Things We Have Learned at the Open Championship So Far:
Royal Birkdale is a great course
Well, we sort of knew that going in, but it has been reaffirmed after the first two rounds. Not a bad thing has been mentioned regarding Royal Birkdale. Players have almost been unanimous in their sentiment that Birkdale is ‘tough, but fair’…about the best comment you can give a great layout. The bunkers seem perfectly placed on each hole…good shots are rewarded and poor shots are penalized. Scoring has been indicative of a challenging, but fair course. Six under leads after 36 holes and weather has only been an issue for part of the draw.
This is anybody’s championship to win
With the wind forecast to lay down (5-15 mph) on Saturday and maybe softer conditions from the rain, someone could shoot up the leaderboard with a 64/65. Anyone within 7-8 shots of the lead is definitely still in the championship.
But this is Speith’s championship to lose
I just don’t see Speith backing up. The second round 69 was better played than his first round. Somebody is going to have to come get him. His pitching and putting look very solid when he misses greens, his putting looks better than it has in a long time …not good news for the chasers.
‘You can’t win it on Thursday, but you can lose it’
Why do I keep thinking that with Rory McIlroy? I think the start on Thursday will be his undoing. He looked solid the last 27 holes and no reason to believe he continue the form we saw on Friday. He is the player that could fire up a 64 Saturday…he will need to doing something special to make up for the atrocious start.
Started as a club professional, made it to the tour with success, serial social media guy, struggled the past few years and now seems to have found some form. Oh, and he’s English. His being in contention is a welcome return and good for golf. Like him or hate him, he is a character and adds a little flavor to the event. Yes, if he would win, it would be the feel-good story of the year so far and take the UK citizen's minds off Brexit for a bit.
The annual Open Championship streaker has not made an appearance. However, the weekend and plenty of Tennets will probably bring the person out of hiding. Have no fear Mr. Streaker, the ‘Get in the Hole’ guy from the US had you covered the first two days.
It’s 1:30 am…time to wake up and watch some golf! Even though the woolies may be out early this morning, we could be in for lower scores today.
Downpours and thunderstorms chased the players from Royal Birkdale on Wednesday afternoon. While limiting their last minute preparations, the rain brings good news to the players. The turf will be softened with the heavy rain and should make the course a bit easier, so long as the wind doesn’t blow Thursday. Royal Birkdale really only has one hole where you can definitely be thinking birdie (17), but the softer conditions should allow the players to hit some close approach shots. We could very easily see a 64 from someone.
This Open Championship is about the most wide-open that I can recall. There really is not a clear-cut favorite going into the event. Dustin Johnson, Jordan Speith and Rickie Fowler are co-favorites at 14-1, followed closely by Jon Rahm and Sergio Garcia at 16-1. But this Open could be easily won by a player nobody is talking about. Marc Leishman and Shane Lowry are players that come to my mind. Ian Poulter has gradually come back into contending form recently. Padraig Harrington even is a possibility.
Thursday’s forecast just calls for clouds and 15-20 mph breeze. Friday has rain in the forecast. The eventual winner could benefit from timing…tee timing that is.
Professional golfers and yes, recreation golfer in the US are spoiled. Our golf courses are lush, the fairways are smooth, our courses are watered to be soft and our greens are shaved closer than a Marine crew cut. Our courses are perfectly manicured…we know how far we must fly the ball and we know it will pretty much stop on the green. Believe it or not, we have ‘Americanized’ golf.
But then comes an event one week out of each year in July that has some magic. Thanks to the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, the Open Championship showcases how golf was intended to be played. We get to see links golf.
Our courses in the US are lush and green. We all love watching the Masters, as August National is the best manicured course in our country. This week, here comes Royal Birkdale, with its varying shades of brown and humps and bumps. Quite the contrast.
Links is derived from a Scottish word meaning ‘ridge.’ Links courses were built on coastal areas, consisting of sand dunes, that were considered unsuitable for farming. Fescue grasses were the only thing that would grow and the soil drained well. With the lack of moisture, the grass tends to have long roots. What you get is a very firm surface with long wispy fescue grasses off the mown areas and the naturally undulating areas between the dunes. Sorry Pebble Beach, Harbour Town and others here in the US...you are not links courses.
Links golf forces you to put up with the vagaries of the weather and humpy-bumpy hard turf. Some have equated the surrounding to like being on the moon. You must have a variety of shots in your arsenal. In the US, you can be somewhat robotic in your approach to playing a course through the air. You know how far that pitching wedge goes to the tenth of a yard. Guess what? Links golf cuts through all that bull-butter. You better have every shot in the bag when you step foot on a links course.
Links golf is you versus the course. You have no shelter from what Mother Nature may bring. One moment it may be sunny and five minutes later, you have gale force wind and it is raining sideways. You see the weather approaching sometimes like a drunken ex-girlfriend who spots you at a party. You know what’s coming and you have nowhere to hide.
You will hit what you think are good shots, only to see them bound off the green or sideways into a pot bunker, the wispy fescue or the gorse. Oh yes, the bunkers on links courses are true penalties. No one this white sand, low lip, perfectly raked stuff we have in the US. You go in a bunker on a links courses, it is wedging out sideways back to the fairway. And yes, sometimes you must hit backwards! We in the US complain about ‘bad bounces’ and ‘not getting rewarded’ for good shots. I can just see Old Tom Morris saying, Aye, but isn’t that how life goes?’
