The Open is back! And so is links golf, which separates this championship from the others on the men’s Major rota. After the event became one of many sporting non-starters of 2020, it’s on the calendar again and all indications are that crowds will return to the Kent sunshine and watch developments in Sandwich with renewed exuberance.
Royal St George’s has thrown up a couple of upsets in its 14 stagings of The Open. The last time it was held there, in 2011, Northern Irishman Darren Clarke won his first Major at the age of 42. Like Phil Mickelson’s win at this year’s PGA Championship, that constituted an upset, although Phil was nearly 10 years older.
The previous staging at Royal St George’s was in 2003 when the relatively unknown Ben Curtis sprang a 300-1 upset, with future Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn blowing his opportunity in a bunker at the 16th hole.
For a course that has hosted The Open 14 times already, one wouldn’t have thought it would be an unpopular choice on the Championship rota. But it is.
Golfing legends Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Gary Player are three old-timers unanimous in their opinion that it shouldn’t be used as a venue for The Open.
“I’ve never played particularly well at St George’s,” 18-time Major champion Nicklaus once said. “I won a tournament there as an amateur when I was 19 and never played a good round after that. It’s always been a hard course for me. How could I shoot an 83 there one day and 66 the next, which I’ve done, and not feel I’ve swung any differently? It’s just that type of golf course.”
Watson reckoned: ‘St George’s is a course you never really understand. When you play there you’re always looking where you’re stepping because you could go for a double-bogey very quickly and not hit a bad shot. There are at least a dozen places where you hit the ball and you won’t know until you’re 50 yards from it whether it’s gone into a bunker, it’s in the rough, or, glory be, it’s on the green. You need to be really, really lucky to keep a ball on the fairway there.
“OK, at 17 you can lay an iron off the tee, but you still have to hit the ball into a 12-yard area on the right-hand side and just hope it stays there.”
Player, who won three Opens, was also typically forthright. “It’s really not a great Open course. I think 80% of people would agree that it is not a real true test of golf. Should it stay on the Open rota? No, I don’t think so.”
Yet, UK Golf Guy, who runs the website www.ukgolfguy.co.uk, differs starkly with the views of the three giants of the game.
“There are some who say that Royal St George’s is a little less than a true classic Open course. They say the bounces can be a little random and Ben Curtis’ Open victory back in the day cast a bit of a shadow on the course’s pedigree. Well, I can safely say that is a load of rubbish. This is links golf at its very very best and for me close to unbeatable.
“The course is a brilliant one. It’s perfectly playable with pretty wide fairways and many quirks to keep you entertained all the way round. The bunkers are among the hardest I have played, on more than one occasion we had to play out sideways or backwards – a real penalty.”
For us neutrals, though, it will be a feast to be able to watch the world’s best golfers be put to the test on a course that is a traditional links layout. For all the target golf that we’ve become used to seeing on the PGA Tour during the Covid-19 pandemic period, seeing the pros negotiate holes with tricky bumps and runs and undulating fairways and greens makes for a delightful viewing menu.