When Rory McIlroy said earlier in the week that he would be watching “the stuff that matters” in the Olympics year rather than golf’s return to the Games, you would imagine that the 100 metres would be near the top of that list.
The test of the Postage Stamp is seven metres longer than the athletics event that Usain Bolt and company will be battling out in Rio but the dash to the pin, which was 116 yards yesterday, at Royal Troon’s iconic eighth hole is certainly the blue riband event of the course.
It didn’t disappoint in delivering drama over the four days of this Open Championship and, as always, there will be some who leave cursing it and others reflecting on the shortest hole on the rota with a warm glow of affection. Colin Montgomerie described it as a “great, great hole” in the build-up to the tournament and it epitomises more than anything the first part of the club’s motto Tam Arte Quam Marte – “as much by skill as strength”.
While this course can be a sapping marathon at times, the adrenaline surge of the Stamp provides a thrilling change of pace and the grandstands for both the tee and green soon filled up, with queues snaking out the back as spectators patiently waited for their chance to enjoy, arguably, the best seat in the house.
In the first three rounds, the tiny target of the Postage Stamp claimed a few notable scalps and, such is the difficulty of the downward plunge on to a narrow left- sided green flanked by its infamous bunkers, proved that it didn’t need howling wind to provide its sting.
It was in the gorgeous sunshine of that perfect opening Thursday that Bubba Watson’s early charge hit the buffers as a trip to the Coffin bunker to the left of the green saw him run up a triple bogey 6 after a string of birdies had had him surging to the top of the leaderboard. Watson, like many, learned from harsh lessons and made pars on all subsequent days, including yesterday.
Colin Montgomerie had achieved his objective of playing the final Sunday and, while he has endured frustrations since that gilded opening level-par round on Thursday, the Postage Stamp has not provided any of them. A second birdie to sandwich a couple of pars gave him his best moment yesterday.
It was on Friday that Jordan Spieth came to grief with a double-bogey 5 and, while he made par on Saturday, it was back to negative numbers as he slipped to a 4.
McIlroy’s lessons had come in the practice round as he admitted to coming to serious strife in his build-up to the tournament.
As the leading groups made their way to the eighth in relatively friendly conditions, the Northern Irishman already had a spring in his step and headed to the elevated tee three-under par for the day en route to his best round of the week and a tied-for-fifth finish.
McIlroy hit the green but past the pin and faced a testing 28-foot downhill putt which came up short, but he made par with comfort. Dustin Johnson found himself in similar territory, with the same result, before Tyrrell Hatton became the first of the leading bunch to find the Coffin. The 24-year-old Englishman played magnificently out of the bunker, however, and completed his recovery with a superb 12-foot putt.
Charl Schwartzel’s problems came at the other side of the green as his tee shot hit the banking before dying a slow death down to the right-side bunker. Again the recovery was good but two putts saw him depart with a bogey.
The biggest cheer of the day so far was awarded to Sergio Garcia, pictured left, who bounded up fresh from a birdie on the previous seventh and his excellent front nine was about to enjoy its highlight as a sumptuous shot landed a plum eight foot from the hole.
The Spaniard’s putt looked good from the moment it left the hole and rattled in to the delight of the packed grandstands.
Tony Finau looks more like an NBA basketballer than a pro golfer and was searching for a slam dunk at the eighth to banish the memories of a 6 the previous day.
On the Saturday the 6ft 3in American had seen the most devilish side of the Postage Stamp as he came within a whisker of holing it in one before watching in anguish as it hit the pin and ended up in the Coffin to spike the guns of what had been a promising round.
Yesterday he spun it off the banking of the previous day’s torture chamber on to the green, but came up short with the birdie putt.
As the last few pairings of the day made their way to the hole, the media viewing mound behind the Coffin filled up and Andrew ‘Beef’ Johnston received a raucous welcome as he strode to the tee.
Unfortunately, the cult hero was to suffer his first setback there for the week as his pitch wafted left and carried on into the trap which left McIlroy needing six shots to exit during practice on Tuesday. The Middlesex man required only one but still had to settle for a bogey.
Beef is usually a main course on a Sunday but he and all the rest had merely been the appetisers for the only show in town as eventual champion Henrik Stenson and Phil Mickelson brought their titanic bout to its eighth round of the day.
Mickelson had played the hole magnificently all week, coming close to holing it, and nailed it perfectly again to around six feet. Stenson was more than double the distance away but, in a foretaste of what was to come, it was he who found the hole, while Lefty strayed just left. Not signed, sealed and delivered yet, but the Jug was in the post.