The Open's forgotten champion

Bill Rogers enjoyed the greatest moment of his golfing career at Sandwich, where the Open returns next week. After his glory year in 1981, however, the Texan won only once more and retired to become a club professional.
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The name Bill Rogers does not get mentioned much these days, unless it comes at the end of the inevitable question: "What ever happened to...?" And only then when the Open Championship returns to Royal St George's, as it does this coming week.

Bill Rogers was the likeable Texan who won the Open at the Kent course in 1981 at a time when he was one of the best golfers in the world. At least briefly. Holding the Claret Jug one minute, a career seemingly cursed the next. Only a few years later he had become disillusioned with the life of a touring professional and took a club job in San Antonio, Texas.

When the phone rings on the eve of an Open back at Sandwich, Rogers knows exactly what the questions will be. "There is hardly a week that goes by that I'm not reminded of it," he said of his victory 22 years ago. "It stays with you for a lifetime and obviously I get asked a lot about it when the Open goes back to St George's.

"I have fond memories, obviously, not just of winning but the golf course. It is truly one of the great venues for the Open. With some bad weather, meaning wind and rain, it may be the toughest. You know, it's tough. It's a pretty demanding course and I know they have lengthened it, but I will bet that it will stand up and be another great test. I'm looking forward to watching it on TV, for sure."

In the last few years Rogers, now 51, has dipped his toe back in the world of competitive golf. Along with Bruce Lietzke he was an assistant captain to Ben Crenshaw at the Ryder Cup at Brookline in 1999. In the last two years he has played a few events on the Champions Tour, otherwise known as the senior circuit in the States. He has also moved to a new course in the San Antonio area where he is a part-owner.

Rogers is not the only player to have won a major championship and then faded from the scene more quickly than expected. Ian Baker-Finch won the Open at Royal Birkdale in 1991, but his game fell apart when he tried to make improvements. David Duval, the champion at Royal Lytham two years ago, has since struggled for form, fitness and motivation. What is it about the years ending with a one? Perhaps the threesome paid for the continued success of the 1961 and 1971 champions, Arnold Palmer and Lee Trevino, who each came back and retained the title the next year.

If there is a curse of the Claret Jug it is hard to pin it on Rogers, who appears to feel that he gained far more out of life by ending his competitive career than any more success on the course might have brought. He finally quit the US Tour in 1988, the year his daughter turned five and his son was two.

"I wanted to go home," he said. "I wanted to go home and raise a family. I have no regrets about having missed competitive golf. It all worked out just right. It appears I was not meant to be a lifer in terms of being a competitive player, and I feel like I've outsmarted them all. I've been able to do a lot of different things. I've started playing a bit again, but I've just been very fortunate."

The San Antonio Country Club, where the 18th-hole flag from the 1981 Open hung in his office, was his first venture into being a club pro, a less glamorous profession than playing in front of spectators all round the world. "That was a humbling experience, and one that was good for me. It afforded me the opportunity to be at home and that's what I wanted to do. I had pretty much a routine lifestyle, one that was predictable, and that's what I needed."

Rogers won £25,000 at St George's, a handy sum then, but paltry compared to the £700,000 that the next champion will receive. Does he feel he missed out? "Oh my gosh, no. There is plenty more to think about than that. It's a different era, a different time now. Everybody who plays in a golf tournament, they ought to have a poster of Tiger Woods hanging in the locker room and they all ought to go kiss it as they go by. He has pretty much quadrupled everybody's pocketbook."

Duval's doubts about winning the Open, something he had worked for all his career, not being the be-all and end-all of life is something with which Rogers sympathises. "It is wise to sit back and ask those questions. That's part of maturing and I don't know what he'll end up with but those are legitimate questions to be asking. He'll map out a course that will be best for him.

"I feel for anybody in that position. Professional golfers step on a fine line and it is a real sensitive line and, believe me, it can be here one day and gone the next. That's the reason they stay at it and stay at it hard. It's a fleeting thing. You have to understand that no one works for you and it is important to know how you fit. He's maybe trying to find out who he really is and where he fits."

Rogers won 12 times worldwide in his career between 1977 and 1983. Seven of those wins came in 1981, three in the States, two in Australia, one in Japan as well as the Open. His victory at Sandwich was not entirely out of the blue. He won the World Match Play at Wentworth two years before and had three top-four finishes at the US Open in four years, including a second just a month before arriving at St George's.

Links golf appealed to him. "It seemed to fit. I wouldn't have predicted it necessarily, but I really liked links golf. I liked playing a different type of game and I liked it when they made it as tough as you could make it. My patience was good that week, so was my confidence. I had control of my game."

The only man to finish under par for the week, he won by four strokes from Bernhard Langer. Two months later, he appeared in the greatest American Ryder Cup team at Walton Heath. Player of the Year honours in the States followed.

But from 1984 his swing went astray and life on the road without his family became miserable. It was said he was "IMGed", sent all round the world by his agents, but he has never blamed them for his demise. Ten years ago he told Golf World magazine: "It's hard to believe that you can be as successful as you were and then get to the point where you're an embarrassment. Humiliated to the point where you don't even want to show up. Starting in 1986, I hardly ever played a round of golf when I didn't wish I was doing something else. It was a miserable existence."

He finally stopped after missing 12 cuts in 15 events in 1988. He went hunting and fishing for a couple of years and then got a club job. Three years ago, he set up a new course development called Briggs Ranch with two partners. It is a Tom Fazio design and Rogers has every hope that it will become a highly acclaimed layout.

Playing competitively again once he turned 50 had never entered his head, even after being involved at the Ryder Cup, until one of his partners, Buddy Cook, who promoted the Champions Tour in San Antonio, offered him an invitation. Playing with his friend Lietzke at the Legends of Golf pairs event fulfilled a longstanding promise.

"It was fun, but a bit scary having not played for so long," he said. "It ignited the spark." This year he has played 13 times with a best finish of 18th and won more than $100,000. This week he was merely on the reserve list for the Senior Players Championship and so gave it a miss. "I'm not about to play full-time again. I've been able to promote my course and my partners gave me the opportunity to give it a go for a year.

"The toughest thing is being hard enough to work through adversity during the round. I'm not as tough as I once was. And the thing that hasn't come back very quickly is the short game. But it's been worthwhile. Not necessarily from the competitive aspect, but having the satisfaction of seeing an improve- ment, and being more appreciative of the good ones and not worrying so much about the bad ones any more. Seeing all the old guys again."

One of them, Lietzke, has just won the US Senior Open, his first major. Rogers was 29 when he won the big one, but competitive golf soon brought more pain than pleasure. He is clearly not about to let that happen again. A cursed life? Hardly. "I kind of feel more fortunate than the next guy," he said.

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