After 3 rounds of the 1987 Australian Open golf championship at the Royal Melbourne Golf Club, Greg Norman was leading the tournament by seven strokes, after recording scores of 70, 66 and 66 (202) in the first three rounds. His third victory in the tournament seemed guaranteed. Only something extraordinary could stop him winning after the fourth round was completed. That something was the pin placement on the third green.
The third hole at the Royal Melbourne Golf Club was a par-4 of 304 metres (333 yards). The greens usually played fast and contained many subtle humps and hollows, which made judging speed very tricky. After playing in the 1974 Chrysler Classic, American golfer Lee Trevino called the greens a joke, and received a $500 fine from the Austraian Professional Golfers’ Association as a result.
This day, though, there was the added hazard of a northerly wind that blew between 55 kph (35 mph) and 80 kph (55 mph). More crucially, the pin had been placed in an up-slope position where it was vulnerable to the wind. Later investigation showed that an assistant greenkeeper had set the pin 1.8 metres (2 yards) from the intended position. The following page shows the exposed location of the green:
After starting his final round, it took Norman over an hour to play the first two holes. The problem was the queue forming on the third tee – at one point there were 20 players waiting to tee off.
Spectators standing near the third green saw three hours of comedy rather than skill. Players discovered that putts would not stop rolling within 3.6 metres (4 yards) of the hole. To get down in four putts was a good achievement – many took five or six putts, while Russell Swanson took eight putts to hole out. Players lingered on the green while trying to work out how to hole out, which led to the massive logjam on the tee.
Caddies attempted to mark balls only to find them still moving, perhaps rolling back down a slope after going up it. Larry Nelson’s caddie touched the ball, and Nelson received a two-stroke penalty. Brett Ogle was more fortunate than most – his putt went half a metre past the hole, but as his caddie went to mark the ball the wind blew it back into the hole. Mike Colandro putted next and could be forgiven for thinking luck was against him. He hit four successive putts – all from approximately 4.5 to 6 metres (15 to 20 feet) and saw them all follow the same course. The ball ran round the edge of the cup for almost a complete circle and set off back towards his feet. Colandro sank his fifth putt. He had been level par at the start of the round – by the fifth hole he was eight over par. Mike Harwood had his caddie place his golf bag on the green lengthways to act as a rudimentary form of windbreak. This led to him being given the nickname “Exacto”- Exacto is a well-known Australian brand of windcheater jacket.
Here is the Australian Broadcasting Corporation highlights package of the tournament, which has brief highlights of the debacle at the third hole and the subsequent walk-off of the players.
Ronan Rafferty and Sandy Lyle both refused to complete the third hole. The golfers on the third tee – the five waiting groups included leader Norman – walked off in support rather than risk being humiliated. The players were angry, the spectators were furious, and the sponsors were confused. Five times British Open champion Peter Thomson said it was “a day of shame for Australian golf”.
The tournament organisers considered the options they had available to complete the tournament. The 1985 Australian Open, coincidentally also held at Royal Melbourne, was changed to a 54-hole tournament after a day was lost to rain, but this decision had been severely criticised. Another option was to have a 71-hole tournament, eliminating the third hole, but this idea was soon rejected. That left only one option – switch the final round to the next day (Monday) and make sure that the pin was correctly positioned on the third hole. Even that solution had problems, as many players had already booked flights to New Zealand or Europe for their next tournament. A move to boycott the rescheduled final round provoked a heated debate amongst the players. In the end they agreed to play, although several players had to pull out due to other commitments, including Lyle. On the Monday Norman clinched the title with a record 10 stroke victory (15 under par)
This wasn’t the only occasion in Australian tournament history where fast greens and winds caused havoc – the 2002 Australian Open was reduced to 54 holes due to the granite-like nature of the greens, with all of the greens watered overnight and not trimmed in order to slow them down. In the 1993 South Australian Open, the first round was abandoned after the greens, which had been triple-cut the evening before, became unplayable. In the 1998 Australian PGA, play in the third round was suspended when the 17th green became unplayable because of high winds but was re-started the next day.
“Golf’s Strangest Rounds” by Andrew Ward, Robson Books, London, 1999 p.251-253 was the main source of information for this blog post.