No other links course in England has hosted the British Open more often than Royal St. George’s. No other course on the rotation can claim the first Open champion to not break 80 over four rounds and the first Open champion to shoot in the 60s in all four rounds.
And when it comes to its terrain, Royal St. George’s is simply like no other.
“Almost like playing on the surface of the moon,” Justin Rose said.
The British Open returns to this peculiar links in the southeast of England for the 14th time next week, and about the only certainty is that a claret jug will be awarded to one of the 156 players.
Getting from the opening tee shot to the final putt is not always that simple.
“I’d swear the Royal Air Force used a couple of the fairways for bombing runs,” Greg Norman said in 1993, days before he began dismantling the course with four rounds in the 60s to win his second British Open.
After closing with a 64 in the wind, Norman described it as “the world championship of imagination.”
How quirky are some of the bounces?
“We had a bet in a practice round on the 17th hole that you had to hit a driver, and if you hit the fairway, you got $100 from everybody,” Justin Leonard said about his last trip to Royal St. George’s in 2003. “And nobody was worried about paying. Not one of us even checked to see if we had $100 in our pocket. It’s a little nutty in spots.”
Geoff Ogilvy spoke for dozens of players in a column for Golf World magazine that began, “The funny thing about Royal St. George’s is that it doesn’t seem to be anyone’s favorite course.”
Finding someone who lists it among his favorite links on the British Open rotation is about as easy as it was for Tiger Woods to find his tee shot in the rough right of the first fairway in 2003, which he never did.
“You haven’t asked Ben Curtis,” Jim Furyk said with a grin.
In his major championship debut, Curtis won the British Open at Royal St. George’s eight years ago. Upon finding him, Curtis rated it as his fifth favorite. And he’s played only seven of the Open courses.
Charles Howell III played his first British Open there in 2003, and while he can’t remember which player said it, the description stuck with him: “The world’s largest pinball machine.”
But there’s a reason this gem of a links course in Sandwich, a small town along the North Sea about an hour east of London, has hosted so many important championships.
“It’s a really good test,” Royal & Ancient chief executive Peter Dawson said.
Dawson took umbrage at the idea that no one likes Royal St. George’s, at first protesting that “you’re making up a story, there’s nothing there.” Moments later, however, he conceded that opinions are largely derived from the most recent experience.
Only one player managed to break par in 2003. That was Curtis, who was No. 396 in the world ranking, playing his first major and barely known outside his neighborhood in Ohio. It was easy to suggest that a quirky course had a surprising winner, but that would be to ignore who else could have won: Vijay Singh, Thomas Bjorn, Woods, Davis Love III, Sergio Garcia, Kenny Perry. Most of golf’s best that year had a chance to win the claret jug.
Surely, Royal St. George’s does something right as it tries to define the champion golfer of the year.
Still, the R&A recognized some changes were in order. Only 30 percent of the entire field found the fairway on the opening hole last time, so it has been widened by 12 yards. The 17th fairway also has been widened by about 6 yards, so Leonard better check his wallet.
In the week before the Open, Dawson watched as U.S. Open champions Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell, three-time major winner Ernie Els and four-time major champion Phil Mickelson played practice rounds. “They’ve all been raving about how good it is,” he said.
Dawson regards links courses in the rotation as children. He loves them all and refuses to play favorites, although he can discern their many differences.
“I suppose St. George’s has slightly more blindish shots than the others,” he said. “But it’s a golf course you need to get to know. It’s a wonderful piece of links land. And this is a very tough golf course.”
So why so many references to its lunar – some might even say “looney” – landscape?
“I think it’s do with its size,” Dawson said. “There’s nothing surrounding it, and apart from the 14th, there’s no real boundary.”
That tends to accentuate the humps and hillocks. Like just about any links course, the bounces are unpredictable.
“You could literally hit it down the middle of the fairway, and the guy you’re playing with could hit it right in the junk,” David Duval said. “You get down there and there’s one ball in the fairway, and it’s not yours. You had balls rolling off sideways, and that leaves a bad taste in your mouth when you execute a shot like you’re supposed to and you get up there and you’ve got nothing.”
That said, Duval can’t wait to get back. Even the bad bounces are part of the charm of links golf. Love got one of the biggest breaks ever in 2003 when his tee shot on the 14th struck a white out-of-bounds stake and caromed back into play.
All the consternation about funky bounces leaves Brad Faxon perplexed.
He played his first British Open in 1985 at Royal St. George’s. Faxon said he didn’t know if his shot was going to bounce to the left or to the right. He realized there was an element of luck. To him, that’s always been part of the game.
“When they call it the quirkiest of the courses … are you going to tell me St. Andrews isn’t quirky? They’ve got crossing holes and double greens. What is quirky?” Faxon asked. “There are mounds on the fairways, and a shot bounces into the rough. Are you telling me that doesn’t happen at any other Open course?”
Adam Scott described it as “a bit of a fiddly golf course.”
Was it his favorite?
“Muirfield you mean?” he replied with a cheeky grin. “It’s not my personal favorite, no.”
Scott certainly is not out on a limb there. As to why it causes such hesitation, he blamed that on funny bounces. Scott also attributes that to players who have too many expectations from a game that is filled with surprises.
“I think it’s because we’re all pretty spoiled, and when we hit it down the middle of the fairway we expect it to be in the middle of the fairway. But that’s not how golf works over there,” he said. “That’s why we’re saying these things. But we’re all going to have to deal with the same things. I’m going to be pretty fired up to stand on the first tee Thursday and play an Open Championship.
“I don’t care what the course looks like,” he said. “I just want to win the thing, you know?”