SANDWICH, England – Steve Stricker can appreciate better than most how the British Open is unlike any other major.
One day after winning the John Deere Classic with a birdie-birdie finish on the green, manicured fairways of a TPC course in America’s heartland, Stricker was trying to stand upright on the lunar links of Royal St. George’s. The yardage book was more of a guide than the gospel. It was tough to control his golf ball through the air, even harder when it was bouncing along the ground.
“It’s quite a turnaround,” Stricker said Wednesday. “To learn and adapt to this style in 2 1/2 days is a challenge.”
That short time was all he needed, however, to learn what most others have about this links course in the southeast of England. It’s a strong test for golf’s oldest championship on a mild day. When the wind is up, which it has been all week, it can be a beast.
The 140th edition of this championship gets underway Thursday at Royal St. George’s, as unpredictable as any links on the Open rotation. This is the course where Greg Norman in 1993 became the first Open champion to win with all four rounds in the 60s. It’s the same course where Ben Curtis was the only player to break par when it was last here in 2003.
A dry spring has kept the rough from getting too thick, which is but a small reprieve.
“It’s a big challenge, and we are the best players in the world here,” PGA champion Martin Kaymer said. “So it should be tough. At the end of the day, everybody has to deal with the same golf course.”
Even so, it’s not always the same for everyone.
The piece of information getting most of the attention on the eve of the British Open was the weather report. The forecast is for gusts up to 25 mph Thursday morning with patches of rain, before the wind tapers off in the afternoon. The wind is expected to remain moderate Friday morning, then switch directions and return to gusts upward of 25 mph by the end of the day.
If that holds true, the players teeing off early Thursday and late Friday could get the worst of it. And as a reminder of how significant the tee times can be, remember that Louis Oosthuizen teed off at 6:41 a.m. in the second round last year at St. Andrews, missed the worst of the weather in his round of 67 and was on his way to a seven-shot win.
Among the early starters Thursday: Rory McIlroy, the overwhelming favorite to add the claret jug to his U.S. Open trophy.
McIlroy, who has not played since his record-setting win at Congressional last month, did most of his preparation last week at Royal St. George’s. He played in a strong, southwesterly wind, which is typical this time of the year. The 22-year-old from Northern Ireland played at 6:30 a.m. Wednesday in a wind coming out of the opposite direction.
He played at the same time Tiger Woods used to practice, and while the gallery for McIlroy wasn’t quite as large, the kid caused a frenzy when fans tried to get his autograph after he finished. For the rest of the day, officials banned autographs in the area leading from the 18th green.
It’s a different test for McIlroy, with conditions much more firm and dry than at the U.S. Open.
“It’s firm. It’s fast,” he said. “But the thing is with this wind, you’re going to have to keep the ball low. But sometimes it’s hard to run the ball into these greens because they’re so undulating and they can go so many different ways.”
The wind direction during three days of practice has the Royal & Ancient concerned enough that it might move some tees forward. Chief executive Peter Dawson said the most likely candidates were the par-5 seventh (some players couldn’t reach the fairway) and the par-3 11th (Phil Mickelson couldn’t reach the green with a driver).
Then there’s the par-4 13th, where Stricker hit driver off the tee and driver off the deck to get it near the green.
“Now, if the wind turns around, it’s a different story,” Dawson said.
It’s different for everybody – even in the same group.
Stewart Cink, who won at Turnberry two years ago, was reminded of that while playing a practice round with Davis Love III, Lucas Glover and two-time Open champion Padraig Harrington. They came to the par-3 sixth hole, which measures 162 yards to the front edge of a green that is 35 yards deep. They all hit pitching wedge with the wind in their favor.
“Some of them were short by about 50 feet, and some of them went through the green into the rough,” Cink said. “And they all landed within 5 yards of each other.”
So what does it take on this most difficult links?
McIlroy believes the second shot will be key. Luke Donald, the No. 1 player in the world, emphasized chipping and putting because the greens are so difficult. Kaymer favored the 10-foot putts, many of which will be for par.
K.J. Choi, who won The Players Championship in May and is having one of his best years, spoke in English to describe his experience, and while the sentences were short, the meaning was clear.
“Wind very important,” he said. “This wind is the most difficult. Greens are small targets. Chipping.”
Cink came up with the best answer of all – as it relates to this British Open, and this style of golf.
“Attitude,” he said. “A lot of the field is weeded out already. They’re not accustomed to hitting good shots and being put in a bad spot. Because you don’t always get rewarded for good shots. But if you hit enough good shots, you won’t get in as many bad spots as someone who doesn’t hit a lot of good shots.”
That sounds simple enough, even though getting around Royal St. George’s can be a little complicated at times.
It all starts Thursday with a few key figures. McIlroy will try to become only the seventh player to capture the U.S. Open and British Open in the same season (that’s one thing Jack Nicklaus failed to achieve). Donald and Lee Westwood are Nos. 1 and 2 in the world, both from England, both searching for their first major on a links course that has had only one British winner since World War II.
The Americans have gone five straight majors without winning one – the longest drought since The Masters began in 1934 – and with Woods not at his best and not even playing, it’s difficult to pick which U.S. player might have a chance this week.
For all the crazy comments about this course, there’s a reason the Open is at Royal St. George’s for the 14th time, the most of any course not located in Scotland.
“We believe Royal St. George’s is a true Open Championship test,” said Jim McArthur, chair of the championship committee for the R&A. “It’s very much based on the strategic player rather than muscle. The course is in terrific condition. The wind perhaps is a wee bit stronger than we would like at the moment, but we like that wind on links courses.”