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St. George’s can be devilish

Even among quirky courses, Sandwich can be ‘a bit fiddly’

July 14, 2011

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— The British Open, almost by definition, is quirky. At least compared to what we’re used to on this side of the pond. That’s links golf. So when people refer to Royal St. George’s, site of this week’s Open Championship (as they refer to it everywhere else on the planet), as being probably the quirkiest of all the courses in the rota, you know it’s definitely something a little different. Or maybe even a lot.

Justin Rose said it was like playing on the surface of the moon.

“It’s very much humps and bumps,” he said. “And you’re very much at the mercy of the (land), in terms of the kicks you can get. That’s the great thing about it, though. You need to embrace that.”

Adam Scott, your thoughts?

“I don’t know, I would say it’s a bit of a fiddly golf course,” the Australian said. “The fairways are very undulated, and you’re going to get some good bounces and you’re going to get some bad bounces. They were built so long ago, and the game has changed so much since (then), you’ve got to just manage yourself around it like all the other great links courses ...

“It’s not my personal favorite.

“I think it’s because we’re all pretty spoiled, and when we hit it down the middle of the fairway we expect it to be in the middle of the fairway, and that’s not how golf works over there. So that’s why we’re saying those things. But we’re all going to have to deal with the same things. I don’t care what the course looks like. I just want to win the thing.”

Well put.

It’s been hot and dry in England for the past few months. So it should play firm and fast, and the rough should be thinner than usual. Still, controlling shots even out of that figures to be tricky.

This will be St. George’s 14th Open. The course, also known as Sandwich for where it’s located on England’s southeast coast, hosted its first in 1894. John H. Taylor won the first of his five titles that year. Harry Vardon won two of his half-dozen there (1899, 1911). Walter Hagen won half of his four there (1922, ’28). Henry Cotton the first of his three there (1934). And Bobby Locke won the first of his four there (1949). So the pedigree is rich.

Then, for whatever reasons, St. George’s wasn’t deemed worthy again until 1981, when Bill Rogers claimed his only major. It’s been back three times since then. Sandy Lyle was the winner in 1985. Eight years later, in what might have been the best final round of a major ever, Greg Norman won his second and most recent Grand Slam title by beating a bunch of heavyweights. He closed with a 64, his fourth sub-70 round, for a 267 total that remains this major’s low score.

And eight years ago, Ben Curtis came out of nowhere to shock the world by beating the likes of Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh and Davis Love III. He closed with a 69 for a 283, which left him as the only player under par. That, despite the fact that he bogeyed four of the final seven holes. Thomas Bjorn was leading, but he needed three shots to get out of a greenside bunker at the 70th hole. To this day, he still can’t talk about the experience. Hard to blame him.

That’s what quirky squared can do to a mind and a soul.

By the way, St. George’s was also the place where James Bond supposedly played that infamous match with Mr. Goldfinger.

Course changes

Par has been reduced from 71 to 70, and the course has been stretched out 100 yards. The fourth hole has been changed from a par 5 to a 4, without altering the yardage. It measures just a shade under 500.

The third hole has been increased by 30 yards, to 239. The seventh has gone from 532 to 573, and No. 9 is now 410. It used to be 388. The 15th has also been lengthened from 475 to 493.

More important, the first fairway has been widened by a dozen yards. In 2003, less than 30 percent of all drives finished in the short grass there.

Feature holes

Instead of just one hole, let’s talk about more than one, because the place is unique.

The third, at 239 yards, is the only par 3 among the Open courses that’s bunkerless. Imagine that. But sand dunes surround the narrow green, which is dissected by a ridge. It played the third-hardest in relation to par in 2003.

The 161-yard 16th is the shortest hole. But it has seven bunkers guarding its green. Ask Thomas Bjorn, who saw two shots roll back into one of the bunkers when he had a two-shot lead in 2003. It’s also the place where Tony Jacklin had the first televised hole-in-one, at the 1967 Dunlop Masters.

The opening hole, which measures 442, has a valley cutting across the fairway some 250 yards off the tee that’s called “The Kitchen.” Nice way to start. Then the approach shot needs to carry three cross-bunkers fronting a putting surface that falls away to the right. Tiger Woods hit his first shot 30 yards right in 2003, leading to a lost ball and a triple bogey.

The closer, at 456 yards, features an awkwardly shaped fairway. Why not? Players have to avoid two fairway bunkers, and a pair of cross-bunkers farther up. Approaches have been known to find a depression left of the green known as “Duncan’s Hollow,” named after a chap named George, who lost the 1922 Open when he failed to get up and down from there to save par.

The 12th is the shortest par 4, checking in at a mere 379 yards. But the dogleg right has nine bunkers that come into play from virtually every direction. And they’ve been known to produce some unpleasant lies.

Handicapping 101

Rory McIlroy (3-1): What, you were expecting maybe Tiger Woods?

Lee Westwood (8-1): Certainly been right there enough times recently.

Luke Donald (10-1): Is No. 1 in the world for his consistency, wouldn’t hurt if he won more.

Jason Day (15-1): But maybe only to place.

Charl Schwartzel (18-1): Masters champ tied for 14th last year, has missed cut four of six times.

Phil Mickelson (20-1): But this has never really been his major.

Graeme McDowell (22-1): Best finish in seven starts was tie for 11th in 2005.

Sergio Garcia (24-1): I know his putting is an issue, but he has been playing better.

Ian Poulter (26-1): Was distant second three years ago.

Martin Kaymer (28-1): Not in good form right now.

K.J. Choi (30-1): Solid as they come.

Nick Watney (32-1): Might be America’s best chance ...

Steve Stricker (34-1): ... If this guy isn’t.

Padraig Harrington (36-1): Is a two-time champ. But that was three years ago.

Matteo Manassero (40-1): His time should come, likely not yet.

Louis Oosthuizen (45-1): Nice guy, but difficult to envision any repeat.

Five others to ponder: Francesco Molinari, Alvaro Quiros, Ross Fisher, Ryo Ishikawa and Dustin Johnson.

The dreaded pick

I have Woods in a yearlong pool that was filled out in December. So how’s that looking?

I could take McIlroy, but that would be too whatever. Let’s think outside the box, which normally gets me nowhere either. At this major there’s always a good chance that at least a few guys on the leaderboard will be names we’ve rarely heard of in the states. That being said, for some reason I’m feeling Sergio Garcia. I also kind of like Lee Westwood. Toss them in a trifecta with Ian Poulter, who I also just tried with little success at the U.S. Open. What, no token American? Good luck, and see you at the PGA next month.

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