SANDWICH, England – The last time the British Open was held outside Britain was 60 years ago, when Max Faulkner won at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland. The Royal & Ancient has been asked over the years if it would ever go back.
The question takes on new meaning these days.
Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland won the U.S. Open last year at Pebble Beach. Then it was Rory McIlroy winning the U.S. Open last month at Congressional. Only one player from Britain – Paul Lawrie of Scotland in 1999 at Carnoustie – has won a major in the last 15 years.
Is it time?
“Obviously, there’s much emotion about Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy’s victories and why don’t we go back to Northern Ireland and perhaps Portrush in particular,” R&A chief Peter Dawson said Wednesday. “And I understand that. You can’t, however, hold the Open on where players come from. I think that should be obvious to anyone.”
Dawson said although Portrush might be strong enough to hold the Open, there are concerns whether it has enough hotels and roads for such a big event, and whether it will be attractive to corporate sponsors and the fans.
“Not ruling it out by any stretch of the imagination,” Dawson said. “But it would have to meet all those criteria, and I don’t think it’s something that’s going to be in any way imminent. But it’s certainly something we’ll have a look at again in view of the success of the golfers from that part of the world.”
Turnberry was out of the rotation for 15 years because the roads were deemed inadequate along that part of the Ayrshire coast. Royal Liverpool went nearly 40 years without an Open because there wasn’t enough room on the property. Both those situations were remedied and held memorable championships with strong crowds.
“At Royal Portrush, there is the second course there, so there’s not a land issue on site,” Dawson said. “It’s more road access, quantity of hotels, what would the level of corporate support be, what would the crowd size be, things of that nature.”
STRICKER SCHEDULE: The record shows Steve Stricker plays his best golf at the British Open when he eases his way into a week of links golf. He played in the final group at Carnoustie in 2007 and tied for eighth, and a year later tied for seventh at Royal Birkdale.
Then he decided to play in the John Deere Classic the week before the Open and won. He came to Turnberry and tied for 52nd. He had to return to the John Deere to defend last year, won again, then tied for 55th at St. Andrews.
Sure enough, Stricker is coming off a third successive win at the John Deere and arrived at Royal St. George’s late Monday afternoon.
“Yeah, I’ve looked at that,” Stricker said. “But I feel good. I feel ready.”
WHO IS IT? Graeme McDowell was about to hit a wedge to the green from the right rough on the second hole during Wednesday’s practice round when he suddenly backed off the ball.
His cell phone was ringing, and McDowell fumbled in his pocket for it before handing it to his caddie to answer.
“We saw you a couple times,” the caddie told the caller. “You didn’t see us?”
Behind McDowell was something else not normally seen on the golf course during a major championship. John Daly, a two-time British Open champion, was puffing away on a cigarette, not even bothering to remove it from his mouth as he hit his second shot.
BAD MEMORIES: Thomas Bjorn isn’t the only player to return to Royal St. George’s with some memories he would like to erase. Bjorn gets the most attention because he had a two-shot lead on the 70th hole and took three shots to get out of a bunker on the 16th, making double bogey and eventually finishing one shot behind Ben Curtis.
And then there is Jerry Kelly.
Eight years ago, Kelly hit his opening tee shot into the rough and began chopping away with limited success. He wound up making an 11 on the first hole, shot 86 and had to withdraw with an injury.
As luck would have it – or someone’s sick sense of humor – Kelly will be hitting the opening shot Thursday morning.
“A cruel bit of lovely irony,” Kelly said with a grin. “I think it’s fantastic they’ve given me that opportunity. I think it’s an honor, I really do, to start off the 140th Open Championship.”
No scars from the last time he played that hole in competition?
“I’ve been licking my chops,” he said. “I’ve thought about that plenty.”
WATNEY’S COLLEGE LESSON: As the Americans take a tumble in the world ranking and struggle in the majors, some believe they are falling behind in world golf because too many of their players waste early years going to college instead of turning pro immediately.
U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy turned pro right out of high school. Matteo Manassero of Italy won two tournaments before he turned 18 and still doesn’t have his driver’s license.
Nick Watney was quick to point out some other examples to poke holes in that theory.
“I wouldn’t say the college system doesn’t work because Graeme McDowell went to school in the States (Alabama-Birmingham),” he said. “I think Rory McIlroy is a very special player. You can’t grow players like that. I think things are cyclical. Luke Donald went to college in the States (Northwestern). Maybe the college system is working well. The Europeans are coming over.”
MEN ONLY: Royal St. George’s is another club on the British Open rotation that doesn’t allow female members, although the issue has not gained the same kind of traction as when Martha Burk campaigned about the all-male membership at Augusta National nine years ago.
R&A chief executive Peter Dawson didn’t add much to the conversation Wednesday, despite a few more stories in the newspapers.
“I’ve seen articles about this again this morning,” he said. “I think I’ve been asked this question so often now that I really have nothing new to say. And from what I’ve read in the papers this morning, nor has anyone else.”
Another reporter asked what message it would send if Rory McIlroy’s win at the U.S. Open would inspire girls and boys, and whether it was a poor message to any young girls about the male-only clubs for a British Open.
“I actually don’t think it is in any way material to whether girls take up the game or not,” Dawson said. “In my experience, it’s not an issue people talk to me about very much, other than in a gathering like this, if I must be totally honest about it.”