Curse of No 1: Is it the best year for Open joy if you want a long career?

The winners in 1981, '91 and '01 all saw their games fall apart immediately. James Corrigan asks what went wrong and why

"Oh my gawd, it's a curse!" screams the voice down the crackling phone line. "It all makes sense now." Bill Rogers is laughing. It was late on Sunday and the 59-year-old, after being tracked down to his home in San Antonio, had just been told of one of golf's eeriest statistics.

What do Rogers, Ian Baker-Finch and David Duval have in common? They all have one major to their name – the Open. They all lifted the Claret Jug in years ending in "1" – 1981, 1991, 2001. And they all proceeded to embark on the biggest slumps the game has ever seen. They are not so much the great triumvirate as the unholy trinity.

Of course, their experiences are not connected. Well, no more than all the other dramatic falls from golfing grace are connected. And Rogers was justified in ribbing his inquisitor. "It is spooky, but I wouldn't analyse that coincidence too thoroughly – the winner this week shouldn't be worried," he says. "But it's interesting. If only because we went through similar experiences and all coped with it differently."

Perhaps Rogers coped with it the best. In 1981 he was celebrating winning what he calls "The World Open" here at Sandwich after beating Bernhard Langer by four shots – and seven years later he was a club pro. It was a case of 1981 and done. Four titles in one year, ranked unofficially as the world No 2 and recipient of the PGA Player of the Year award. Then, over the next five seasons, Rogers was to win one more tournament – the lowly USF&G Classic – and miss 10 out of 12 cuts in the majors.

The Texan with the floppy hair now had a career to match. It was one big flop after another. Within three years of his Open win he was down in 134th on the money list. He was earning nothing but heartbreak. Something had to give and somebody had to give up. "When you win the Open it's a complete game-changer, it changes everything," he says. "Everyone wants to see you, everyone wants you to come and see them. I didn't disappoint. I went and saw them all. From Australia to Asia, from Europe to South Africa, I took the endorsements, grabbed the opportunities.

"Some will say I grabbed them too hard and they may be right. But there is no doubt I felt more in control of who I was and what I was doing before Sandwich. Yet I don't have any regrets at all. I sampled the highest of the highs and the lowest of the lows, the whole range of emotions a professional golfer can experience. And for that I was honestly grateful."

Grateful but burnt out. Rogers had lost control, lost his game and was determined not to lose his head. "It's a big thing to accept you will always be introduced as 'Bill Rogers, Open champion'," he says. "Think about it. There's hardly a week or a month goes by when I'm not reminded of it in some fashion. But you can't overanalyse it. You just have to take the good with the bad and the bad with the good. I refused to let it drive me mad.

"Ultimately I chose to take another route in golf. I didn't want to compete any more. I lost that necessary competitive edge and I didn't want to pay the price to try to get it back. Duval continues to fight the fight and fair enough, it's a great challenge. I'll never forget Tom Weiskopf saying, 'When you're playing well you never think you'll play badly again and when you're playing badly you never think you'll play well again'. It's a game that will turn you inside out and that is the beauty and the beast of it."

It is fair to say Baker-Finch's own route was to the brink of madness. Indeed, anyone unlucky enough to catch a glimpse of the Australian rolled up into a ball, sobbing at the 1997 Open, will have considered he gained entrance to madness. The scene was the floor of the locker room at Royal Troon and Baker-Finch had just shot a first-round 92. "That was the absolute worst feeling I've ever known," so Baker-Finch told Sports Illustrated, "walking up the 18th at the British Open about to shoot 92. That made the shot at St Andrews feel like chicken feed."

That shot had caused a shock two years before at St Andrews. On the first tee in the company of Arnold Palmer and approximately 10,000 supporters crammed in to see "the King" start his last Open, the player who just four years earlier had won the championship hooked his drive across two fairways out of bounds. Caddies who had worked on the Old Course agreed they had never seen anybody do it before – not even amateurs.

"I dreamed of doing that," recalled Baker-Finch. "Before it ever happened, I dreamed I hit it out of bounds with Arnie watching at St Andrews on the first hole at the British Open. That's when it got scary – when my nightmares started playing out right in front of me."

It was a whole series of repeats. That year, Baker-Finch missed the cut in all 24 tournaments he played. On average he failed to break 80 once every four rounds and all year only broke par twice. Was this really the same golfer who, at Birkdale in 1991, had not missed a fairway or a green in a final-round 66? It was in one sense, but in many others this Baker-Finch was an impostor. He went from teacher to teacher to fix himself, but instead simply exacerbated the faults. "Ian only needed to take one pill but instead he swallowed the whole bottle," was how David Leadbetter summed it up.

As Rogers says, "The meltdown is different for each and every person." For Baker-Finch it was mental not technical and when he finally realised this he took a competitive break which has more or less lasted until this very day. In 1998, ABC made him an offer to become a summariser and it is a role he has grown into. There have been times when he has been asked about Duval's own collapse. At least the Floridian can point to back injuries for a nosedive from world No 1 to No 1,034.

But there was undoubtedly more to it. A complex, some say tortured soul, Duval will turn up at Sandwich today, take his place on the range and say he only wants to look forwards, not backwards. Perhaps so much can be taken from a quote last year. "When you work so hard," he told Men's Journal, "and have had so many near misses and then win, and you didn't play that well, it's like, 'Are you kidding? Are you really gonna do this to me?' It's not like I played bad, but of the tournaments I won, that's the one I played the worst in."

Duval was referring to the 2001 Open, when all his aspirations were realised and none of his dreams came true. It was the classic "is that it?" moment. All his hard work through a difficult childhood for a feeling of unfulfilment? No wonder, as Rogers points out, "David's still fighting". There have been hints of a resurrection. Two years ago, he tied for second at the US Open and last year he tied for second in the AT&T National. But now he tees it up in the company of England's Brian Davis and Colombia's Camilo Villegas on the back of eight missed cuts in 10 tournaments. A decade since his last victory and the light at the end of the tunnel is still a pin prick.

"I'm sure he is at peace with himself, I certainly am," says Rogers, who now works as a golf coach at the University of San Antonio. "It is intriguing that the Open Championship was our first and our only. Who knows why? But the fact of the matter is that it changed everything for each one of us. I just look at the Watsons, Nicklauses, Palmers, the ones who did it for a long period of time and have total admiration for them. It just wasn't to be for me. I wouldn't give it back for anything. If there was a sacrifice it was worth it. I won't miss a shot this week and will sit there in front of the TV knowing how the winner is feeling." Not a bit worried about any curse. And ready for a rosy future.

Fall from grace: last three open champions when the year ended in '1'

2001 David Duval

The American lifted the Claret Jug at Royal Lytham but experienced a classic 'is that it?' moment. Back injuries fuelled his drop from world No 1 to No 1,034

1991 Ian Baker-Finch

The Australian triumphed at Royal Birkdale but six years later his game became so bad he was found rolled up into a ball sobbing in the Troon locker room after his 92

1981 Bill Rogers

His win at Sandwich helped the Texan become the unofficial world No 2, but over the next five seasons he missed 10 out of 12 cuts at majors and is now a golf coach

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