Back in 2003, the last time the Open was played at Royal St George’s, it was a bit of a shocker. Thomas Bjorn let the title disappear into the sand on the 16th bunker, while an unknown American from Columbus, Ohio, took home the Claret Jug in his first tournament on a links course.
In 1894, Sandwich was the first course to host the Open outside Scotland, and in 1922 Walter Hagen became the first native-born American winner, while 81 years later Hagen’s fellow countryman Ben Curtis—396th in the Official World Golf Rankings—became arguably the biggest surprise winner of all time.
The courses of the Open will do that to you—chew you up and spit you out. The only question is, who makes it through with the fewest scratches? The Open courses always provide a staunch test, and Royal St George’s is no different.
As is appropriate for a true links course, it doesn’t favor anybody. This week the 396th player in the Official World Golf Rankings is American Nate Smith. Last week the 396th player in the Official World Golf Rankings was former Open champion Tom Lehman, who won on Royal Lytham and St Anne's Golf Club in 1996. Everybody can win on the links. And everybody does.
At Royal St George’s the wind is a factor more than many other places, and it will test the players from the word go. Also, it will shift direction all the time, and change the way the course is played. In 2003 Tiger Woods’ first drive on the first tee on was caught by the wind and the American got away with a triple-bogey seven. Jerry Kelly left the first green with an 11 on the card.
Greens are fast and undulated in a way that is most unusual to the US players. The par-3 third hole is the only one on all of the courses in the Open rotation that does not have a bunker. On the other hand, it measures 293 yards is 40 yards deep with two tiers. This is only the beginning.
If the final stretch was tough in 2003, the last four holes is even harder this time. Bjorn had a three shot lead, standing on the 15th tee that year. Curtis made bogeys on 14, 15 and 17, but still took the title, so a finish on the last part of the back nine in around par has a good chance of winning.
The par-4 15th now measures 493 yards, has a narrow drive and three bunker in front of the green and is considered the most dangerous hole of the lot. Matter of fact, the 15th at Royal St George’s has recently been chosen as one of the 18 all-time best holes in the Open Championship history by Colin Montgomerie and Padraig Harrington, who with 35 Open appearances between them know a thing or two about Open Championship golf.
Holes 17 and 18 has gotten wider fairways which could make it a less chilling Sunday, but only if the wind is not in play.
In 2003 Curtis won on one under par which is the next highest winner score since 1999 when Paul Lawrie won at Carnoustie in six over par. Only Harrington's victory in 2008 at Royal Birkdale in three over par is higher.
With the rain returning to average, the course could be more human than in May when no rain had hit the course for nearly four months.
The most radical change on Royal St George’s has been made on the 178-yard sixth hole, now called “the Maiden” as it is the newest on the course, and the only one that does not play in the same direction as the original course from 1887. Surrounded by dunes and bunkers, this short hole summons up what the Open is all about: reading the wind, choosing the right club, holding the ball down, running the ball to the pin and daring to hit the right putt.
In 2010 quite a few experts was surprised that Louis Oosthuizen took home the title at St. Andrews. Some were even disappointed. The Scots heralded the South African like a true champion, because of one single fact: He was the one left standing. He was the one that challenged the links the best on those four rounds. And that was good enough for the Scots, course they know it’s not the name that will win you the Open.
This year the Open is played in England, but the mantra is the same.
It’s the ability that wins the Claret Jug.