Robust, formidable, quirky.
This redoubtable links has always provided a severe test. After the great JH Taylor won the first Open to be held in Sandwich way back in 1894, he later confessed in his autobiography that “the possibility of disaster was only too apparent from almost every shot one was called to play.”
Only three players from 13 previous Opens held in Kent -- Bill Rogers in 1981, Greg Norman in 1993 and Ben Curtis in 2003 -- have managed to break par en route to picking up the Claret Jug. Today’s generation have had their warning from history.
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“This course needs more knowing than most because there are rather more slightly blind shots and indeed blind shots, the kicks you can get off the fairway and you need to know them,” said Peter Dawson, the Royal & Ancient chief executive on the eve of the championship.
“The size of the site I think makes it quite formidable out there. There’s lots of rough ground in between holes whereas at other courses the holes are much closer together. So it feels a more robust site to me than others. I don’t think we’re going to get particularly low scoring here this week, especially with the wind up.”
With strong winds forecast for most of the week, the abundant menace and dangers will be heightened. This is a golf course with baffling humps and hollows and with hard greens that will be difficult to hold and fringed by multiple run-offs and hollows, chipping and holing out will be key. In the grand traditions of links golf, there will be good breaks and bad and patience and a cool head will certainly be the order of day.
“The brain must remain calm all the way around,” said Scotsman Andrew Brooks, the club professional in this south east corner of England for the past 16 years. “You can lose patience very quickly here with some awkward bounces. The challenge is to just get it down on to the first fairway and carry on like that. There’s nowhere to take a breather.”
It’s been 12 long years since a British player won the Claret Jug and, given the nature of the course and predicted conditions this week, it is surely time for one of the leading pack to step up to the plate and follow Paul Lawrie’s increasingly distant triumph at Carnoustie back in 1999. Lawrie himself certainly thinks so.
“It is not easy to win but surely some British player will win it soon given the number of them at the top of the world rankings,” he said. “It is surprising to have the record for so long.”
The contenders to join Lawrie on the famous old trophy are obvious. Following his magical victory at Congressional last month, Rory McIlroy is widely tipped to be the first player since Tiger Woods in 2000 to win both the US Open and the Open. Whether the effects of the hysterical reaction to his breakthrough victory hinders his progress remains to be seen however.
Luke Donald’s Scottish Open success, his third victory of the season, sees him as the first Englishman to hold the world No.1 ranking going into a major for almost 20 years and, with an accomplished short game essential over St George’s, his sublime touch around the greens will be a vital, and potentially title-winning factor.
Donald’s countryman Westwood, lurking just behind in the world No.2 spot, has been battering on the door of a maiden major title for so long his fists must be red raw. With five top-three finishes in his last seven major events, including a second place in the Open at St Andrews last year and a share of third at Turnberry the previous season, the Worksop man will have few peers tee-to-green, but the weaknesses in his short game could be highlighted given the nuances of this course.
The chipper Ian Poulter, second the last time the Open was held on English soil at Royal Birkdale in 2008, could be uplifted again by feelings of patriotism prompted by the flags of St George’s while Graeme McDowell, the former US Open champion, has indicated already this week that he is returning to his best form and he certainly has the all-round game to mount a serious assault, especially if the wind gets a tad boisterous.
On the other side of the Atlantic, a 52-strong American contingent has talent in abundance. Nick Watney, tied seventh at St Andrews last year, is an emerging threat while Matt Kuchar has the consistency to compete.
The talented Rickie Fowler, surprisingly still without a win on the PGA circuit, tied 14th at the Home of Golf in the 2010 Open but Phil Mickelson, the four-time major winner, still looks like he struggles to answer the questions posed by links golf.
Then there is the potential for success from Down Under in the shape of the hugely promising Jason Day. Runner-up in both the Masters and the US Open this season, the 23-year-old already has a serious backer in the form of five-time Claret Jug winner Tom Watson.
The runners and riders are bountiful but, given that Ben Curtis won the Open as a 350/1 outsider the last time the event was at Sandwich in 2003, there is always the potential for a dark horse to sneak up the inside railings.