You can’t be a robot playing a links. You can play the same links course twice in one day and play your shots totally different in the second round versus the first. You must think your away around the course. You can’t just bomb it, go find it and bomb it again like many in the modern era tend to do. That aspect alone makes links golf worth appreciating. You must know and understand the land and the shots only begin to take shape once they hit the turf. Read the greens, but you also better read the land.
Links golf is the purest form of golf and for all these reasons are why I truly would rather play a links course any day of the week. There is no truer test of your golfing ‘toolbox’ than teeing it up for a round at a seaside links course. Having different options, the challenge of creating and executing different shots during a round is what golf is about.
My first time playing Royal Lytham & St. Annes, I had 120 yards into the 18th green. I decided to chip and run and 7 iron. It got no more than 6 feet off the ground, carried about 50 yards in the air and ran the rest to about 12 feet from the flag. On the balcony of the clubhouse right behind the green a few members were watching me. As I approached the green they lifted their drinks and shouted, ‘You must be a local.’ My response, ‘I wish I were.’
One of the first Open Championship Rota courses I was fortunate to play was Royal Birkdale. Upon entering the property, the first things that hits you is the clubhouse. Once described as a ‘spaceship’, it is not the proto-typical foreboding clubhouses you think of when visiting these great links courses in the United Kingdom. Once inside, you find a building that is oozing in history with pictures and hardware commemorating the 26 Royal & Ancient major championships (professional and amateur) that the club has hosted.
The golf course itself is one of my favorite layouts. It looks like Frederick Hawtree and J.H. Taylor just walked along and plotted the fairways and placed the greens between all the natural valleys and dunes of the property. It is fair but tough. Good and straight shots are rewarded, while wayward shots are penalized by the bunkers, fescue and dunes. There is nothing quirky about this course. It is easily one of the Top 100 golf courses in the world. I have played it three times and enjoyed it more each time around the layout.
If the course gets a wee breeze this week, look for the scores to a bit on the high side this week. Only once has the winner of the Open (Lee Trevino in 1971) managed to reach double digits under par. Royal Birkdale is a wonderful mix of challenging dogleg par 4’s and great par 3’s. There are two par 5’s, but you don’t get them until the 15th and 17th holes. This par-70 will challenge the field and I consider it one of the more difficult Open Rota layouts.
There will be a few key holes this week. Of course, this will depend which way the wind blows on the Merseyside. As I write, the wind is forecast for about 15 mph, with gusts to 25 mph on the first two days of the championship. Given that, here are the key holes from my experience in playing Royal Birkdale.
1st Hole—Par 4, 450 yards
This is a great starting hole and no easing into this layout. A dogleg left, most players will probably take a long iron or hybrid off the tee thread their ball between a bunker and dune on the corner and fescue waiting at the far corner of the dogleg. From there, mid-to-long iron approach awaits to a green which slopes from away from you, front to back. A couple of bunkers guard the front of the green which is surrounded by small dunes. Four is a good score any day here, no matter which way the wind blows.
4th Hole—Par 3, 199 yards
One of things you get at Birkdale are many holes with elevated tees and superb par 3’s. This first of which is this hole. From the very back of the tee, you may have trouble seeing the entire green. Sometimes, it is best not to see what awaits you. Played usually with a prevailing crosswind, you hit a mid-iron downhill to a narrow kidney shaped green. Three bunkers guard the left and there is not much of an opening to run the ball up. A nasty bunker guards the right side and awaits and ball which rides the wind too much off the tee. Any pin on the left side will make 3 a number which gains strokes on the field. Walking off the green to the next tee, you will see the original professional shop at the club.
6th Hole—Par 4, 499 yards
This hole is a beast. The prevailing wind is into you and off the right. A bunker guards the corner of the hole at about 270 yards off the tee. Anything in the right side of this fairway short of that bunker, leaves you a blind shot to the green, as sand dunes line the entire right side up to just short of the green. Designed for a par 5, the green is long and narrow, slightly elevated from the fairway. More than likely, this will be the hardest hole on the course this week.
10th Hole—Par 4, 402 yards
This is a real sleeper of a hole and with the prevailing wind, could be a difficult hole this week. Many will hit a long iron off the tee. You must hit the fairway of this reverse camber hole. Two bunkers guard the corner of the dogleg left, while the fairway slopes right to left toward three more bunkers. The approach shot plays slightly uphill to a green that is perfectly placed in a small amphitheater of sand dunes.
12th Hole—Par 3, 188 yards
Another of Birkdale’s wonderful par 3’s. A solid strike with a mid-iron is a must on this hole. Two deep bunkers guard the entrance to the long green placed between the dunes. Some members say this is the signature hole of the layout.
17th Hole—Par 5, 567 yards
With a prevailing wind, this will be the par 5 which most of the field reaches in two. The tee shot will fly between two large dunes on each side of the dogleg. Two bunkers are on the right side of the landing area, at about 320 yards off the tee. Despite being easily reachable for the players, the 2nd shot must be precise. The green is long and narrow, guarded by three bunkers and large dunes on each side. You will see 3’s and many 4’s here…but I could easily a player in the dunes and a score of 6 ruining a player’s chance at glory this week.
18th Hole—Par 4, 465 yards
Maybe the best finishing hole in the Open Rota. From the championship tee, it is a blind tee shot, as you can’t see the landing area. The tee shot must avoid all the fescue down the right side and the bunkers on each side of the dogleg right. That’s half the battle. Now, you face a mid-iron shot to a green with a narrow entrance and many little humps and hollows around the green. Tom Watson hit a great 2 iron approach here in 1983 to seal his win. That long of a club will not be required this time, but a player needing a 4 to win will need to be precise with his approach.