11 Jul 2021 | Professional golf |

The Open 2021: Time to start thinking

by Contributor

Greg Norman Sandwich 1993 image
Greg Norman was near flawless on the final day at Sandwich in 1993. Photo: Getty

By Richard Allen

There’s an old saying – many say ill-informed – that Open Championship venues get progressively weaker the further south you travel in the British Isles. The statement is grossly unfair to Royal St George’s, the windswept links on the Kent coastline near the ancient town of Sandwich.

It is the southernmost Open venue and host of this year’s Open Championship next week, after last year’s event was cancelled.

Royal St George’s may not have the mighty sand dunes of Royal Birkdale, the ancient history of the Old Course at St Andrews or the heart-stopping challenges of Carnoustie, but tournaments there nearly always produce high drama, particularly when the wind whips off the nearby English Channel. The fairway on the 14th hole – with out-of-bounds right – looks a little tighter from the tee and the fairway bunkers on 15 a little deeper.

When the sun is shining on the nearby white cliffs of Ramsgate and the larks are singing – as they tend to do all summer – Royal St George’s is as fine a day’s golf as you can find. Eminent golf writer Bernard Darwin once said of the course: "It is as nearly my idea of heaven as is to be attained at any earthly links."

Little has changed since Scottish-born surgeon Dr Laidlaw Purves ‘spied the land with a golfer’s eye’ from the tower of a Sandwich church and thought it a promising place for a course. A syndicate was formed and in 1887 the club was formed. Royal St George’s held its first Open Championship in 1894, and this year will be its 14th Open, which places it behind only the Old Course at St Andrews, Prestwick and Muirfield.

Famous winners there include Englishman Harry Vardon (1899), American Walter Hagen (1922 and 1928), South African Bobby Locke (1949), Scotsman Sandy Lyle (1985) and Australian Greg Norman (1993).

The course has been kind to other Australians too. Walter Travis, born in the Victorian goldfields town of Maldon before moving to New York and living his life in the USA, won the British Amateur there in 1904 – the first non-Brit to do so. Remarkably, he was 42 at the time (the life expectancy of an American male at the time was barely 50), having taken the game up only seven years earlier.

Ninety-five years later Australian Mark Williamson, now the head professional at Sorrento Golf Club on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula, won the celebrated Grand Gold Challenge Cup there, first played in 1888. Previous winners included John Ball, Harold Hilton, Francis Ouimet and Jack Nicklaus, all of whom would win major golf championships – in Nicklaus’ case 18 of them.

But it was Norman’s win in 1993 – his second Open triumph following his win in 1986 – that transfixed Australian viewers and realised his much-touted potential. His final round 64 gave him a two-stroke win over his nemesis Nick Faldo. The 92-year-old American Gene Sarazen, who won the 1932 Open at next door Prince’s Golf Club and who presented Norman with the winner’s Claret Jug, said: "I never thought I’d live long enough to see golf played like this."

Norman’s playing partner, German Bernhard Langer, said it was the finest round he had ever witnessed.

Norman won the princely sum of $US100,000 for his win (this year’s winner will take home $US1.94 million), his winning score of 267 (66, 68, 69 and 64) stood as the tournament record for 23 years until Swede Henrik Stenson bettered it by three in 2016, in his shoot-out with American Phil Mickelson at Royal Troon.

Much has changed in the world of golf since the Open Championship was last played, at Northern Ireland’s Royal Portrush in 2019, won by Irishman Shane Lowry. Last year’s championship was cancelled on account of the pandemic. The event’s organiser, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, says it is aiming for ‘significant crowds’ this year – 32,000 per day.

The Open Championship is now undoubtedly the most international of the four majors. Since Tiger Woods won the last of his three Open Championships in 2006, winners have come from six countries: the Republic of Ireland (Padraig Harrington in 2007 and 2008, and Lowry in 2019); USA (Stewart Cink in 2009, Phil Mickelson in 2013, Zach Johnson in 2015 and Jordan Spieth in 2017), Sweden (Stenson in 2016), South Africa (Louis Oosthuizen in 2010 and Ernie Els in 2012); Northern Ireland (Darren Clarke in 2011 and Rory McIlroy in 2014), and Italy (Francesco Molinari in 2018).

The three major championships played so far this year suggest we should expect the unexpected at Royal St George’s. We have had Japan’s first major winner (Hideki Matsuyama, the Masters), the first 50-year-old major winner (Mickelson at the US PGA at Kiawah Island) and the first Spanish winner of the US Open (Jon Rahm at Torrey Pines).

Expect bold showings from the Irish contingent – McIlroy and Lowry in particular – and many Englishmen will be keen to impress, including Tyrrell Hatton, Paul Casey, Matthew Fitzpatrick and Lee Westwood. The latter, now closer to 50 than 40, knows his chances of winning a major are running out.

Rahm – who tested positive for COVID when leading the Memorial Tournament in early June and had to withdraw with a round to go – is now indisputably the best player in the world. Oosthuizen, although nominally 13th in the world rankings, is probably the world’s second-best player, although he probably doesn’t feel that way having now come second six times in majors.

Contrasting the playing styles of Oosthuizen – who’s syrupy swing Australian Peter Thomson once likened to his own – and slugger Bryson DeChambeau at last month’s US Open is worthwhile. While the brave South African eventually lost by a shot to Rahm at Torrey Pines, DeChambeau – the defending champion – imploded after taking the lead mid-round on the final day. He then shot 44 on the back nine, with bogeys on 11 and 12, a double-bogey on 13 and a quadruple-bogey on 17. He tied for 26th.

DeChambeau is not the first golfer who has tried to overpower golf courses. Occasionally it works but mostly if fails. Few have failed more spectacularly.

Royal St George’s will require far more thought.

First published in the Australian Financial Review

Richard Allen is a journalist and author and a Golf Australia board member

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