Golf is back on its prime UK platform as Open tees off at Sandwich
The last time a putt dropped at the Open, Theresa May was prime minister, England had not even qualified for Euro 2020 and Covid-19 was the sole domain of scientists. Shane Lowry exited rain-lashed Portrush to the strains of the Fields of Athenry but golf clubs endured hand-to-mouth existences as membership numbers dwindled.
Golf will not technically come home until next July, when the 150th staging of the Open will see punters and the commercial classes flock to St Andrews. Still, this sport – which has enjoyed a stunning resurgence in participation and interest levels during the pandemic – faces a seminal four days in an unremarkable corner of Kent.
Privately, the R&A must hope Royal St George’s will break from the trends as set in 2003 and 2011 by delivering a blue-chip winner. Such outcomes are good for business. Recent months have shown golf can survive and flourish in a post-Tiger Woods – remember him? – world but it needs heroes.
The legend goes that multi-major winners from the other side of the Atlantic would disparage St George’s by insisting Open venues reduce in standard the further south one travels. St George’s has never been loved by competitors. This has felt a marriage of geographical convenience, whereby the Open is easily accessible from London.
A course which has a bunker – in this case, of obscene size on the 4th – as its most common point of reference cannot have many redeeming features. Decades ago, female players had no on-course standing. It took until 2015 – some 128 years after inception – for the club to admit women members. The waft of stuffiness, while not overbearing, remains. This week, St George’s members and their guests can observe from inside the clubhouse boundaries. Them and us, etc.
Lowry’s links specialism is such that it would be no shock at all to see him successfully defend the Claret Jug. Jon Rahm was fond of the bumps, bounces and breaks common in this territory even before he sealed a maiden major win at last month’s US Open. The Spaniard is rightly the pre-tournament favourite. The fine weather predicted should reduce the generosity of St George’s – for now, it is soft and lush in places – with the tournament organisers of a mind to water fairways if turf firms up.
“We’re very conscious that this course has got a lot of very severe undulations in the fairways and in the landing areas,” said Martin Slumbers, the chief executive of the R&A. “We’ve been conscious right the way through to ensure that a ball that lands on that doesn’t get kicked off at a pace that could take it into deep, deep rough. It is a bit greener out there than you would have seen at some other courses and that’s purposeful.”
There are statistical quirks within the 27 nations as represented here. Only one Scot, Bob MacIntyre, is in the field which represents an embarrassment for the home of golf. Scots are outnumbered by Canadians and Colombians. There has been no English winner of an Open in their home nation since Tony Jacklin triumphed in 1969 at Royal Lytham & St Annes. A preposterous record. Greg Norman’s 1993 Sandwich success, at 13 under par, represented a scoring anomaly; in the other five Opens staged here since the second world war, no champion has bettered minus five.
Home hope this time will mainly be carried in the form of Ian Poulter, Lee Westwood, Tommy Fleetwood, Tyrrell Hatton, Matt Wallace, Danny Willett, Matt Fitzpatrick, Paul Casey and Justin Rose.
There was a glint in Rory McIlroy’s eye on Tuesday as he spoke of “finding something” within his swing following a missed cut at the Scottish Open. McIlroy’s wait for a fifth major win has stretched to seven years and he does not have particularly fond memories of St George’s, but he retains a capacity to flick a switch quicker than anyone in the game.
Brooks Koepka’s scepticism about blind shots and bland shots needn’t necessarily matter given his tendency to rise to the big occasion. Louis Oosthuizen, already an Open champion, has been no worse than tied second in his last two major starts. Jordan Spieth’s scramble back to form has not been sufficient to see the outstanding Texan widely quoted as a contender, which is a mistake.
Quite how Bryson DeChambeau, golf’s walking headline machine, will perform has to be a source of general fascination. So, too, the response of the world No 1 Dustin Johnson, who crashed and burned on the Sunday back nine at St George’s in 2011. “That was a long time ago, I am a different player now,” Johnson said. “A bounce here or there can definitely be the difference between winning a major or not.” Especially this major.
A total of 726 days will have passed between Lowry tapping in for a 72nd-hole par in Northern Ireland and Richard Bland taking on one of the most daunting tee shots in professional golf.
“We are relieved, thrilled and a little bit emotional, I suppose, in being able to get to stage the Open once again,” said Slumbers. He can be forgiven the overstatement on this occasion. Golf, rejuvenated in a crazy world, is back on its prime UK platform.