Course updates before the Open Championship at Royal St George’s
Matt Cooper is our man at Royal St George’s, where the 149th Open Championship begins Thursday. Get the word inside.
It’s wonderful to be back on Linksland and the Sunday walk from central Sandwich along the River Stour to Royal St George’s has been fulfilling for the soul. The sight of Linksland, the yellow Open signs and the famous 18th green notice board were welcome, but it was the Open noises that were the most heartwarming: the flags on the stands creaking in the breeze, the bleacher seats s ‘crushing backwards when released, the distant rustle of weapons and clubs.
It wasn’t just the live sport that I missed but the live entertainment as well, so it made sense that my first real experience of sustained action was in the first starting stand shortly after noon on Monday. Why is that ? Well, the quartet involved was pure theater, although with a cast was an eclectic mix of box office and the kind of guy with credit to Grange Hill.
The first was Ricardo Celia, the Colombian who won the 2019 Argentina Open and waited 20 months for his second prize in a first major league. By his side ? Nick Poppleton, a EuroPro Tour artist whose career has taken a back seat as he supports his partner employed by the NHS.
And who was playing with this unlikely pair? Enter to the right of the stage, Bryson DeChambeau. Immediately, the stalls were buzzing, whispering as if a famous stage villain was now among them. Seconds later, Phil Mickelson emerged and the place erupted into applause, as if he recognized one of the biggest to step on the boards.
Cheesy smiles and aerial hand puffs were offered in all directions, followed by punches with everyone. There was no joking around with Celia, Poppleton and their shopping carts. Generous smiles, hello and the curious phrase ‘Nice to meet you’ were thrown in the direction of each of them.
But the belly laughs for those in the front rows (and those in the know) came when he turned to DeChambeau’s new bagman, instructor Brian Zeigler. “Are you ready?” Phil asked, eyes narrowed, failing to hide a very obvious twinkle. The answer was not heard, but not Mickelson’s return. “But are you ready?! ”he repeated, his face still straight but sparkling with devilish pleasure, a touch of Larry David’s inquisitive face about it.
Celia and Poppleton watched this outrageous spectacle, or maybe it was just the prospect of starting ahead of a six-time major winner and the most brutal hitter in the sport. Celia, who has barely played competitive golf since winning, put her effort to the right and into the rough; Poppleton, who hasn’t toured at all in 2020, has seen his effort spin in the same direction at high speed.
Mickelson then took control of the stage like an old master, knowing that all eyes were drawn in his direction. He knows it, he adores it, he takes advantage of it. It’s funny, but it’s also brilliant. He hit his ball low and straight down the fairway.
DeChambeau’s teeing off caused many to stand up, cameras in the air. It is not his presence that impresses, but his savage strength. The first shot flew to the right, threatening marshals, low-flying planes and champagne sips in the tent village. Her second bullet flew into the sky and a voice wondered where it was headed. “Do you see where the fairway is?” Someone replied. “About 70 yards to the right of it, maybe in that shorter grass wide of the thick rough.”
Maybe it wasn’t a stray shot then. I continued, eager to know more.
The first hole
Visually intimidating from the start, the first 445-yard par-four was a dream before many open rounds really began. In 2003 Tiger Woods lost his ball and made a triple-bogey seven, 10 years earlier Jerry Kelly had made an 11 there.
Looks like it should be a straight hole, with the green in the distance, but the fairway is to the left and the thick rough to the right. The difficulty is accentuated by the lack of definition: no dunes, few visual clues. It’s almost as if the player feels he is opening up to aim left and in doing so makes the right fade / cut all the more likely. Oh, and today the breeze was pushing the ball right.
The Kent Police Golf Club is hosting the hole this week and one told me he witnessed four or five lost tee shots in the rough on the right just that morning. Plus, he had seen many players hack by hitting him there, struggling to aim for the greens from the long, lush, thick grass. With bunkers close to the putting surface, getting the ball in is a risky business.
I spoke with a member of Royal Cinque Ports, a mile and a half down the coast towards Deal. He had played in the club championship this weekend and felt the conditioning of the two courses was very similar: the long-term wet conditions have extinguished the turf of the ties, but the rough is formidable. He believed that anyone who missed the fairways would have a hard time, but finding fairways would result in low scores. “The 12-15 minors will win this week,” he said. “That’s my guess.”
Consider this: the modern winning scores here have been four-under (1981), two-over (1985), 13-under (1993), one-under (2003), and five-under (2011). The downpour on Sunday evening, along with the morning and afternoon showers, aided the softening process. I’ll dig a little deeper tomorrow regarding this unusually low rating outlook, not least because hot, dry weather is expected later in the week, so it’s entirely possible that the review will change as the week goes on.
Indeed, defending champion Shane Lowry felt that the classic course characteristic of questionable rebounds was not apparent in his early experiences yesterday and today, but he expected it to become a more important factor if the course dries up.
Another early test
Pass the first hurdle and other problems await you. The 491 yard par four fourth hole features a tee shot that requires a daring shot over the cavernous “Himalayan” bunker (now missing railroad ties and rather more naturalistic). The goal is to find a fairway nicknamed “Elyssian Fields” and when I chatted with “Bones” Mackay, Phil Mickelson’s younger brother when he finished second here in 2011, working as a reporter on the course this week, he had a lot to say about the challenge.
“So many things can go wrong there,” he said. “You have to feel really good about what you’re doing before the round. Keeping it out of those bunkers on the lower right is essential, but you also need a game plan for what happens if the hole threatens to get away from you if you lose the tee shot. “
He also added a slightly surprising thought. “I think this is a course that you can get a little more comfortable with a little faster than maybe some of the other courses in the rotation,” said Ambassador AON Risk-Reward. “I also think one aspect that will provide a positive vibe for some guys is the incredible success of Ben Curtis, showing himself to have never played golf before and won.”
Back to Poppleton
After his tour, Nick Poppleton was full of his experience, excited that Mickelson had passed him. He also revealed that he loved the course and had fond memories of it despite missing the cup all at once in the amateur championship in 2017. He was second to his name at third level this season, but followed it with four failures to do. the top 50. This week offers a huge opportunity and he doesn’t want to waste it.
After the glory of renting an entire house cheaply at the Open 2019, this time around I’m back to my sweet spot: a two-person tent for £ 40, paying £ 11 a night for a pitch in a campsite on the other side of Deal.
It baffles some, but I’m pretty excited to be under the canvas again. The accommodation tales are doing an Open and I have tried just about everything: large tents, small tents, tents that fly away, a static caravan, a caravan parked next to a fish and chips, a Gypsy caravan, my parents’ camper van, lodged with strangers above a shady store in Blackpool, the guest room of a severe minister in Arbroath, on a physiotherapist’s table in a scary Airbnb on the Wirral and in a hangar.
A tent is basically good. It’s also only a mile from a secondary target, and quite appropriate, this week. In 2011, I desperately wanted to find the blue plaque on Charles Hawtrey’s old house and never did. This week I aim to rectify this mistake. More soon.