LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England >> The cheer was so loud, the moment so big, that Padraig Harrington forgot what he was doing. It was his major championship debut in 1996 at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, and he finished off his second round of 68 by holing a bunker shot next to the 18th green.
"I got so excited, I took the putter out of the bag," Harrington recalled. "I’ve never been as excited on the golf course. The hairs on the back of my head stood up. It was just an unbelievable cheer that went up when I holed it."
The lasting memory of that moment, however, was more about the stage than the shot.
"It’s like no other major," Harrington said.
No matter the links course, there is nothing like the atmosphere on 18th hole at the British Open anywhere in golf.
The grandstands are enormous, about 10 feet above the ground and stretching 20 rows to the top, just below the iconic yellow scoreboard. They are on both sides of the fairway, starting about 50 yards before players reach the green.
"It’s the best finish in golf," Robert Allenby said. "Nothing would be more incredible than coming down here on Sunday winning the tournament, that’s for sure."
Dustin Johnson can appreciate what that’s like — as a bystander. He played in the final group last year at Royal St. George’s as the thousands of people in the stands celebrated Darren Clarke winning the claret jug.
"Pretty cool," Johnson said. "It’s almost like you’re in a stadium."
The stadium was relatively empty Sunday on a surprisingly sunny afternoon at Royal Lytham & St. Annes. Six people sat on the right side watching Clarke finish his practice round. Four others were on the left side when Robert Rock came through.
It won’t be like that a week from Sunday. There are 6,705 seats, and all of them will be occupied.
One of them was taken on this quiet day. Alan Clarkin of nearly Ormskirk was on the top row, three seats from the end, eating his lunch before wandering back onto the course. He plans to be in the same spot a week from now.
Clarkin goes to all the Opens in the Lancashire region — Lytham & St. Annes, Birkdale, Hoylake — and he sticks to the same plan. He walks the course during the practice days and the opening three rounds. He will be at the course 10 minutes before the gates open at 7 a.m., and head straight to the top row of the grandstands.
The top row is critical. Behind him is the par-3 first hole, so he can watch every player start the final round. More importantly, he’ll see every player finish. Clarkin was there in 2001 when Ian Woosnam discovered he had 15 clubs in his bag — a two-stroke penalty — and when David Duval removed his wraparound shades and squinted into the sun to hold the claret jug in his lone major triumph.
"It raises the hair on the back of your neck," Clarkin said. "You see the players come through, and the cheer is almost like a crescendo."
That’s how it was for Harrington.
He always told Ronan Flood, his brother-in-law who eventually became his caddie, that there was no greater feeling than walking up the 18th at the Open, with the gallery crammed behind ropes and metal railing, the grandstands full of people sitting elbow-to-elbow in the green chairs aligned so perfectly.
"I kept telling Ronan for years, ‘You’ve got to be coming down the last on a Sunday afternoon. There’s no experience like walking down the last and getting cheered onto the green,’" Harrington said. "The first time Ronan ever got to caddie on the 18th hole was Carnoustie. It took us three years to get there."
Harrington won his first Open at Carnoustie in 2007, despite a double bogey on the 18th hole. Sergio Garcia made bogey on the last to set up a playoff, and Harrington wound up beating him by one shot. So he made the trip down the 18th fairway five times that week — four in regulation, one in a playoff.
"But I actually lied," Harrington added. "There’s a better experience. It’s going down the 72nd hole when you’re actually winning The Open," he said. "Then the crowds really come alive — if they have not been alive already. It’s a very special feeling."
Sunday before a major is getting busier, with a couple of dozen players getting in a practice round.
One of them was Tiger Woods, who arrived at a nearby airport at 7 a.m., drove straight to the golf course and walked right onto the first tee. He stretched briefly, and without a practice swing, uttered his first words of his British Open week: "Get in."
He nearly holed the tee shot.
Woods meticulously worked his way through all 18 holes, taking notes, hitting a 2-iron off a par 5 into the wind to avoid some of the 206 bunkers. One reason for being so meticulous on a Sunday was the weather might not be this pleasant the rest of the week. The forecast was for rain just about every day, starting on Monday on the first official day of practice.
The grandstands are made by a company called Wernick Events Link. The grandstands will hold some 20,000 people across Royal Lytham & St. Annes, but it’s the three sets around the 18th — two on either side, one to the back left corner so as not to block the clubhouse, that are so majestic. Workers began installing them in April.
The last three winners have been able to soak up the moment on the 18th. Stewart Cink in the playoff at Turnberry, Louis Oosthuizen at St. Andrews and Clarke last year all had safe leads. The engraver already was at work on the claret jug. Justin Leonard won at Royal Troon in 1997, though he was in the penultimate group and was busy grinding to make par. Still, he can’t think of a better stage than the closing hole of golf’s oldest championship.
"There’s a lot of things you can understand just from watching on TV," he said.