Rough Time Ahead for the Wayward at Open Championship

By: Tony Dear


For one player to say the rough is the thickest they've ever seen is to be expected. It's already four weeks since the U.S. Open and there's always plenty of room for a little hyperbole, especially with the ears and eyes of the world looking on. For two people to say it within a few hours of each other is fairly conclusive.

Last Thursday, Colin Montgomerie waxed on the subject, telling the story of the recent medal competition at Turnberry's Ailsa Course - venue for the 138th Open Championship - in which 150 players lost 480 balls. Unless a survey was taken at the end of the round, it's anyone's guess how the exact ball count was reached, but that's hardly the point is it?

A little while later, Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell spoke to reporters and followed Monty almost word for word. "It's got some of the heaviest links rough I've ever seen," he said. "If you miss it in the wrong place you might want to bring a couple of golf balls with you. I certainly lost a couple. Right of the 17th green, I've never seen rough as thick in all my life." As if confirmation were necessary, Ernie Els said last week he had visited the course for two days and that it could be quite a beast if the wind gets up.

Rest assured, missing the short grass at Turnberry this week is not going to result in many birdies. Before every Grand Slam event, be it a U.S. Open at Oakmont, Winged Foot or Bethpage Black, a PGA Championship at Baltusrol or Oakland Hills, it seems the default remark concerning the hazards is that they are a guaranteed dropped shot should you find them, and at least a hack out sideways or backwards. Many times, the hoopla turns out somewhat exaggerated and the world's best players find a way of advancing their ball, if not to the green, then a good distance down the fairway. At Turnberry, the extreme talk might well be justified and those finding the worse spots definitely will be in danger of racking up some high scores.

As Els alluded to, the weather on Scotland's west coast this spring has not been good. The rain has lashed the links like, well, like rain does on Scotland's west coast, and the turf is green and lush. This is not Hoylake '06 when puffs of dirt sprung up every time someone hit an iron shot and the dunes took on a rather burned look. Turnberry will play more like Carnoustie two years ago or Birkdale last year, and if the wind blows like it did 12 months ago par is safe.

Turnberry has been lengthened 247 yards since Nick Price won here 15 years ago. Fairways bunkers have been added on eight holes to catch today's longer drives and the line on a couple of holes has shifted. "These features will demand far more thought from the tee if an aggressive strategy is to be adopted," says course architect Martin Ebert, who learned the trade working under Britain's Donald Steel and, with partner David Mackenzie, has modernized several other Open Championship venues - Royal St. George's, Royal Troon, Royal Liverpool and Royal Lytham & St. Anne's.

Together they have turned what Ron Whitten in Golf Digest described as "the quintessential resort course" and one where the pros "came to break personal scoring bests and championship records" into a meaty challenge that is highly unlikely to yield like it did in 1977 when Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus traded birdies like kids swap baseball cards; or1986 when Greg Norman shot 63 (and should have had a 62 had he not rammed his birdie putt at the last four feet past the hole and missed the return) in deplorable weather; or 1994 when Price shot four round in the 60s and posted a 72-hole total of 268.

The natural assumption then is that the straight shooter is at a distinct advantage. But the trouble with that, of course, is that the top of the driving accuracy charts on both the PGA and European Tours tend to be populated by shorter hitters who don't often show up on major championship leaderboards. Golf is a long-hitters' game now and there's little room for the guy who fans it 275 yards no matter how straight he hits it.

By far a better bet for identifying a likely winner is to study form and, using that criterion, Martin Kaymer is your man. The 24-year-old has won the last two events on the European Tour: the Open de France in a playoff with Lee Westwood and last week's Scottish Open at Loch Lomond where he beat a classy field that included a seemingly resurgent Adam Scott. There are a handful of young Europeans: Paul Casey, Luke Donald, Ian Poulter, Sergio Garcia and Rory McIlroy that are regarded as the continent's next great players and Kaymer can certainly be placed among their number. At the Dubai Desert Classic last year, Els played with the young German for the first time and was rather impressed. "You've got to watch this kid play," he said. "He's going to be something, I promise you. He's long. He's got a great touch. You'll see a lot of him." Kaymer made his debut in the Open last year and, though he made the cut, finished way down the field in 80th place.

The PGA Tour's most recent winner was Steve Stricker, who earned his seventh career victory in the John Deere Classic last week with a second-round 61 and final-round 64. Stricker's record at the Open is the tale of two halves: between 1996 and 2002, the highest the Wisconsin native finished was tied for 22nd. He didn't play again until Carnoustie in 2007 where he finished tied eighth after a third-round 64. Were it not for a disappointing final-round 74, he would have been in serious contention. Last year, Stricker weathered the storms better than most to finish tied for seventh, albeit further behind winner Padraig Harrington (nine shots compared to four) than he had been the year before.

And speaking of Harrington; where on Earth has the two-time defending champion's game gone these last few months? In 16 events on both sides of the Atlantic he has made just eight cuts, and failed to register a single top-10 in America. He hasn't played the weekend at any event with world-ranking points up for grabs since the Players Championship in May.

And yet, the 37-year-old won his third straight Irish PGA Championship at the European Club on Sunday beating former British Amateur champion Brian McElhinney by seven shots. With all due respect, it's likely the win says more about Irish PGA professionals than the state of Harrington's game. But he did win the tournament before each of his Open victories so he shouldn't have to look too far for a good omen as he tries to become the first man since Peter Thomson (1954-55-56) and fifth in history (Thomson, Tom Morris Jr., Bob Ferguson and Jamie Anderson) to win the Claret Jug three years in succession.

We know Harrington can win. Kaymer and Stricker can too if they adhere to Ernie Els' description of the perfect links golfer; "He needs to have a good strategy, stick with it and have a lot of patience," says the 2002 champion. "But, more than anything, he really needs to strike the ball solidly."

Oh well, in that case, Tiger Woods wins.

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 increasingly difficult for him to focus on Politics (his chosen major) and, after dropping out, he ended up teaching golf 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. In 2009, Tony won first place for Editorial/Opinion in the ING Media Awards for Cybergolf. The article (http://www.cybergolf.com/golf_newsa_euros_take_on_the_2008_ryder_cup_matches) that impressed the judges was the one about Europe's Ryder Cup team and Captain Nick Faldo's decision to pick Paul Casey and Ian Poulter rather than Darren Clarke.


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