SANDWICH, England – Five things you need to know before the start of the Open Championship:
1. No easy test: Nick Watney wasn’t going to take the bait. He deferred when asked if Royal St. George’s was “quirky,” an adjective that isn’t exactly a compliment for any course. “I think you guys are the word experts,” he told the assembled media.
Plenty of others were willing to describe Royal St. George’s as arguably the oddest of the Open rota. Even Peter Dawson, the R&A’s chief executive, said, “I think the course needs knowing,” because of its blind shots and bumpy terrain.
Said Lee Westwood, “There are a few places where you accept you’re going to get bad breaks.”
Links courses demand players to hit shots along the turf, but Royal St. George’s sloping terrain can send shots in any direction. Unlike 2003, players won’t be overly penalized if their ball bounds off a fairway, though. A long dry spell before the tournament left the rough lighter than in 2003. That doesn’t mean Royal St. George’s will be easy, though.
“Sometimes it’s hard to run the ball into these greens,” said Rory McIlroy, “because they’re undulating and they can go so many different ways.”
Luke Donald said St. George’s sloped surfaces are among the most severe on the Open rota. Martin Kaymer said that players will be left with plenty of par putts of around 6 feet.
Wind, per usual, could be an issue this week. It’s supposed to blow about 20 mph each day. Luke Donald couldn’t make the 220-yard carry to the seventh fairway, and had to hit driver into the par-3 11th, because both holes played into a strong breeze during his Tuesday practice round. Phil Mickelson also hit driver into the 11th.
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2. Center of attention: Rory McIlroy arrived at Royal St. George’s on Tuesday, the first time he’s been seen at a tournament since his impressive U.S. Open victory. On Monday evening, he was accompanied by his father, Gerry, for a round at an empty Royal County Down. “It was a really nice moment,” McIlroy said.
It also served as one final moment of calm before McIlroy became the Open’s center of attention. McIlroy, who held the 18-hole lead at last year’s British Open, is considered by many to be the pre-tournament favorite, even though he hasn’t played a competitive round in three-plus weeks.
“The first 10 days after winning the U.S. Open, it was a bit hectic trying to see everyone, going here, there and everywhere,” he said. “But the last 10 days have been good. I’ve gotten back to my routine, been practicing a lot.”
McIlroy’s simple approach to the golf swing makes it easier to return to form. He and his lifelong coach, Michael Bannon, have always focused on little more than the fundamentals. For McIlroy, finding that flowing swing is like riding a bike, not a unicycle.
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3. English pride: McIlroy has expressed a sense of relief that he now has his first major title. Luke Donald and Lee Westwood, the top two players in the Official World Golf Ranking, are on home turf this week as they seek their first Grand Slam victory.
Donald, who once was criticized for his inability to close out titles, won last week’s Scottish Open with a final-round 63. He’s finished 11th and fifth at the past two Opens.
He said his win at this year’s WGC-Match Play was the catalyst for this breakout season. “I hadn’t really won for a number of years, and it was becoming tougher and tougher to win,” he said.
Westwood can relate to that. The 38-year-old is looking for his first major, despite his share of close calls. He was third at the 2009 Open and second last year. “Hopefully it’s a mathematical progression,” he said.
Westwood has finished no worse than 11th in his past eight starts, including two victories, a second and a third.
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4. The Yanks’ best hopes: For all the complaints about Americans’ lack of success in the major championships, the Yanks seem to be in good form entering the Open Championship.
Four Americans are in the top 10 of the Official World Golf Ranking – No. 5 Steve Stricker, No. 6 Phil Mickelson, No. 7 Matt Kuchar and No. 10 Nick Watney.
Watney and Stricker each have won in the past two weeks, and have had their moments at the Open Championship. Stricker finished in the top 10 at the 2007 and 2008 Opens. Watney was seventh at St. Andrews last year.
Watney has won twice this season, but struggled in the majors because he was too excited by the prospect of winning his first Grand Slam title. “I was very keyed up and didn’t give myself the best opportunity to roll with the punches of a major,” he said. He should be relaxed for this week, having spent last week sightseeing in New York and London.
Mickelson, who has just one top 10 at this tournament (3rd, 2004), is hoping amnesia helps him overcome his poor Open record. He’s pretending this is his first Open and is trying to re-learn how to play links. Mickelson said that poor shot selection and poor putting on the Open’s slower greens are the reasons for his struggles here.
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5. Tee time: The first group – Jerry Kelly, Nathan Green and Danny Willett – will tee off at 6:30 a.m. local time Thursday (1:30 a.m. Eastern). Here are some tee times to keep an eye on, if you’re awake. All groups begin on No. 1:
• 8:31 a.m.: Nick Watney-Matteo Manassero-Angel Cabrera
• 8:42 a.m.: Yuta Ikeda-Ian Poulter-Dustin Johnson
• 8:58 a.m.: Ben Curtis-Paul Casey-Aaron Baddeley
• 9:09 a.m.: Ernie Els-Rory McIlroy-Rickie Fowler
• 9:20 a.m.: Luke Donald-Ryo Ishikawa-Sergio Garcia
• 1:32 p.m.: Zach Johnson-Adam Scott-Justin Rose
• 1:43 p.m.: Graeme McDowell-Jason Day-Bubba Watson
• 2:10 p.m.: Lee Westwood-Steve Stricker-Charl Schwartzel
• 2:21 p.m.: Louis Oosthuizen-Martin Kaymer-Phil Mickelson