The meandering journey to Sandwich for an Open Championship may only be bettered by one other…St Andrews. This, believe me, is some compliment. But then Royal St George’s was conceived while the 19th Century drew towards a faltering close as some sort of English rival to the old links in Fife. This was a laudable ambition even if ultimately it fell way short of succeeding. Not that I am criticising RSG here, it is just that the Old Course in Scotland is in an unimpeachable position when it comes to any reflection on status.
What, however, the creators of St George’s did succeed in was to create a links of impeccable standards. They created a place of brilliance in a spot on the Kent coast, forming the thought that here is a course to savour and a landscape to salivate over in much the same way as a decent glass of claret. As English as the nearby white cliffs, there is nothing to dislike about this course and its backdrop chorus of lark song – unless, of course, you are a professional golfer. The weary fact is that any reasonable survey suggests a majority of these critical chaps believe there are too many blind shots for RSG to truly embrace greatness.
They are, naturally, wrong. Yes, there are blind drives and a few dodgy approaches as well, but all this means in reality is that a man, or more probably his caddie, needs to work out which clump of grass to hit the ball over. In other words, imagination and conviction is called for. The other fact is that professional golfers will always find something to moan about even if they have to roll over a really big rock to unearth it. Often it’s the rock itself they object to. If not that then it might be the courtesy car driver’s choice of music.
Be this as it may, what is beyond dispute is that Royal St George’s holds a special place in The Open Championship’s narrative. The first course outside Scotland to host the old rumble – in 1894 – The R&A’s idea was to take the Championship south so that it might feed off the greater London area. It is why they are still taking it to Kent. Think of it as spreading the gospel as well as filling the coffers.
This summer will see the 14th playing of The Open in Sandwich. It will be the fifth I have attended and each of the four previous years – 1981, 1985, 1993 and 2003 – holds a special memory. Whatever else The Open has been at St George’s it has yet to be the dark side of dull. The Open had returned to Sandwich in 1981 after a 32-year gap, a break encouraged by the poor road system during this time and the lack of accommodation on offer. The modern-day roll-call of RSG champs is interesting and revealing. It reads: Bill Rogers (1981), Sandy Lyle (1985), Greg Norman (1993) and Ben Curtis (2003). Their winning scores, in order, were: 276, 282, 267 and 283.
What does this tell us? It tells us that anyone can win on this course and that the weather that belts in off the English Channel is, as ever, crucial. On a calm day St George’s is up for grabs, but throw in some of what the Scots call ‘serious weather’ and everyone is startled. Jack Nicklaus, for example, started his ’81 campaign with an 83, his first drive in the early afternoon acting as a reminder to Thor and his mates that it was time to unleash a bit of hell in the shape of a storm that ruffled more than Jack’s hair.
After things settled down, the peripheral American Rogers ended up winning. This, to everyone but his family at the time, was a bit of a surprise. No surprise, however, when Sandy won the next one, just relief that the most natural British talent of his generation had taken the title and ended a 16-year wait following Tony Jacklin’s victory at Lytham in 1969.
Eight years later Norman offered a four-day exhibition of cool, considered and dynamic golf for his second Open victory. Fast forward to the last Open in Kent and we found Curtis standing slightly bemused with the Claret Jug in his young hands. We, on the other hand, were gobsmacked, for Curtis entered that Open so far off the radar no one realised he was playing until the last few holes. This ’03 Open had started, of course, with another windy deluge. Tiger Woods’ own campaign began with a lost ball off the first tee and it didn’t get much better. Once again, opening Thursday had left its perverse imprint on the competition.
What will happen this year? The honest answer, of course, is that no one knows. Louis Oosthuizen comes in as defending champion and although few expected him to win at St Andrews last year, even fewer will be backing him this time. Once again the Open is just that, open to the point of sensational unpredictability.
Gone are the recent days when it seemed that a Woods must prevail, or a Faldo or Ballesteros, Norman, Nicklaus or Palmer. In their place we now have a golf scene based on meritocracy and, as usual, ever thicker slices of good fortune with regards to tee times and local weather patterns. The world rankings offer clues as to who is in reasonable form, but not many. Coming into an Open as one of the favourites is its own heavy weight. As a result, too many highly ranked golfers shrug off the easy-going confident approach that took them up the hill in the first instance and replace it with a nervy, often over-focused strategy that shreds their chances before they have even hit a ball.
If I had any advice for any contender then it would be to treat The Open like any other week and then to pray that your nerve manages to hold over the closing round. Easily said, slightly harder to put into practice, which is how it should be for what is the oldest and most relevant of the year’s Majors. Still, it is fun to select those players one feels may be edging their way towards a truly significant performance in this great week. And so, with the smallest of accompanying trumpet calls, I offer you my own consideration. The more brazenly perceptive amongst you will naturally throw these players aside instantly, but on the other hand you never know when it comes to an Open at Royal St George’s.