The home of golf has played host to some of the most dramatic finishes of the Open Championship, few more spectacular than in 1995 when John Daly lifted the Claret Jug.
Daly had stunned the world in 1991 when winning the US PGA Championship after getting the call-up to play on the Wednesday and driving from his Memphis home to Crooked Stick in Indiana, a course he had never clapped eyes on before.
Almost four years later, the big-hitting American’s game was in turmoil. He was without a top-10 finish in 1995 and opted to skip his hometown event – the St Jude Classic – before the Open. He spent the off-week working on his game before flying over to Scotland.
Having sworn off alcohol the previous year (not for the last time), Daly still had as many vices as clubs in his bag. Binge eating, excessive gambling, smoking and copious quantities of Diet Coke (to replace the beer and Jack Daniels) were just some of them. And in 1995 he was with wife number two Paulette (he is currently engaged to be married for a fifth time).
But he had fond memories of the Old Course from the 1993 Dunhill Cup where he, Fred Couples and Payne Stewart had secured victory for the United States. And on the eve of the Open, he looked out from his hotel room window overlooking the 17th green and 18th tee and told his agent, Bud Martin, “I own that place.”
As Martin told GOLF magazine, “That is so out of character for him. He never talks about how good he is. You can’t even get him to say, ‘I’m a pretty good driver of the ball.’”
Daly’s huge driving – coming from his almost unique flexibility in the hips – was always going to be a positive at St Andrews, but his natural draw from right to left was also a big advantage. As Bob Estes said, “All the trouble at St Andrews is to the right.”
An opening 67 saw Daly tied for the lead with five-time champion Tom Watson, Ben Crenshaw and Mark McNulty. He also topped the leaderboard after round two, along with Brad Faxon and Katsuyoshi Tomori. That came after a homeward nine of 33 for a round of 71 despite a migraine almost certainly brought on by wolfing down four sugared doughnuts after the eighth and a muffin on the 10th.
As Open venues go, St Andrews is a low-scoring track unless the wind gets up. While not impossible, like Carnoustie, it does become a real test and this was the case in 1995. At odds with Daly’s “grip it and rip it” motto, he admitted after round two, “I think the hardest I swung all day was on that first putt” when he two-putted from fully 180 feet.
That Friday was dominated by Arnold Palmer’s final Open round and there was scarcely a dry eye in the house as Arnie waved goodbye from atop the Swilcan Bridge.
As one golfing great departed the scene, another entered. This was Tiger Woods’ first Open Championship and he experienced rare disappointment, finishing six strokes behind low amateur Steve Webster. Woods claimed the silver medal the following year at Royal Lytham & St Annes and soon had his revenge on the Old Course, cruising to Open victory in 2000 and 2005.
On Saturday with the wind gusting up, Daly struggled but not enough to rule him out of contention. A 73 left him in in a share of fourth, four behind young New Zealander Michael Campbell who surged into the lead with a magnificent 65. His round included a miraculous escape from the infamous Road Hole Bunker for par on the 17th.
But on Sunday, Campbell’s nerves got the better of him and it was Daly who hit the front. Another windy day meant he had to again play with restraint but it was the other key facet of his game – his delicate touch around the greens – which sent him into the lead.
Daly led by two down 17 but put his ball in the Road Hole Bunker in almost exactly the spot as Campbell had 24 hours earlier. He probably hadn’t seen the Kiwi’s escape but playing partner Ernie Els was close by and showed him how it was done. Daly hurt his wrist as his club hit the wall but he got out and took bogey to leave him one ahead.
Only Campbell’s playing partner Costantino Rocca could deny Daly his second major. The chubby Italian – although positively svelte compared to his rival – had missed the cut at the Scottish Open the week before despite hitting the ball “great”.
Rocca found the road on 17 but a wonderfully improvised shot with the putter left him a four-footer which he rolled in for par. The 18th was playing as a drive and a pitch giving Rocca a chance of forcing a four-hole play-off.
But the European Ryder Cup player fluffed his attempted chip with the ball resting in the Valley of Sin come 65 feet from the hole. Paulette Daly embraced her husband with Peter Alliss saying, “Not quite yet, my darling. It ain’t over yet but I must say the odds are in your favour.”
And then came one of the most incredible moments in Open history as the birdie putt rattled towards the hole and dropped. Rocca beat the ground with his fists in delight, and Daly turned deathly pale with his agent Martin recalling, “As soon as the putt went in, all the blood left his face.”
Compared to that high drama, the playoff was a bit of an anticlimax. Rocca three-putted the first hole, the 1st, before Daly holed a huge putt at the 2nd to go two-up. And it was all over after the 17th as Rocca took three to get out of the Road Hole Bunker, allowing Daly a victory procession down the 18th.
There was still time for one more memorable moment, however, as a streaker invaded the 18th green while Daly hugged his wife. One of the photos has even been compared to a Renaissance painting.
— Henrique Pinheiro (@hpinheiro) June 28, 2017
Daly’s well-documented personal foibles meant he was never able to find much consistency in his game although he attributes that to the timing required for his extreme swing to function properly. But he did win the 2001 BMW International Open in Munich with a tournament record four-round total of 261 (27 under-par).
In 2004, he ended his nine-year PGA Tour drought at the Buick Invitational with victory on the first playoff hole over Luke Donald and Chris Riley. That success earned him PGA Tour Comeback of the Year honours. The following year he lost out in playoffs at the Houston Open and the WGC-American Express to Vijay Singh and Tiger Woods respectively.
Rocca appeared in two more Ryder Cups (he had made his debut in 1993) and secured his biggest win in 1996 at the Volvo PGA at Wentworth. He had two more European Tour wins (five in total) before switching to the senior ranks in 2016. But he will always be remembered for not quite winning the Open and the home of golf.
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Also published on Medium.