A low stone wall marks the border between Muirfield and The Renaissance Club in North Berwick, Scotland. In 2002, six years before the latter, a Tom Doak-designed links, was opened, the Open Championship experienced one of its worst ever days of weather.
On that fateful Saturday afternoon, howling winds and torrential rain lashed the hallowed grounds of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, blowing Tiger Woods’ chances of a Grand Slam into the sea. Fresh off the back of wins in The Masters and the US Open, the world’s best player was buffeted and bullied by the elements before signing for an 81.
A day later, with calm restored, Woods went round in 16 shots fewer. “Muirfield was some of the worst conditions I’ve ever seen, as tough a day as I’ve played in 21 years,” reflects Ian Poulter, who was two back from the lead before crashing to a 78 on day three.
Fast forward eighteen years to The Renaissance Club and the Saturday of the 2020 Scottish Open, a tournament that normally serves as a links golf tune-up before the Open Championship but had been moved back to the first week in October due to the pandemic. There was a short period when the organisers of the Scottish Open were going to allow 650 spectators in over the weekend but, thankfully for them, it never happened. East Lothian is known as Scotland’s Golf Coast but even the car parks of the nearby clubs were deserted; the savvy locals knew what was coming.
Poulter was one of the few in the field to have played in the 2002 Open and was therefore in a position to compare which day suffered the worst with the weather. Out in one of the final groups on Saturday, he played the front nine in a business- like 34, two under par. It had been drizzling throughout, the same as it had for the first two days, but as the Englishman reached the turn the heavens fell.
"Towards the end, it just got unmanageable," Poulter says. "I really lost count of what I was scoring out there. I had no idea. I couldn’t write numbers on the score card, I couldn’t keep my hands dry. You’re doing everything you possibly can not to let a club come out of your hands." It was so bad on-course commentator Ken Brown had to throw away his trainers.
Elsewhere on the course, Eddie Pepperell was looking for an upturn in form having qualified for only his second weekend of action since returning from lockdown.
Craig Lee, meanwhile, was playing in his first European Tour event for three years having made it into the field as a PGA Scotland qualifier. The Scot had been due to play in the British Masters in late July but was then offered a spot in this big money Rolex event, a world away from teaching in a golf studio that he had built on the side of his house. After opening with a 65 he was six under par at the halfway stage.
And finally there was Robert Rock, who was out in the final two-ball of the day after carding rounds of 65 and 67. Here, these three players dissect what many agree was one of the grimmest afternoons on the European Tour in living memory.
Eddie Pepperell, tee time 11.45am
"The guys who went out in the morning had light drizzle. I had that for nine or 10 holes and it was doable, not that pleasant but doable."
Craig Lee, tee time 12.35pm
"It was one those days where you see the forecast and think it can’t be that bad – and it was."
Robert Rock, tee time 13.15pm
"I never really know what’s coming on a Saturday. The previous week in Ireland I was one off the lead but then shot 78. A lot of the time I don’t feel the same. I was a bit worried before we started but, as soon as I hit the tee shot at the 1st, I thought I’m going to be OK. I caught it perfect, the swing felt great and it set off where I wanted. It was a bit of a settler and as soon as I stepped out from under the brolly, I felt calm and there was no fidgeting. I often second guess my aim and where I’m setting up but, when I got the club out, it felt alright. That happened pretty much all of Saturday."
"It rained from the word go but for the last half dozen groups, the wind picked up at the turn and it became an absolute slog. There were referees bringing towels out, I’ve never seen anything like it. I’m used to playing in the rain, wind and cold but I’ve not played in weather like that."
"I’ve not played in tougher conditions than those we faced on the last seven holes. You know that a cock-up is almost inevitable, so you are a little less hard on yourself. As long as you don’t think about the earlier starters you’ll be alright."
"You rarely get the opportunity to play in that kind of weather as so few courses could handle that kind of rainfall. You’ll always say that you’ve played in worse but I’m not sure you could say that here."
"It’s hard for the leaders because two and a half days of great work is going to be undone by Mother Nature in a couple of hours. You could say that’s a little bit of injustice, and injustice is the worst of all things, but, in the grand scheme of things, it’s not a huge injustice and you just have to try and keep it in perspective. Ultimately, it’s just a case of head down and knuckle down. I didn’t have any MacWet gloves but it was so wet and cold that the feel of the swing was completely different. You don’t know what you’re trying to do, you’re just trying to hit the ball in a forward direction."
"I was one under for the front nine. I had driven it pretty much perfect and then everything got soaked and the ball didn’t feel like it had any grip to it."
"Your swing feels go completely out the window. I’m fairly natural but I cling to my swing feels and they completely disappeared on the last six holes. On every shot I didn’t know what on earth I was supposed to be feeling. The game just changes, it’s practically improv."
"The 10th was pushing it a little bit weather wise and I was starting to run out of dry stuff. When the ball and driver get wet you can’t control where it goes. For the majority of players that means it slides off to the right. At 11, 12 and 13 I couldn’t see anything other than that happening."
