended for the Claret Jug, his best being tied-10th at Sandwich in 1993, when Norman played his greatest-ever round, a closing 64 to win. For Grady, the consolation came the year after his heartbreak at Troon when he won the 1990 US PGA Championship at Shoal Creek, Alabama, his "you bloody beauty'' moment.
Australia golf seemed cursed that day at Troon, with two antipodeans in a three-man playoff unable to stop the only American, and with Norman's travails around that time. But soon afterward, Ian Baker-Finch won the Open at Royal Birkdale, and Norman, for a second time, at Sandwich in 1993. But in 23 years since the day that Norman was "in awe of myself'', no Australian has been crowned the Champion Golfer of the Year. It is pushing towards a drought.
"It's one of those things,'' said Grady. "I mean, why did it take so long for an Aussie to win at Augusta (Until Adam Scott in 2013)? It's set up the same as our courses, no rough around the greens, the ball runs off and you have bump and run. Should've happened years earlier.''
In the years since 1993, Stuart Appleby and Steve Elkington both made a playoff at Muirfield in 2002 and were beaten by Ernie Els, and then Marc Leishman had the same ill-fortune last year at St Andrews in a playoff against Zac Johnson and Louis Oosthuizen. So as ever, the fiercely-patriotic Grady will be hoping for a change of fortunes for his countrymen at Troon as he goes about his work in the TV tower.
"You can't get much closer than a playoff,'' he said. "I was just lucky you won the PGA the next year otherwise I would have lived to dwell on it a bit.''
THE 1989 OPEN CHAMPIONSHIP AT TROON
275 Wayne Grady (Aus) Greg Norman (Aus) Mark Calcavecchia (US)
Playoff: Norman 334x Grady 4444 Calcavecchia 4333