SANDWICH, England – For the full flavor of links golf, we take you to that corner of Royal St. George’s where you can almost feel the ocean spray off the English Channel. With France somewhere on the horizon to your right and historic Prince’s Golf Club off to your left, what greets you at the 11th tee box is a robust summer wind with a winter feel, smack in your kisser.
At 243 yards, the hole would be a delightful par 4.
Only thing is, it’s a par 3 and Dustin Johnson wasn’t about to swallow his pride. “I just can’t pull a driver out on a par 3,” he said.
That was Johnson’s explanation for hitting 3-wood, just after playing partner Rickie Fowler hit the same club. Each attempted to hit a low, hard-running draw; each came up 10 yards short of the putting surface.
“I don’t know why you guys chose to lay up,” Phil Mickelson said, twisting the dig with great delight. Yes, the left-hander slammed driver at a par 3. So, too, did playing partner Jeff Overton.
Next hole, all four players safely avoided a series of dastardly bunkers at the 381-yard par 4 and had approaches ranging from 95 to 105 yards. No one found the green. No one made par.
Drivers at par 3s? Wedges and 9-irons going well left and well short of a big links green? Improbable, if not incredible. Unless, that is, you respect the glory of links golf, which on this practice day for the 140th Open Championship was in full bloom. With winds steady at 18-22 miles per hour and gusting up to 30, the challenge was vintage stuff – strike purely, control trajectory, allow your ball to follow the contours of the land.
Sure, it is a difficult task, but don’t think that players don’t relish it.
“Links golf,” said Lee Westwood, “is determined by the weather, so you don’t want it flat calm. These golf courses are designed with, I guess, a 15-20-mph wind in mind. I certainly want it, so ballstriking is a prerequisite, really.”
Consider Westwood’s wish granted for this practice day and, if the forecast is correct, it will hold out for the duration. While dry and partly sunny weather is predicted for Rounds 1 and 2, the wind is expected to pick up as things go along, to the point where by Friday afternoon, it could be ripping at perhaps 25 mph.
Studying such news, none other than Harry “The Hat” Emanuel suggests we could have a situation similar to last year at St. Andrews, where those who had benign weather Thursday morning had fierce conditions Friday afternoon and saw their chances blown away – most notably Rory McIlroy (63-80) and Ernie Els (69-79).
Seizing upon such a nugget of information, “The Hat” was holding off on predicting a winner, though he was willing to say it would be a man who tees off late Thursday and early Friday. Given that “The Hat” is a man who would be called a “punter,” that colloquial term over here for someone who is a gambler and one who studies it like art, his assessments are worth listening to.
Wagering simply is part of the sports culture in this part of the world, and if you were to be disappointed in that, then it’s likely you wouldn’t appreciate the charm of the Ancient Highway, which surely is ancient, but definitely isn’t a highway. It connects North Deal with Sandwich, and like many of the roads over here, there is adequate room for one car on the Ancient Highway, but often times two appear going in opposite directions. Thus are you expected to cooperate and share, attributes that seem foreign to Americans, sad to say.
After holding your breath and safely coming off the Ancient Highway, you are free to make your way toward Royal St. George’s or turn right and head on over to Prince’s. Intriguing and quaint that the place is, Prince’s must have been a happening place 79 years ago when it hosted its only Open Championship. Not only did Gene “The Squire” Sarazen show off his new invention, the sand iron, that earned him the Claret Jug, but the club president was none other than the prince of Wales.
Now that’s history for you, and you are reminded at every turn of the head that you are a guest in a special part of the world that affords you sights, sounds and flavors to which we are unaccustomed. That extends to the golf course, where some 17 hours after hoisting his third straight trophy at the John Deere Classic in middle America, Steve Stricker strode into Monday sunshine some 4,000 miles away.
Having flown through the night aboard a special charter, Stricker arrived at Royal St. George’s to tee it up in his 12th Open Championship. Tired though he may have been, Stricker insisted on a tour of a golf course he’s never seen, and that meant a customary sight at a links course – balls dropped several yards off the edges of the green and putters put to use.
Wedges slammed into the turf? Divots bigger than the toupees you’d see at a cheap Vegas lounge? Golf balls hitting 20 feet behind a hole and spinning back as if on a string? That was last week, and it will be next week and every week after. But not this week. Not on a links, because it is that one time a year when a purity envelopes the game and shot-making becomes mandatory.
It is a different one, this 140th edition of golf’s grandest major championship, what with Tiger Woods absent for only the second time since 1994 and Colin Montgomerie only here to pitch for HSBC and Rolex, but still, the reminders of why you come are plentiful. The view of Bernhard Langer, for instance. At 53, he has returned to the Open Championship for the 29th time, but the first since 2006. Perhaps overlooked as one of the great players of his era, Langer is a quiet man with a great work ethic and a dignity to match.
As he stepped onto the tee at the 240-yard, par-3 third, Langer took note of a young man standing next to a marshal. He was holding the marshal’s “quiet” sign, so Langer smiled and asked the boy his name. “Tyler,” he said. “Hello, Tyler,” Langer said. “I’m Mr. Langer.”
Twice a Masters champion, Langer never won this championship, hard as that is to fathom, though five times he finished second or third. Still, he extends proper respect to the affair, and stood by as Kevin Na, 26 years younger, hit a 3-wood that went 35 yards left, then a 3-wood that went 20 yards right.
With Tyler, his newest friend, standing by his freshly autographed silent sign, Langer drilled a 3-wood that landed 20 yards shy of the green, tracked the flagstick all the way and came to rest perhaps 20 feet from the hole.
Forget that it didn’t count. It was a stylish links shot, one that added even more flavor to the walk around this most sprawling of the Open Championship venues.
When several hours later an urge was satisfied and a visit was made to Prince’s Golf Club, the ride brought you out along the road that runs along the English Channel and you could look to your left and see the 12th tee at Royal St. George’s.
It was nearly 7 p.m., and Langer still was at work, peering at his yardage book.
You need one, here at the Open Championship. It also helps to have an abundance of appreciation for a tournament that is saturated in flavor.