Royal St George’s is toughest Open course with history of surprises
In recent years, Royal St George’s has been a place for the underdog. The last two Opens played in this blustery corner of Kent were in 2003 with Ben Curtis, a 500-1 outsider who had never before seen a British or Irish links course, and Darren Clarke, who went into the 2011 edition ranked 111 in the world but played the golf of his life to finish three clear of his nearest challengers, Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson.
The shocks have not just been limited to the winners here. The 2011 tournament started as surprisingly as it ended, with Tom Lewis leading the field after the first round, becoming the first male amateur to hold at least a share of the lead after 18 holes since Michael Bonallack in 1968, his remarkable 65 the lowest ever single-round score for an amateur at the Open. Lewis, who was paired that Thursday with the eight-time major champion he was named after, Tom Watson, fell away in the second round but made the cut and won the Silver Medal.
Royal St George’s is probably the most challenging course on offer in the Open rotation. In the 14 Championships at the course, all the winners beside one (Greg Norman 1993, -13) have finished with a winning score of five under par or worse. Some of the undulating slopes on both the greens and fairways feel more like a creation of Zaha Hadid than that of Dr Laidlow Purves in 1887. If you have a weak stomach, you can feel a bit seasick, even from behind the ropes.
For the world’s elite golfers, where every metric is analysed to the nth degree, the number of variables here – from the changeable weather to the blind tee shots, one of which on the 4th hole is over a 40ft-high bunker nicknamed “Himalaya” – can feel like a bit of an inconvenience.
Many drives split the fairway but end up bounding off a 15-20% slope and into the rough. Bryson DeChambeau is so wary of the thick stuff that he is even considering taking irons off the tee. After three days of practice, Brooks Koepka simply sighed: ‘‘It’s not my favourite venue, put it that way.”
It is an issue of familiarity. So many British and Irish golfers grew up playing on links courses. England’s Laird Shepherd, one of eight amateurs this year, is a member of Rye Golf Club, which borders Camber Sands in East Sussex, and now lives in St Andrews, the home of links golf. While his aims this week amount to just “four rounds of golf” he does agree that Royal St George’s “does suit an outsider”.
“There is quite a lot of luck involved with slopes on the greens and the fairways,” Shepherd told the Guardian. “It’s hard to be certain where the ball is going to end up. Trying to control the ball in the wind is what I’m relatively good at, so I don’t mind if it is blowing a little bit. The amateur guys from the UK have got a lot of experience playing links golf because that’s what has got us here. That gives us an upper hand.”
Shepherd’s comments are a veiled reference to his win at the British Amateur Championship last month, which meant he qualified for not only this year’s Open but the next year’s US Open and a likely invitation to the 2022 Masters. It is no understatement to call if one of the biggest golfing comebacks on British soil: in a 36-hole match-play final against Monty Scowsill, Shepherd trailed by eight shots after 17 holes but came out the winner. Now, the 23-year-old is “just trying to take everything in.”
“The size of the Open can be overwhelming,” he continues. “Just going into the players’ locker room, seeing some of the guys I watch on TV. My locker is next to Jordan Spieth’s and we had a good talk. It’s just so cool that guys give you the time of day.”
Clarke, meanwhile, is also here, back at the course of his greatest triumph. “At 42 would I have been somebody who you thought would’ve had a chance?” he said on Wednesday. “All I ever wanted from a young kid when I was practising was to get my name on the Claret Jug, and I was able to do that here.” Victory in 2021 would be even more shocking than a decade ago, but whether it is Clarke or another, Royal St George’s was built for an upset.