Wind, rain, heather and gorse, insidious pot bunkers, and funky bounces are all part of the Open Championship experience. When you combine those elements with the pressure of competing in and contending for the oldest major championship in golf, well, occasionally things go terribly wrong.
Here are the seven most epic fails in Open Championship history.
7. Macdonald Smith suffocates from swarming fan support (1925, Prestwick)
There’s a reason the Open Championship never returned to its birthplace, Prestwick, after 1925. That was the year that Scottish fans engulfed the Carnoustie, Scotland-born American Macdonald Smith, shot after shot, in their desire to cheer him on to victory. The constant chaos caused by uncontrolled galleries on the smallish Prestwick acreage threw Smith off his game completely in the final round. A 78 would have given him the title, but all he could manage was an 82. Smith won 25 times on the professional tour, and posted 17 top 10s in majors, but never did capture a single one.
6. John Cook crumbles over the final two holes (1992, Muirfield)
Starting the final round four shots behind two-time Open Championship winner Nick Faldo, John Cook’s prospects at victory weren’t promising. Yet, as Faldo slipped and Cook prospered, the young American found himself two shots clear with two holes to play. On Muirfield’s par-five 17th, Cook reached the green in two. If he could two-putt for birdie, he would have one hand on the Claret Jug. His putt for eagle rolled just past the cup. Just knock in this two-footer, and… then the script flipped. Cook missed the short putt, then fanned his approach at 18, to finish his final two holes with par-bogey. Faldo, playing behind Cook, did what Faldo does—scraping out pars at 15 and 16, two-putting for birdie at 17 and clinching the title with a hard-earned par at 18, following a rocketed 3-iron to the back of the green. Cook did everything except shut the door.
5. Greg Norman is betrayed by bunkers (1989, Royal Troon)
The Great White Shark had managed to capture the 1986 Open Championship, but mostly he was snake-bit in majors. At times he was done in by others’ miraculous shots, at other times, he had himself to blame. The 1989 Open Championship at Royal Troon was a confluence of bad luck and bad judgement. Locked in a four-hole aggregate playoff with fellow Aussie Wayne Grady and American Mark Calcavecchia, Norman birdied the first two holes to lead by one. A bogey at the 17th dropped him into a tie with Calcavecchia, who faded his tee shot into the right rough at 18. Norman slammed his driver—and crushed it perfectly—except that it traveled one yard too far and found the face of a bunker. He gamely exploded, but only found another bunker. Calcavecchia recovered beautifully, slashing a 5-iron to six feet. Now Norman had to hit a perfect bunker shot. He didn’t. He skied his sand shot over the green and out of bounds. He took the rarely seen “X” on a tour pro’s card, coming painfully close once again at a major.
4. Thomas Bjorn sinks in the sand (2003, Royal St. George’s)
Denmark’s all-time greatest player and the captain of the 2018 European Ryder Cup team owns 15 wins on the European Tour and eight top 10s in majors, including five top fives. Unfortunately, he will long be remembered for his heartbreak in the sand at Royal St. George’s. Bjorn led the field by two shots with three holes to play when he arrived at the 163-yard, par-three 16th. He departed in a tie for the lead after his misadventures with a greenside bunker. After finding the sand with his tee shot, it looked like a routine blast out for Bjorn to have a chance at saving par. It was anything but routine. It took the Dane three shots to escape, on his way to a double-bogey five. A bogey at 17 and a par at 18 left him one behind the winner, Ben Curtis, a golfer so inexperienced, it was his first top 10 in a major or a PGA Tour event. Bjorn had plenty of top 10s—but no Claret Jug.
3. Doug Sanders yips a three-footer (1970, St. Andrews)
The colorful, popular Doug Sanders was best known for his sartorial splendor, yet he won 20 PGA Tour events. One that got away was the 1970 Open Championship at St. Andrews. Nursing a one-shot lead on the final hole, Sanders striped his tee shot, leaving him just 75 yards from the green. His approach was safely aboard—but a bit too safe, as he was left with a 30-foot downhill putt. Two-putting from that distance at the 18th would give him the championship. He left his first putt three feet from the cup. Distracted by a piece of brown grass, he readdressed the ball without backing away. His subsequent putt slid to the right, as his hand came off the club, and never touched the hole. He would lose to Jack Nicklaus in a playoff—and no Claret Jug for Doug.
2. Adam Scott’s final four nightmare (2012, Royal Lytham & St. Annes)
After 54 holes, sweet-swinging Aussie Adam Scott had wrestled Royal Lytham & St. Annes into the ground, on rounds of 64–67–68. He held a four-shot lead with 18 holes remaining, the same margin he led by with four holes to play. At that point, Lytham got up off the mat and smacked Scott silly. He bogeyed 15 and 16, the latter with a head-scratching three-putt. He split the middle of the fairway at 17, then incomprehensibly yanked his 176-yard approach into deep rough. A third straight bogey, and now he was level with Ernie Els, who had finished at 7-under-par. Still with hope, Scott lashed his drive at 18—and found a penal fairway pot bunker. He could only chip out sideways. His third put him in striking distance, roughly 10 feet, but his putt to earn a playoff slipped away to the left. Four bogies over the final four holes—and no Claret Jug for Adam.
1. Jean Van de Velde finds himself ankle-deep in trouble (1999, Carnoustie)
Admittedly, the Frenchman made some boneheaded decisions to put him in position to lose his three-shot lead on the 72nd hole. But bad luck finished him off. When Van de Velde hit a 2-iron approach at the grandstand on the difficult par-four 18th, thinking he’d be safe from the water and get a free drop, he never imagined it would bounce off the railing and arc into the deepest rough on the course. It did. From there, he duffed it into the water. He then removed his socks and shoes and waded in, contemplating playing the shot from the Barry Burn. Never was there a more forlorn figure in major championship golf. He made triple-bogey to land in a playoff with American Justin Leonard and the eventual winner, Scotland’s own Paul Lawrie—but there would be no Claret Jug for Jean.
Which Open Championship meltdowns stick out in your memory?