Breaking into Birkdale

Member of Golfers&Co editing team, Richard Wax is at Royal Birkdale for the 146th Open Championship. But his first visit goes back to 1961 and was quite special.

Richard Wax

Three shillings and sixpence at the gate, that was the price to watch the final two rounds at that time. My school friend Dave and I were 18, fresh out of school and clean out of cash after a week at the championship. So we decided to break into the golf course, the worst possible scenario being a momentary humiliation of getting thrown out. At the gate, using the name of a member of my club,  I told the guard that we’re to join Major Carr (never been a real major but this was how he was known) who was waiting for us with the appropriate passes… Rather than being rapidly dismissed, we were given a military salute. It could not have been easier.
No sooner had Dave and I trodden on the firm turf of Birkdale than we were confronted by a stern lady official. “Do you boys know anything about golf?” she demanded. We feared our game was up already but answered innocently that we did know about golf. Two scorers had let her down, and she asked if we could mark the scores for the 10.56 game. Although not particularly excited about this prospect – we had gate crashed to see Arnold Palmer possibly win – we agreed, feeling somehow conspicuous without spectator badges.

1961 at Royal Birkdale

To our amazement, the 10.56 game was Arnold Palmer’s. Before we knew it we were festooned with armbands and accreditation and escorted to the first tee box joining the great man and Australia’s Kel Nagle who had defeated Palmer by a shot the previous year at St Andrews, and their caddies.
Palmer was a model of poise and silent concentration on the first tee, and that is how it largely remained for the rest of the day. There was no conversation between Palmer and Nagle at all, and exchanges between with his caddie “Tip” Anderson were limited to brief words on club selection.
At the end of the 3rd round we were given vouchers for a restorative hot soup and sandwich lunch quite welcome after our morning on the blustery links. Then we were asked if we would be available for the afternoon’s final round. The duty involved carrying a flag behind a particular golfer as he progressed around the course, so marshals and the police could easily locate him among the thousands fans. In 1963, after uncontrollable hordes surrounded Palmer at Royal Troon the year before, the R&A introduced the fairway ropes to keep the spectators at bay. We gladly agreed to flag carrying. Dave and I were on a roll, we were fully accredited cogs in The Open machine and this afternoon duty would grant us a close-up view of the final round of The Open.

To my great fortune and delight I was designated as Palmer’s flag-bearer and I would spend the afternoon surrounded by galleries of an ever-increasing scale. Towards the end of his round, Arnie produced one of the greatest shots ever played at The Open. It’s in my mind for ever. After 14 holes, he was leading by one, but his drive on the par-four next hole faded into gnarly gorse and blackberry bushes. The spectators found the ball, which was only partially visible. Having hitched up his trousers in his inimitable fashion, Palmer took a six-iron and the shot he delivered is history. His ball found the green. He then saved his par and went on to win The Open for the first time by a single shot, certainly a momentous achievement for Palmer, but for Dave and I too.
We had no right to be there at all, yet the day ended with us both attending the prize giving and speeches, still proudly wearing our armbands, of course. We enthusiastically applauded Palmer as he lifted the Claret Jug. It was such a thrill to witness so closely one of his greatest and most famous triumphs. RW