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European Chances in the Open Championship
Although Kent is known as the Garden of England, you'd probably bulldoze your patch if it looked anything like Royal St. George's. This often-maligned course, conceived and designed by Wimbledon Common golfers - Henry Lamb and William Laidlaw Purves - who were desperate to find somewhere outside of London to play their favorite game, opened for play in 1887 and is a messy mass of sandy hillocks, rough-strewn ridges and deep, foreboding bunkers that is good for absolutely nothing except, perhaps, a perplexing, confounding and, at times, downright infuriating golf course.
This week, that golf course hosts its 14th Open Championship - a number that you'd think would earn it a measure of respect, at least. But while a number of the blind shots and other idiosyncrasies which used to drive golfers barmy have been softened down the years, or removed altogether, the course otherwise known as Sandwich has never enjoyed the level of affection that the Old Course at St. Andrews, Royal Dornoch, Cruden Bay or any number of Irish links courses have.
Some of the game's best players have been less than complimentary in fact. Walter Hagen, twice a champion here, paid the course a rather back-handed compliment, saying the front nine was tremendous fun but not very good golf, while the back was tremendous golf but no fun at all. Jack Nicklaus said Open Championship venues got worse the farther south you went, leaving no one in doubt over what he made of this most southerly of courses. Greg Norman, who won here in 1993, admitted in a recent interview with Golf Digest that he didn't particularly like it. In 2003, Justin Leonard said it was a "little nutty in spots," and on Tuesday of this Open week Adam Scott described it as "a little bit of a fiddly course."
For decades, Royal St. George's has stood accused of being excessively unpredictable; that it doesn't necessarily reward good play because good shots are too often deflected offline and into trouble by seemingly innocuous, but ultimately toxic, little knobs of turf-covered sand that not even the most reliable of drivers can avoid. Detractors contend that because off the untrustworthy bounces and randomness of where affected shots end up, luck plays too big a part in determining the winner.
Granted, Jack White, Reg Whitcombe and Bill Rogers were hardly clear favorites the years they won - 1904, 1938, and 1981, respectively. But White had had four top-six finishes in the previous five years, Whitcombe had three top-10s in the previous five years including a runner-up finish in 1937, and Rogers had won his second PGA Tour event four months before beating Bernhard Langer at Sandwich by four shots, had two wins in Japan, and had beaten Isao Aoki in the final of the World Matchplay Championship in England two years previously. They were hardly undocumented rookies.
And the list of its more celebrated winners compares very favorably with those of the Old Course, Muirfield, Turnberry, Royal Troon, Carnoustie, Royal Lytham and St. Annes, and Royal Birkdale.
JH Taylor won Sandwich's first Open Championship, in 1894, shooting four rounds in the 80s. Harry Vardon won twice, in 1899 and 1911. Hagen won his two Claret Jugs at Royal St. George's in 1922 and '28. Henry Cotton shot 67-65 to open the 1934 Championship and hung on grimly over a dicey final round when suffering severe stomach cramps. South Africa's Bobby Locke won the first of his four titles in 1949, Sandy Lyle beat Payne Stewart by a shot in 1985, and Norman shot a final-round 64 in 1993.
But of course, there is one Royal St. George's winner whose victory really does make no sense at all. Eight years ago, a 26-year-old from Ohio who had played a grand total of 15 PGA Tour events (and no other majors) without recording a single top-10 finish beat a handful of the world's best players down the stretch to become the longest-odds winner in major championship history. He had begun the year in 1,269th position in the world rankings and was 396th the week before the tournament started. But with rounds of 72, 72, 70 and 69 he jumped all the way to 33rd. Yes indeed, Ben Curtis's win certainly was something of an anomaly.
But so what? Are we to conclude that because a rank outsider won the tournament, the course is somehow inadequate? Look at the players Curtis beat - Thomas Bjorn, Vijay Singh, Tiger Woods and Davis Love III. Had any of them played just one or two fewer shots over the course of four rounds, the talk would have been very different. Royal St. George's would have been vindicated and Curtis's podium finish might not have been mentioned anywhere but in his hometown Columbus Dispatch.
Professional golfers don't care for Sandwich's unexpected bounces and unseen pot bunkers. These days, the game has become formulaic. They expect to see a shot with a 52-degree wedge carry 148 yards (or thereabouts), pitch, bounce two yards and come to an abrupt stop. And they definitely expect to see drives that fly down the middle of the fairway finish in the middle of the fairway.
They are apt to forget they play the game not on a standardized playing field where this week's course looks and plays much the same as the previous week's, but on an organic golf course that lives and breathes and changes continuously. The ability to adapt to the challenge of the new course and imagine, then execute, the shots it demands is surely part of the game's attraction. And dealing with bad bounces is absolutely part of the challenge at links courses. Everyone gets them and it's those that shrug them off the best who invariably fare much better.
Rory McIlroy showed at the U.S. Open he is pretty good at shrugging off past calamities, winning by eight shots just two months after losing his final-round lead in the Masters. Some wondered if, for all his talent, he might ever get over his spectacular demise at Augusta. But with an almost flawless display of ball-striking and shot-making at Congressional, he proved beyond reasonable doubt that, even though he is fourth in the World Golf Ranking, his best golf is the best golf in the world right now.
Better even than Luke Donald's. The world No. 1 has 11 top-10s from 13 events in the U.S. and Europe so far this season, with four wins - the fourth coming last week in the Scottish Open on the fantastic new links course at Castle Stuart in the Highlands. With that win, Donald established a 1.12-point lead at the top of the world rankings over fellow Englishman Lee Westwood.
Donald's record at the Open Championship is surprisingly poor, however - one top-10 from 10 starts as a professional and amateur, but you get the impression that even with Royal St. George's added length (105 yards since 2003) Donald, who is 152nd in the PGA Tour's driving distance category, still has the mental and physical tools to win his first major this week.
McIlroy and Donald certainly begin the week as hot favorites with Lee Westwood - who tied for 14th in Scotland last week - lurking nearby. With so many top-three finishes in majors in recent years, the 38-year-old No. 2-ranked player in the world clearly has the game to win. But question marks over whether or not he has the temperament to land one of the Grand Slam events will hover above his head for as long as the drought continues.
With Germany's Martin Kaymer at No. 3 in the rankings, and Padraig Harrington and Justin Rose showing well in Inverness last week, you have to say the prospects of a European victory this week - the continent's fourth in six majors - are really rather good . . . especially if they get fewer bad bounces.
Tony Dear is an Englishman living in Bellingham, Wash. In the early 1990s he was a member of the Liverpool University golf team which played its home matches at Royal Liverpool GC. Easy access to Hoylake made it extremely difficult for him to focus on Politics, his chosen major. After leaving Liverpool, he worked as a golf instructor at a club just south of London where he also made a futile attempt at becoming a 'player.' He moved into writing when it became abundantly clear he had no business playing the game for a living. A one-time golf correspondent of the New York Sun, Tony is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, the Pacific Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association. He is a multi-award winning journalist, and edits his own web site at www.bellinghamgolfer.com.