Monday, January 17, 2022

A British Open comeback: The two-year wait at Royal St George’s ends

SANDWICH, England – Just before the British Open at the Royal St George Golf Club, Edward Kitson swiftly walked through the dunes on Wednesday night, making his way to the clubhouse and thinking back to last year.

The Open was then canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, so Kitson and other members of the club played a tournament among themselves, replacing famous players at the famous link.

“Four days, and we could have played back tees if we wanted to,” said Kitson, a London resident.

Now, after an unusually long wait, the world’s best golfers – or at least some of them – have convened at the English seaside course, which first hosted the Open in 1894 and last staged it in 2011.

This is not business as usual.

Players are required to be in a protective bubble with a small number of support personnel when they are not on the course, and are not allowed to mingle with the general public in restaurants or shops. Indoor social distancing and masks are also required for vaccinated players, which is no longer the case on the PGA Tour in the United States.

But there will be 32,000 fans per day to roar from outside the ropes.

“I’m very proud that they’ve been able to manage this,” Kitson said. “Having fans is especially meaningful.”

Players will agree.

“I think everyone missed the Open Championship last year, watching it on TV or playing in it,” said Lee Westwood, the English star who, at 48, is the most successful active male player to have not won a major.

Of the four men’s golf majors, only the Open was not contested in 2020. The financial blow was soft as the Open was one of the few sporting events with cancellation insurance that included pandemic coverage. Wimbledon had similar coverage and was the only Grand Slam tennis tournament to be canceled in 2020.

“I’ve said many times that this was probably one of the hardest decisions we had to make, but at the end of the day we had no choice,” said Martin Schlumers, chief executive of R&A, which organizes the Open. is. “But the insurance we had in place enabled us to mitigate the financial risk and actually enabled us to increase our investment in the sport as part of that. We did a £7 million, $10 million Covid recovery last year Launched the fund, which went straight to grass-roots golf.”

It was the first time the Open had not been played since World War II, a point that resonated with 2014 champion Rory McIlroy when he saw the list of tournament winners and venues at the clubhouse this week.

“The fact that every time you look at 2020, it’s going to say, ‘The championship didn’t play,’ it just stuck with me,” he said. “It was like, ‘Wow, this was a really different and weird year,’ and I think everyone is so happy to be back and playing again and back to some kind of normality.”

Not everyone has returned though. Hideki Matsuyama, Masters Winner This spring, has tested positive for the coronavirus, as has 2015 British Open winner Zach Johnson. Two-time Masters winner Bubba Watson had to be withdrawn because he was in close contact with someone who tested positive.

Although the number of virus cases in England is on the rise again, the British government plans to lift the remaining formal restrictions on Monday. The government had already authorized large crowds for sporting events on an experimental basis, beginning with the final round of Wimbledon and the final of the European Football Championships at Wembley Stadium on Sunday in London.

The Open Championship is the next phase of the experiment. Although there were serious security breaches at Wembley as un-ticketed fans broke barriers and entered the stadium, Slummers said he was confident the Open would not face similar issues.

“Big time sporting events require big crowds,” he said. “We’ve worked really hard with the government to make this happen. We’re very mindful of the environment in which we’re all working. Very strict conditions for any of those spectators to be able to field are, and they are being held behind the players more than we normally do.”

Royal St George is the southernmost course in the British Open rotation and is the closest to London, which is part of the reason it remains in the rotation. Although the Open began in Scotland in 1860 at Prestwick Golf Club, Royal St George was the first English course to host it.

More than a century later, it continues to divide opinion due to its many blind tee shots and bumpy fairways, which can generate unpredictable bounce and send well-hit shots into the rough.

After an unusually wet spring, that roughness is higher than normal, which can lead to tough scoring conditions on a par-70 course that is no heaven at all.

“This week, there’s going to be a premium on keeping it on the fairway,” Darren Clarke said. “That tall stuff is really long and thick.”

Clarke, a Northern Irishman, won the 2011 Open at Royal St George, his only major championship. He did it at age 42, with weather ranging from sunny and mild to Saturday’s thunderstorms and plenty of contenders to expect.

But Clark, who grew up playing at Royal Portrush and other great Irish links courses, was able to weather the storm with the help of two sports psychologists and his ability to reduce the flight of the ball.

He finished at five-under par, three strokes ahead of Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson.

“My whole mindset was very acceptable,” Clarke said on Wednesday. “This golf course, you can hit really good shots. But because of the wave — like any links, but maybe a little more here, especially if it’s firm and fast — you might get some funky bounces, can we? Must say. It’s part of the link play, but here sometimes it can get a little bad. I was very prepared to accept it that week.”

The surge should be less extreme at the start of this year’s tournament as rain has softened the fairway. But the forecast calls for dry weather, and the links courses can quickly strengthen.

Royal St George’s head greenskeeper Paul Larsen said in an interview on Wednesday night that he and his team had tried to prepare the fairway and rough first cuts to reduce the chances of shots being randomly thrown into deep trouble.

“We didn’t do this because of a complaint, but because we wanted to make it even better,” Larsen said, whose indomitable mop of black hair He has been praised on social media.

His mane seems a fitting reflection of the strong winds on this beautiful stretch of the English coast, with white cliffs visible in the distance.

Wednesday night was relatively quiet as Larsen’s team took the course, filling divots and preparing for Royal St George’s biggest moment in a decade. As they worked, electronic scoreboards near the greens showed images of past winners there. Some were multiple open champions such as Harry Warden, Walter Hagen, Henry Cotton, Bobby Locke and Greg Norman. Others were big surprises like Clarke and American Ben Curtis in 2003.

On Sunday night, after an unusually long wait, another man would join them.

Nation World News Desk
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