Think about this a bit: in the long history of professional golf, what constitutes the best finish to a tournament ever achieved by the eventual winner?
There are many contenders, with Cameron Smith’s 64 at St. Andrews on Sunday to win the 150th Open joining the list. Some might point to Charl Schwartzel’s four straight birdies to win the 2011 Masters. Shaun Micheel’s marvelous 7-iron less than six inches from the flag on the final hole at Oak Hill will no doubt lend some support to the 2003 PGA Champion. And those of an older vintage might opt for Arnold Palmer’s final round 65 at Cherry Hills in 1960, a score that gave ‘The King’ his only US Open win.
There are many others, of course. And everyone, no doubt, comes with a powerful/logical argument in their favour. But, in the end, they all fail.
Here is your champion, your No. 1, the undisputed best of the best, the finisher and the finisher that ends all the finisher debates.
The record books state bluntly that Peter O’Malley – “Pom” to his friends – shot 262, 18 under par, at Gleneagles to win the 1992 Bell Scottish Open by two strokes of the eightfold European No. 1 Colin Montgomerie. Nick Faldo, who would go to Muirfield and win the Open Championship for the third time a week later, was tied for third. Two other Masters winners, Bernhard Langer and Ian Woosnam, held places in the top 10.
But even this star-studded list of losers only hints at what happened three decades ago on the endless Kings course which hosts the British Senior Open this week. Here, ladies and gentlemen, is how the genius O’Malley, a stocky Aussie known for his metronomic swing and sometimes dodgy putt, fared on the home stretch of that momentous day to win the first of three the European Tour:
No, not a typo. Seven under par. For five holes.
“When Nick Faldo and I got to the 14th tee, there was a bit of a delay,” recalled O’Malley, 27 at the time, who was one under par for the round at the time. “Nick isn’t known for talking a lot, but we actually had a conversation. I don’t remember what he said… I was probably too surprised he was actually talking to understand anything. Then again, at this point, I was more concerned with winning one of the five places available at the Open.
Faldo had the honor and found the front left bunker to the green on the par 4 passable. O’Malley’s drive ended maybe 20 feet from the hole, which is when the future champion got his big break.
“Nick’s bunker shot ended just outside my ball and on the same line, which was a big bonus for me,” O’Malley said. “He hit a great putt, but he broke a lot in the last feet. So I had a great read. I’m sure I wouldn’t have made my putt if Nick hadn’t shown me the line. I probably would have hit the putt he made. But I did not do it. I still remember the roar I got when I drilled it. The noise was amazing. There was a big crowd watching us, Nick was world number 1 and the atmosphere as we walked to the next tee was amazing. I got goosebumps when I got there.
O’Malley’s tee off from the 15th tee was uncharacteristically wayward, “the worst shot I’ve hit all day”. But he was lucky.
“I hit it far enough to be on the spectator catwalk,” says O’Malley, whose other claim to fame in a long career came 10 years later, when he beat Tiger Woods in the first round. of the 2002 WGC-Accenture. Match Play at La Costa (“Tiger putted like Pom and Pom putted like Tiger,” jokes former European Tour player Mike Clayton). “It was a big break. I had a good lie. And I hit a really good 5 iron from about 15 feet. When the putt was halfway through the cut, I knew he was going to go in The 16th is the little par 3, and I hit an 8 iron again at about 15 feet. I was feeling pretty confident at this point, and it went for a birdie again. It wasn’t until then That was where I thought I could win. Although I was really fired up, it was the first time I felt adrenaline and could control it.
After another birdie on the par-4 17, this burst of internal energy was to prove useful on the par-5 18. The closing hole features a saddle across the fairway at an awkward distance for O’Malley. For him, a medium drive would fail to carry the rise and leave him unable to reach the green distance in two. Luckily though, for a pumped up Pom, that wasn’t a problem.
“I hit one of the best drives of my life there,” he said. “I was still using a khaki driver and flew it over the hill. Faldo couldn’t do it. He wasn’t that long off the tee for such a big man. I hit a 6 iron right at the flag and I had about 15 feet for the eagle I saw the line and just stroked the putt It wasn’t until the ball hit the bottom of the cup and went jumped up that I realized I might have hit a little too hard. But he came in. At the time I didn’t realize I had won. There were still a few groups on the course But I was aware of what I had just done.
A few hours later, O’Malley and his girlfriend (now wife) Jill were back at the Gleneagles Hotel. Due to pre-qualifying for the North Berwick Open the next day, he was gone that morning.
“They were very nice and gave us a suite at the same rate I had paid the previous nights,” says O’Malley. “We had dinner with a group of friends. I spent more on this meal than on everything else that week. The next day we checked into a B&B in North Berwick. When we went to a local pub for something to eat, everyone knew me. It really made me realize the importance of golf in Scotland. I will never forget him.
Curiously, the same cannot be said of Faldo. Asked about his memories of O’Malley’s incredible finish, the CBS commentator was at a loss for words. In fact, not quite. “I love it when people think that just because you were there, you can remember what someone else did,” the six-time major champion shrugged.
Finalist Montgomerie, who played that day in a jersey emblazoned with the Scottish collar, didn’t forget, however. Years later, the Scot ran into O’Malley during a tournament.
“I was thinking of you yesterday,” said Monty, who shares a June 23 birthday with the Aussie.
“Oh really? Why was that?
“I got a few boxes in the mail from my ex-wife. In one of them was this fucking Saltire sweater.
Three decades later, O’Malley continues to have people remind him of what happened on July 11, 1992.
“It’s unbelievable what happened,” he admits. “I’ve always had outbursts like that, where I start to putt after putt. But it was the most important of them. It was a fantastic feel and finish.