SANDWICH, England – Any other week, the flagsticks at Royal St. George’s would be adorned with the red-and-white English banner.
This is the hub of English golf, a course that’s hosted more British Opens that any outside of Scotland. And, boy, the home team is sure poised to shine in the latest version of golf’s oldest major championship.
Luke Donald is No. 1 in the world rankings. Lee Westwood is right on his heels at No. 2. Paul Casey and Ian Poulter are both in the top 20. Four other Englishmen from the top 100 qualified for the Open.
“English golf is very strong right now,” Donald said Tuesday. “Obviously in the world rankings, with myself and Lee heading that list. We’ve both been having good years so far, and there’s a bunch of other English guys that probably haven’t played as well as us but certainly have the potential to win.”
The numbers sure look a lot more promising than the did eight years ago, the last time an Open was held at Royal St. George’s. Back then, there were no English players in the top 10 and only two (Casey and Justin Rose) in the top 50. Donald was way down at No. 117. Westwood wasn’t even in the top 200.
“I guess now,” Donald surmised, gauging the English hopes for this Open, “is as good a time as any.”
Westwood certainly realizes how significant it would be for an Englishman to hoist the claret jug at a spot just up the road from the cliffs of Dover.
“You know, it’s named after St. George, so you can’t get much more English than that,” he said, smiling. “It’s the biggest championship in the world as far as I’m concerned. It would mean everything, really, to win this championship.”
Donald has a crafty, delicate short game that should be a huge asset on this lumpy seaside course. Westwood is as good as anyone off the tee, and he’s certainly got plenty of experience contending in golf’s biggest events. Casey tied for third a year ago at St. Andrews, while the dashing Poulter was the runner-up in 2008.
Any of them has the game to be get their name engraved on the historic chalice.
“This is the best I’ve played,” said Donald, who solidified his No. 1 ranking with a four-stroke win at the Scottish Open last weekend. “This is the most consistent I’ve been throughout my whole game. Not just around the greens, but tee to green is getting more and more solid. I think that’s been a key to me playing well and notching up some victories.”
Of course, one key victory has eluded Donald. And Westwood. All the top English contenders, in fact.
None of them has won a major championship – no small stumbling block, especially when one starts to lug around the burden of being regarded as the best player without the most coveted of titles.
That dreaded title probably belongs to the 38-year-old Westwood, who has finished in the top three at all four majors without pulling off that breakthrough win. His plight prompted Colin Montgomerie – certainly an expert on the close-but-no-cigar syndrome – to declare publicly that Westwood might be running out of time.
He’ll be 40 in a couple of years. After that, Montgomerie said, the window of opportunity will start to close.
Westwood believes he’s got more time than that – if he needs it.
“It depends how physically able you are, and I’m obviously a finely tuned athlete that can go on well into my 40s,” he quipped, taking a self-deprecating poke at a body that no one would describe as chiseled.
Besides, there’s more important factors than looking like Adonis in polyester.
“You’ve got to want it still. That’s the main thing,” Westwood said. “People would have said I was coming into my prime ten years ago and then I dropped to 270th in the world, so what’s the point in guessing whether you’re at your prime or not? I don’t particularly think it’s an age thing, either. So many players play well into their early to mid-40s that there’s no point in thinking about it.”
Donald surged to the top of the world rankings with brilliantly consistent play this year. It all began with a victory at the Match Play Championship in late February, and he’s won twice more on the European Tour since then – not to mention eight other top-10 finishes on both sides of the Atlantic.
His only stumble came at the last major. Donald finished in a tie for 45th at the U.S. Open and still must show he has the mental strength to handle the grinding pressure of those events that really define a career.
Amazingly, Donald isn’t even the betting pick at another Tiger-less major. Rory McIlroy of the Northern Ireland is the overwhelming favorite, not surprising after a runaway victory at Congressional gave the 22-year-old his first major crown.
“I don’t think I’m under the radar because I did win last week, but obviously Rory is on the forefront of a lot of people’s minds, and rightly so,” Donald said. “He was impressive in the U.S. Open, and winning majors is a big deal, and he did it and he did it in great fashion. I’m sure a lot of the attention is on him and maybe a little bit more of the pressure, as well.”
Someone laid out this scenario, which doesn’t seem all that farfetched: Donald and Westwood playing in the final group on Sunday, each of them vying for his first major title at the course that symbolizes golf in their homeland.
Who would want it more?
“That would be a hard question to answer,” Donald said. “Obviously it would be a very intense situation, but one that I would love to be in. I look forward to hopefully being in that position.”