"The 13th is the worst driving ho le on the course and it came in the worst of the weather. There are ways of playing the course and not be in too much trouble but not at 13. There’s so much rubbish up the right and dare not start it over the sea and let the wind bring it back. The wind swirls around and if it catches the wrong swirl it’s not coming back."
"At 13, my first tee shot went right and sideways. I thought that I could be on here for ages as the wind was pumping off the left. I got lucky as I found the first ball on a reasonable bit of grass towards the next hole. The only thing I could see for my second shot was the lighthouse so I’m trying to get a bearing for the green from that. The only club I could hit on the right line, and which wouldn’t disappear off into oblivion, was the 4-iron. I didn’t know if it was enough to carry the rough or reach the green, but I saw it take off on a reasonable flight and somewhere near where I was aiming. Somehow, I made a bogey five."
"The leaders were still an hour and a half behind me. The greens were now flooded, every bunker was unplayable and it was beginning to get pretty windy. I watched Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter hit driver-3-wood up the hill at the 15th and just not sniff it. It was ridiculous how cold and windy it got.
"People talk about putting plenty of towels in the bag and I’ve always thought that caddies’ stories from 40 years ago were old wives’ tales, which they’d embellished because it had only rained for about four holes, and they had to use one extra towel. On that Saturday, I used four towels and my hands were never dry. They were completely sodden, like I had been in the bath. I had puddles in my shoes. I’ve never been that wet."
"We went through four towels and managed to finish with one StrokeSaver, which was probably better than most. Your pockets were filled with water and all the pages were stuck together. Tommy Fleetwood said they didn’t have one at the last and they had to go off the sprinklers to work out the yardage. And he birdied it."
"I got a great piece of luck at 17. I hit a shit shot short and right and then semi- thinned the chip, which skidded off one of the puddles, slammed the flag and went in for the most unlikely birdie two. At 18, I hit my best tee shot of the day down the middle. I got up there and it was in the middle of the biggest divot that I saw all year. I said to my caddy that it was karma for the previous hole. I managed to gauge a 4-iron to the middle of green and two-putted. I was pretty delighted with level par."
"I don’t wear a glove so I didn’t have to worry about going through those, but my grips have to be a bit drier than most. I didn’t slip on one shot, which was quite an achievement. I hit the ball exceptionally well but I had 37 putts which is never great. I didn’t lose any ground because of the weather, but I did because of the way I putted."
"When I finished, I thought the next hour is going to be the best golf on TV of the whole year. I only ever enjoy watching US Opens when it’s brutal. Maybe it’s my British makeup to enjoy seeing people suffer but it was so much fun to watch. In 2019, I thought the course was far too easy but having it later in the year, with the new tees, I thought it was a brilliant tournament. You want the Scottish Open on a challenging course."
"I saw Tommy Fleetwood on one of the holes when we were crossing over and we had a bit of a laugh at what was going on. Through it all I was in quite a good frame of mind and my caddy and I had a good giggle about what we were doing out there. My playing partner, Wade Ormsby, shot one under, which was unbelievable. He played himself into the last group. His putting was incredible, he holed the world. To roll it like that in that wind was mightily impressive."
"That was really close to the worst weather I’ve ever played in. The third round at The Open at St George’s in 2011 was awful and probably windier."
Eddie Pepperell (round in 71 to move up to 10th)
"I was staying in my flat in Edinburgh an hour away so I left the clubs at The Renaissance and drove home. I don’t recall a day as wet as that in my life."
Craig Lee (round in 76 to drop to 39th)
"I drove home to Stirling and unpacked everything over all the radiators."
Robert Rock (round in 72 to be the leader by two)
"We were staying in the tour hotel, which was an hour’s drive away. So, I took everything back to the room, emptied the whole bag and turned the heating up as far as it would go, to 27 degrees. I slept in that to try and dry everything out."
Craig Lee shot a level-par 71 on the Sunday for a share of 42nd and a cheque for over €30,000. The next morning, he drove four hours south to Trentham in Staffordshire for the PGA Professional Championship. He played two holes on the Tuesday before getting rained off, which meant he had to play 36 holes on the Wednesday. He would go on to tie for 18th. Due to injury, a lack of playing opportunities and the Coronavirus restrictions, Lee hasn’t played a competitive round since.
Eddie Pepperell signed off with a 68 at The Renaissance Club for a share of ninth place and, with another top 10 the following week in the BMW at Wentworth, he collected over €300,000 to salvage an otherwise disappointing season.
Robert Rock had four birdies on the back nine on the final day, which meant that if he could add another on the 72nd hole, he would walk away with the first prize of €974,000. Sadly, his approach came up short, his chip ran past and he missed the par putt to miss out on the sudden death playoff, which was won on the first extra hole by Aaron Rai, he of the two-glove MacWet fame. Rai, who beat Tommy Fleetwood in extra time, had been seven shots off the lead at the halfway stage.