Tiger Woods stood on the first tee at the 2003 Open Championship already an eight-time major winner.
Royal St George’s didn’t care. It stared down the greatest player in modern golf and ate his ball.
Woods sent his tee shot just to the right and although it was seen by spectators heading into the rough, it could not be found. It was the first time as a pro that he’d lost a ball.
“It was a little disconcerting,” Woods said at the time.
He put his next tee shot into the same rough and walked off the first hole with a triple-bogey seven. Given that he trailed the winner by just two shots after 72 holes, you could take the simplistic view that he lost the tournament on the first tee.
Such is St George’s, a malicious, maligned beast of a links course in the deceptively benign locale of Sandwich, Kent; just up from the Strait of Dover, in the windy, rainy south-east of England.
“It’s really not a great Open course,” golf icon Gary Player, a three-time Open champion, once said of the layout. “Should it stay on the Open rota? No, I don’t think so.”
The criticism has endured. Four-time major winner Brooks Koepka arrived for this weekend’s Open Championship with nose upturned.
“It’s not my favourite venue that we have played,” the American said. “I think Portrush and St Andrews are definitely the favourites.
“Quite a few blind tee shots, kind of hitting to nothing. Fairways are quite undulating. I don’t know, it’s not my favourite of the rotation, put it that way.”
About half of holes four, seven and eight are not visible from the tee. The fourth hole features a blind tee shot over a 40-foot (12m) high, 25-foot (7.6m) wide bunker nicknamed ‘Himalaya’; believed to be the biggest bunker in all of championship golf.
Though at Royal St George’s, it doesn’t necessarily matter if you can seen where you’re hitting the ball. Given that the fairways have more undulations than the adjacent ocean, the ball can end up anywhere on even a decent shot. A tee shot in the middle of the fairway can still mean a second shot from heavy rough.
“St George’s is a course you never really understand,” Tom Watson, a five-time Open champion, once said.
“There are at least a dozen places there where you hit the ball and you won’t know until you’re 50 yards from it whether it’s gone into a bunker, it’s in the rough or, glory be, it’s on the green.”
Open champion of 2014, Rory McIlroy, offered the faint praise that: “It’s better than it was. It used to be a pinball machine.”
Yet English veteran Lee Westwood reckons that the hand-wringing is both misplaced and counter-productive.
“I’d rank it my No.1 [course of the Open rota] this week,” Westwood said.
“You’ve got to love it and get on with it. There’s no point in coming to a course and saying, ‘I don’t like this place’. You can mentally get in your own way straight away. There are reasons why the R&A come back here and they should be respected.”
Royal St George’s has produced an eclectic mix of champions.
There are all-time greats such as Bobby Locke and Harry Vardon won there, as did Australia’s Greg Norman. “I was in awe of myself out there,” Norman said after his victory, having finished at 13-under in 1993. He is the only winner of 14 Opens at Royal St George’s to have finished at better than five-under.
Then, there’s some rank long-shots. The past two Open champions at the layout were American Ben Curtis (2003), who was ranked world No.396, rated 500-1 with the bookies and had never seen a British links course before; and Northern Irishman Darren Clarke (2011), who was ranked 111th and at odds of 200-1.
Curtis once rated Royal St George’s his fifth favourite Open course … having played just seven layouts on the rota. That was even after he beat prime Tiger there, thanks to the rising legend’s first-hole horrors. Clarke will always love the course, naturally, yet can understand why so many other players can’t stand it.
“The fairways are more unpredictable than any other on the Open rota,” Clarke said.
“It can drive a golfer mad, as you can hit a ball straight down the middle of the fairway and you don’t know which rough to walk to – right or left. There are that many mounds.”
McIlroy said: “Let’s be honest, St George’s is nobody’s favourite layout on the Open rota … except perhaps Clarkey.”
McIlroy finished tied-25th the year that Clarke won, yet has returned with a slightly softened view of the course. The course itself is softer, thanks to rain in the build-up to the Open, meaning it may be a tad more forgiving.
“I walked away from the golf course on Saturday and Sunday thinking this is a much better golf course than I remember it being,” he said.
“I think that’s just because of the way it’s playing right now. I think it’s perfect, and as the days go on with a little bit of wind and sunshine, by the weekend it should just be absolutely perfect. It should be playing the way it should play.
“I obviously didn’t have great memories from 2011 the way I played, and playing the last few days this is just my perception; and because of not playing my best that time, I came back here and it’s much better than I remember.”
Clarke said that the course may well throw up another unexpected champion; whoever happens to emerge least-damaged from the mounds, bunkers and rough.
“At 42, would I have been somebody who you thought would’ve had a chance?” he said.
“All I ever wanted from a young kid when I was practising was to get my name on the Claret Jug and I was able to do that here.”
Royal St George’s was created in 1878 by Laidlaw Purves. The R&A has bowed to some criticism of the course, with a reduction of bumps along the 18th fairway one slight concession. They have also allowed the fairways to be watered, on top of the rain that has fallen ahead of the tournament.
“We’re very conscious that this course has got a lot of very severe undulations in the fairways and in the landing areas,” R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers said.
“We’ve been conscious right the way through to ensure that a ball that lands on that doesn’t get kicked off at a pace that could take it into deep, deep rough.”
Still, players will require smart thinking and adaptability to survive, let alone lift the Claret Jug. Even the king of long hitters on the PGA Tour, Bryson DeChambeau, suggested that he may be sparing with his driver use this weekend.
“There will be certain holes where there is a lot of wind and you can’t really control the golf ball with that type of wind, where it bounces, how it bounces,” DeChambeau said.
“Keeping it low and on the ground if it gets firm is definitely something I would utilise.”
Fellow American star Dustin Johnson added: “A bounce here or there can definitely be the difference between winning a major or not. Definitely around links golf courses or at The Open Championship, that can definitely come into play a little bit more; but everybody is playing the same golf course and it’s all the same humps and bumps for everybody.”
Eleven Australians are in the field for the 149th Open, including four first-timers: Jason Scrivener, Deyen Lawson, Aaron Pike and Min Woo Lee. They will be joined by Cameron Smith, Marc Leishman, Adam Scott, Jason Day, Lucas Herbert, Matt Jones and Brad Kennedy. Herbert and Lee are recent winners, at the Irish and Scottish Opens respectively.
Yet if they get the rough side of Royal St George’s, they can take comfort in the fact that the course also got the best of the greatest of all time, 18-time major winner and triple Open champion Jack Nicklaus.
“What I do know is I’ve never played particularly well at St George’s,” Nicklaus once said.
“I won a tournament there as an amateur, when I was 19, and never played a good round after that. It’s always been a hard course for me.”
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