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As you sit back and watch the 149th British Open this week, take a close look at the golf course, Royal St. George’s, because it may turn out to be as much the story by Sunday as the player who hoists the Claret Jug.
This will be the 15th Open Championship played on Royal St. George’s, and the past two staged there, in 2003 and 2011, were not exactly the most memorable among the 148 Opens that have been played.
When Ben Curtis won in 2003, he was ranked 396th in the world and was playing in his first career major. The win was his first career PGA Tour victory of any kind, and he went on to win three more times in his career — at the Booz Allen Classic and 84 LUMBER Classic in 2006 and Valero Texas Open in 2012.
That 2003 Open was perhaps better known for Thomas Bjorn losing a two-shot lead with three to play when he took three swings to get out of a greenside bunker on the par-3 16th hole and walked away with a double bogey.
That week also was marred by Tiger Woods losing a ball in the heavy right rough on the first hole of his opening round. He took a triple bogey and never quite recovered, finishing two shots behind Curtis.
When Darren Clarke won in 2011 at age 42, it was the only major championship victory of his career, and it came after he entered the week a 200-1 betting shot to win. It was the last PGA Tour tournament Clarke won.
That 2011 Open was perhaps better known for Dustin Johnson, trailing Clarke by two shots in the final round and applying pressure with a birdie run, sprayed a 4-iron out of bounds on the 14th hole to take double bogey and fall from contention.
Aesthetically, Royal St. George’s isn’t close to the most visually dynamic course in the Open rota. It doesn’t have the beauty of Turnberry or Royal Portrush or the history of St. Andrews, Carnoustie or Muirfield.
Jack Nicklaus was famously quoted as saying, “The Open venues get worse the farther south you go.’’
Royal St. George’s is the farthest south of the Open venues, some 90 minutes southeast of London in Sandwich, England.
Nicklaus, it should be noted, missed the cut twice and finished 23rd in the three Opens he played at Royal St. George’s. And he won all three of his Open titles in Scotland (twice at Muirfield and once at St. Andrews).
On Tuesday, Brooks Koepka was less than complimentary about the course, saying, “It’s not my favorite venue that we’ve played … put it that way.’’
Koepka said Portrush and St. Andrews are his “favorites,’’ and he added: “This one, it’s just not as exciting. I don’t know why. … Whether it be a couple shots to nothing, a couple blind tee shots or shots in where you can’t really see much. I’m not too big of a fan of that.’’
Royal St. George’s can be a very uncomfortable venue for several reasons, beginning with the fact that its terrain is unusually mounded and bumpy in the fairways, which can send what look like good shots to some bad places.
It, too, is unlike the more classic links courses, which feature nine holes out in one direction and nine holes back to the clubhouse. On those layouts, the wind can be judged more easily, because players are either playing into it or have it at their backs.
The layout at Royal St. George’s is set up in angles, with no two holes running in the same direction, which makes judging the wind more complicated.
All of this said, though, venerable South African Gary Player, who won three British Opens, called Royal St. George’s “probably the easiest of the Open golf courses.’’
The results of the last two Opens there, though, belie Player’s assertion. Curtis was the only player under par in 2003, winning at 1-under. Clarke won in 2011 at 5-under and only three others that year finished below par — runners-up Phil Mickelson and Johnson (2-under) and Bjorn (1-under).
Rory McIlroy, the 2014 Open winner at Royal Liverpool, said the rain Royal St. George’s has taken in of late has softened the fairways and said, “It’s certainly not as penal or unfair as it has been in previous years.’’
“[In] 2011, it was a little bit like that [unfair], but looking back to ’03, for example, it looked really burnt and crispy then and it looked like a bit of a pinball machine out there,’’ McIlroy said. “But that’s not going to be the case this week. It’s a lot more lush. It’s a lot more green. The biggest thing this week is if you do hit it off line, you’ve got some really thick, juicy rough on either side of the fairway, which you just have to avoid.’’
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