SANDWICH, England – Gary Woodland was in the right rough on the 13th hole as he stared at the green, trying to figure out how to play his next shot. Then he broke into a big smile, and it had nothing to do with anything at Royal St. George’s on Saturday.
Beyond the green is a fence, and on the other side is Prince’s Golf Club.
It was pouring rain. The gusts topped 30 mph. And the club next door was filled with players in every fairway. Woodland smiled at the idea that while those competing at the British Open were suffering, these people were finding pleasure.
“I was shocked,” he said. “There’s no way back home people would be playing today. And it was packed over there.”
Even more impressive were the number of fans on such a miserable day.
Matt Millar was the first to play, in the worst of the weather, yet he was followed around by fans who took their hands off the umbrella long enough to applaud whatever good shots they saw.
“I just can’t believe how many volunteers, spectators, people who were just so encouraging. Would you spend your free weekend out there on this weather? There’s nowhere like it in the world, that I’ve seen,” Millar said. “That made it a lot easier to keep your head up and keep battling on.”
Rickie Fowler drew on the largest crowds, partly because he has treated the fans so well all week, and partly because he was playing with Rory McIlroy. Still, he was stunned to see bleachers full in the driving rain.
“I probably wouldn’t have been out there. I would have been home watching on TV,” he said. “It just shows you how great fans they are of golf to stick out in those conditions and the amount of people that were following our group.”
Most telling was Woodland’s adventure on the 14th hole.
After hitting his first tee shot out-of-bounds, Woodland’s next one went 50 yards to the left in grass so high that not even spectators walked there. A search party of nearly 40 people scoured the rough until they found the ball.
That begged this question: For an American who is not well known in these parts, who barely made the cut and was in the fourth group out, on the farthest end of Royal St. George’s, why were there that many people following him in the first place?
“These fans are unbelievable,” Woodland said. “For them to be out there watching, it was good to see.”
WHERE HAS HE BEEN? Having a half-dozen Americans among the top 12 on the leaderboard is not surprising.
Anthony Kim being among them was what caught so much attention.
Kim is having his worst year, with only one top 10 finish. He keeps saying that his game feels as though it’s good enough to compete, but disappears from the practice range to the first tee. But after an even-par 70 that was anything but even – 4 over his first eight holes, 4 under his last 10 – Kim was in a tie for seventh and only five shots behind.
“I’ve found my game, it’s just I haven’t brought it to the tournaments,” Kim said. “I’m excited that this is the tournament I brought it to. Other tournaments are very important, but to play well at major championships is what I work for. So to be able to put up some good rounds – probably my best rounds I’ve played all year at the British – is pretty rewarding.”
KEEPING DRY: Ryan Moore started out with six small towels and one big towel. After 18 holes, all of them were wet. Defending champion Louis Oosthuizen didn’t wear any extra layers except for his rain suit, and he kept his towels to four for the round.
That was the trick for the players who faced the worst of the weather in the morning—staying warm and staying dry.
“That’s why I just laughed, because I’ve never played in it like this,” Oosthuizen said. “Whenever you have social rounds and it just starts raining a little bit, you say, ‘I’m out of here, boys.’ But I couldn’t do that today.”
Oosthuizen shot 74.
WOODLAND’S RIDE: For a 25-hole stretch, Gary Woodland said it was the best golf he played all year.
It would be difficult to disagree.
Woodland appeared to be headed home early on Friday when he was 7 over at the British Open through four holes of the second round, and the wind was getting stronger by the minute. He made four birdies and no bogeys the rest of the way for a 68 to make the cut on the number, then looked even better Saturday morning in whipping wind and lashing rain.
Woodland was 2 under through 11 holes of the third round in the worst of the weather, five shots out of the lead. Then came a few bogeys, which was no shame on this day.
“The tee shot on 14 was the toughest shot out there for me today,” he said.
It turned out to be his undoing. His drive started some 30 yards left and rode the wind to the right out-of-bounds. Then came a tee shot into rough so deep that Woodland took a lob wedge and “swung as hard as I could” to get back to the fairway.
He did well to make a triple bogey, then came back on the next hole with another superb shot, this a 3-iron into the wind that bounded onto the green and touched the left edge of the cup as the gallery rose in the grandstands, thinking it might see an eagle.
From 7 over early Friday, Woodland played that 25-hole stretch in 6 under with no bogeys. On the last seven holes Saturday, he was 6 over and right back where he had started. He wound up with a 74.
But that start on Saturday?
“Some of the best golf I’ve ever seen,” said Ryan Moore, his playing partner.
RAIN READY: Matthew Millar of Australia didn’t mind playing alone as the first to tee off in the third round. He chose not to take a marker, not wanting anyone else to have to suffer through the conditions.
As for the weather? He was among the few looking forward to it.
Millar has spent the last few months playing alone in freezing, wet and windy conditions in his home city of Canberra to get ready for the British Open. What he found was 30 mph wind and a steady rain.
“It’s been quite cool back home. We’ve had quite a lot of rain and a lot of wind, so I’ve been practicing in that,” Millar said. “But you don’t spend five hours in it like we are doing here. This place is something else. It’s hard enough when it’s dry.”
He wound up with an 80.
COULD HAVE BEEN WORSE: Bo Van Pelt called Saturday the second-worst conditions he has ever faced.
The first was in Kansas.
His senior year in college, Van Pelt went to Prairie Dunes, a classic design by Perry Maxwell. It was blowing about as hard as it was Saturday, except that it was 40 degrees. And he had to play 36 holes.
“I was having a flashback to that,” Van Pelt said. “This is the second-worst day. But at least you’re playing in a major. This is what it’s all about. You come here and know this is part of the deal, and if you’re not going to embrace it, you might as well go home.”