I was 18 when the Open came to Royal Birkdale in 1991. I lived nearby so a group of mates and I went to all four rounds as well as some of the practice days earlier in the week. It didn’t cost us anything to get in as one of the lads knew a way in.
Some of you may know that Hillside Golf Course runs alongside Birkdale. What you probably don’t know is that back then you could walk into trees on Hillside and come out of the other side of those trees through a hole in the fence and find yourself on Royal Birkdale. So we did that every day. I kept expecting to get caught and thrown out but we never did. It was an amazing week as we had the run of the entire course.
If we weren’t following one of the main groups around on their practice rounds we’d be next to the driving range, pocketing any stray balls that nestled against the fence we were hiding next to. There was a bit of a hollow which shielded us from the view of any marshals and we filled our boots with Titleist balatas that week.
One memory that stands out was watching Tom Kite practising in the end bay nearest to where we were lurking. He was hitting shots one handed, with a mid iron. You’d never know he was only using one hand based on the flight of the ball. He’d hit some using only his left hand and then he’d switch to his right. And the ball would fly through the air with the greatest of ease. It was a sight to behold, with the added bonus that he was hooking a fair few of them over to our location next to the fence. Cheers, Tom.
The main memories from that week though are not only seeing my golfing hero play live for the first and only time, but actually getting to speak to him and even getting an autograph. More on that later.
The other things I remember vividly are other interactions we had with various pros and seeing how some of them interacted with the fans….
In the late 80s / early 90s, Nick Faldo was the absolute Don of the golf world. He was the man, and he knew it. His interactions with the fans were limited to say the least. Basically no-one could get near him.
I saw him coming off the practice range one day and a crowd had gathered to try and get autographs. He saw the crowd and hung back, instead sending his caddie Fanny Sunneson on ahead to clear a path. She was not a woman to be trifled with, barging through and telling everyone to get out of the way.
Fanny bulldozed a path through that crowd, with that big iconic white and blue Mizuno bag sending people sprawling, and then Faldo strode through imperiously behind her. When I picture it in my head, ‘the Imperial March’ from Star Wars is playing.
So yeah, Faldo wanted no part of any galleries. I sort of understood it as that was his reputation. He was a massive star at the time and I never held it against him.
Phil was only a youngster back then. He hadn’t even turned pro but he was a big star who was getting a lot of attention. And he had time for everyone.
He never stopped smiling, signed every autograph and generally just seemed made up to be there. I’ve never forgotten that and I’ve rooted for Phil ever since.
My best mate at the time wanted an autograph and had followed him for a few holes on one of his practice rounds. Torrance had done his best to avoid it but eventually there was an opening and my friend was able to approach him nervously and ask “Can I have an autograph please Sam?”
Unfortunately he was so flustered that he’d forgotten his pen. “Have you got a pen?” enquired Torrance. “No” replied my mate. “Well what f***ing use are you then?” My mate skulked away, tail between his legs.
“What happened?” I asked. When he told me I was pissing myself laughing and I ripped him about it for years. It wasn’t just Torrance who made a mug of him though….
The Great White Shark. Everyone loves him, don’t they? Not me. I’ve never had much time for him and it all stems back to something that happened at Birkdale. It was on one of the practice days at the 4th hole, a par 3.
We had a great little spec by the barrier rope on the tee and my mate was getting as many autographs as he could. I wasn’t bothered about getting any as I had the one I wanted (I’ll reveal all shortly). Still, I understood why he’d want Norman’s autograph as he was one of the biggest names in golf and oozed charisma. He got that autograph. Eventually.
Norman and his playing partners arrived on the tee while the group in front were still on the green. So while they waited, my pal saw his chance. “Greg!” he called. No response. “Greg!” he tried again. Still nothing. He was stood maybe three or four paces away and there’s no way he didn’t hear it. “GREG!!” my mate persisted.
Still nothing. Then, for whatever reason, my buddy changed strategy. “Mr Norman?” he called. And lo and behold, the Great White Shark turns around, smiling, takes the pen and signs. What a tool.
Watson is even more popular than Norman. Literally every golf fan on the planet loves Tom Watson don’t they? Well, not quite everyone. I’ve got beef with Tom. Why? I’ll tell you.
So, one of the lads had the idea of hanging around near the clubhouse because when players had finished their practice rounds they often gave their glove away. Usually they’d just hand it to some cute little kid so a gormless teenager like me had no chance.
I did get Nick Price’s glove but that was because he threw it up in the air and I trampled over a load of kids to get there first. But anyway, Tom Watson. Yeah, he was signing autographs and being ‘good ol’ Tom’ who everyone loves. But he hadn’t given away his glove and he was walking back to the clubhouse.
Great, here’s my opening. “Hi Tom, could I have your glove as a souvenir please?” I asked politely. He stopped. Looked me up and down, stern faced, and simply said “No” before walking away. Utter humiliation, I was gutted. I didn’t care about the glove or even him saying “no” as he my have promised it someone else for all I knew. Screw the glove, it was irrelevant. It was the disdainful looking me up and down that crushed me.
So all those years later when Watson was on the brink of becoming the oldest ever winner of the Open before he choked it away on the closing hole, I remember thinking “that’s karma that is”. Needless to say I had the last laugh.
They say you should never meet your heroes and given some of the things I witnessed from the likes of Torrance and Norman I can see why. I didn’t care about any of them though, I just wanted to meet Payne Stewart. And I did.
It was on the first practice day and I approached him as he made his way from the second green to the third tee. “Can you sign this please?” I just about got the words out. It was a little course guide booklet and he took it from me along with the pen. As he signed I awkwardly said “Congratulations on winning the US Open”.
I didn’t tell him how much that meant to me personally or that I was as happy as when Liverpool won the league (which we did a hell of a lot back in those days). I just congratulated him and he smiled and said “thank you very much”. I wished him luck for the tournament and that was that.
I followed him all four days and watched every shot. I didn’t care about the rest of the tournament or who won it, I was there to watch my hero and it was the experience of a lifetime. His ball striking all week was sensational but he couldn’t hole any putts so didn’t contend.
I played Birkdale a couple of years ago and as I walked from the second green to the third tee it was quite emotional knowing that all those years ago on this very spot I’d met my hero, and that he was no longer with us. RIP Payne.