Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 14, 2011

Opening Day At A Wide-Open Open

Under gray skies and occasional rain the oldest major championship in golf got underway on Thursday. The Open Championship was first played in 1860. Eight Scottish professionals went round Prestwick’s twelve hole layout three times in a single day, with Willie Park, Sr. besting Old Tom Morris by two strokes. For his efforts Park was awarded a red leather belt with a silver buckle, which he was allowed to keep for the following year. Park would go on to win the tournament three more times. In 1863 he reclaimed the leather belt. By 1866 his victory also brought him a rich cash prize of six pounds sterling. When he won for the final time in 1875 the leather belt had been retired, Young Tom Morris having been allowed to keep it after winning three Opens in a row. So Park was one of the first in a long and noble line of golfers to hoist the Claret Jug.

Officially the Golf Champion Trophy, the silver claret jug is engraved with the winner’s name each year before the awards ceremony following the Open’s conclusion. Even after one round at this year’s tournament, it’s anyone’s guess whose name will be inscribed come Sunday afternoon. This year’s tournament is considered particularly wide open for two reasons.

First is the fact that the four majors have all been decidedly wide open of late. The last eleven major tournaments, and thirteen of the last fourteen, have been won by different players. Padraig Harrington is the only repeat winner since the beginning of 2008, and Paddy hasn’t won another tournament anywhere since he went back-to-back at the Open and PGA Championship that year.

Not only are different players winning, more and more golfers are breaking through at the majors. Eight of those eleven consecutive different winners were first time major champions. In addition, both the steady rise of international players and golf’s youth movement have impacted the four major events. When South African Charl Schwartzel won the Masters in April it marked the first time since 1994 and only the second time ever that all four champions were non-Americans. Two months later, when Rory McIlroy ran away with the U.S. Open, replacing fellow Northern Irishman Graeme McDowell as titleholder, it marked the first time ever that all four titles were held by different golfers in their twenties. So while the British bookmakers have installed McIlroy as the 8-1 favorite, the reality is that there are many in the field who have a legitimate shot at becoming “the champion golfer of the year.”

The second factor making the year’s Open especially so is the venue. On the southeastern coast of England, closer to France than to London, Royal St. George’s Golf Club is perhaps the least favorite course on the Open rota for the players. Although located about as far as possible from Scotland while still being in Britain, the course is classic Scottish links golf taken to the extreme. Designed by a transplanted Scot and opened in 1887, Royal St. George’s became the first course outside of Scotland to host the Open in 1894. More than a century later, this year it is the site of the tournament for the fourteenth time.

Playing at more than 7,200 yard with a par of just 70, the course features numerous blind shots, especially on the front nine. The fairways are a series of humps and hollows, undulations that can send a perfectly struck ball bouncing off in an entirely wrong direction, or direct it down into one of the numerous pot bunkers. The greens are every bit as undulating as the fairways.

Two of St. George’s four par-3’s are playing at 240 yards or more for the Open. Depending on the direction and strength of the wind, even golf’s best players may find themselves pulling driver out of their bag for their tee shot on those holes. At 495 yards, the 4th hole played as a par-5 in prior Opens. This year it is a monster par-4, featuring a tee shot that must carry two massive bunkers, including the second deepest trap in all of England, rising more than fifty feet like some sandy sentinel guarding the fairway.

When the Open was last at St. George’s in 2003, American Ben Curtis was the only golfer to finish under par, defeating Thomas Bjorn and Vijay Singh by a single stroke. That spring and early summer in Kent had been particularly wet, with the result that the rough was especially deep and tangled. The combination of extremely penal rough and the randomness introduced by the fairways’ undulations left much of the field feeling the layout was unfair. While he has since won twice more and earned more than $10 million on the PGA Tour, at the time Curtis was an utterly unknown rookie. After his victory, the normally equable Davis Love III sniped that the “Open got exactly the champion it deserved.”

Unlike their American cousins at the USGA, the members of the R&A who run the Open Championship are much less concerned with protecting par. They are content to let Mother Nature control much of the set up of their links courses, believing that whatever the final scores the best golfer will still be the one with the lowest. To that end, the 2011 Open should see a kinder Royal St. George’s than in 2003. The area around the town of Sandwich has been quite dry for months, so the rough is nothing like it was the last time. Also, a few fairways have been widened; though the undulations are as random as ever, and if the wind starts to blow the old links will still show its teeth.

At the end of the first day, when conditions were calmer and drier than had been forecast, 35 golfers were under par. Leading them all was an unlikely twosome, the 2003 runner-up from Denmark, 40-year old Bjorn, and 20-year old English amateur Tom Lewis.

Bjorn barely made it into the tournament at all. He was the sixth alternate, so needed a fortuitous combination of withdrawals to make the field. Having done so, for a day at least he was able to slay some demons. For the 2003 Open belonged to Thomas Bjorn before he threw it all away, losing four strokes to par in the final three holes. On the 16th that year, he needed three swings to escape from a bunker. Eight years later he made birdie on the same hole in the first round.

The amateur Lewis is familiar with the course, having won the 2009 English Boys Amateur there. Playing late in the day he ran off five birdies in a row from the 13th through the 17th to tie Bjorn. In his threesome was Tom Watson, whom Lewis is named after.

Odds are that come Sunday, neither Bjorn nor Lewis will see their name engraved on the Claret Jug. But given the unlikely result of so many recent majors, and the randomness imposed on the field by the bumpy challenges of Royal St. George’s, an early leader board topped by the two of them seems entirely appropriate.

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