A British Open Comeback: A Two-Year Wait Ends at Royal St. George’s
SANDWICH, England – Just before the British Open at the Royal St. George’s Golf Club, Edward Kitson briskly walked the dunes on Wednesday night, heading to the clubhouse and looking back on last year.
The Open was later canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, so Kitson and other club members played a tournament between themselves, replacing famous players on the famous ties.
“Four days, and we could even play on the back tees if we wanted to,” said Kitson, a Londoner.
Today, after an unusually long wait, the best golfers in the world – or at least most of them – gathered on the English seaside course which hosted and organized the Open in 1894. for the last time in 2011.
It is not as usual.
Players are required to remain in protective bubbles with a small number of support staff when not on the course, and they are not allowed to mingle with the general public in restaurants or shops. Social distancing and masks are mandatory indoors, even for vaccinated players, which is no longer the case on the PGA Tour in the United States.
But there will be 32,000 fans a day, roaring from outside the ropes.
“I’m very proud that they were able to handle this,” Kitson said. “It’s especially important to have fans.
The players would agree.
“I think everyone missed the Open Championship last year, watching it on TV or playing it,” said Lee Westwood, the England star who, at 48, is the active male player on more titled not to have won a major.
Of the four majors in men’s golf, only the Open was not contested in 2020. The financial blow was mitigated as the Open was one of the few sporting events with cancellation insurance that included coverage in the event of a loss. pandemic. Wimbledon had similar coverage and was the only Grand Slam tennis tournament canceled in 2020.
“I have said many times that this was probably one of the toughest decisions we had to make, but we had no choice at the end of the day,” said Martin Slumbers, manager. general of the R&A, which organizes the Open. “But the insurance we had in place allowed us to mitigate a lot of the financial exposure and actually allowed us to increase our investment in the game as part of that. We launched a £ 7million, $ 10million Covid Recovery Fund last year, which went straight to grassroots golf. “
It was the first time the Open had not been played since WWII, a point that resonated with 2014 champion Rory McIlroy when he examined the list of tournament winners and club venues. -house this week.
“The fact that every time you watch 2020 he’s going to say, ‘The championship is not played’, it kind of stuck with me,” he said. “It was like, ‘Wow, that was a really different and weird year,’ and I think everyone’s so happy to be back and playing again and gradually coming back to some kind of normalcy.”
However, not everyone is back. Hideki Matsuyama, winner of the Masters this spring, tested positive for the coronavirus, as did Zach Johnson, winner of the British Open 2015. Bubba Watson, the two-time Masters winner, had to step down because he had been in close contact with one person tested positive.
Although the number of virus cases is rising again in England, the British government still plans on Monday to lift most of the remaining formal restrictions on gatherings. The government had previously allowed large crowds for sporting events, on an experimental basis, starting with the Wimbledon finals and the European Football Championship final at Wembley Stadium on Sunday in London.
The Open Championship is the next phase of experimentation. Although there were serious security breaches at Wembley, as ticketless fans broke through barriers and entered the stadium, Slumbers said he was confident the Open would not face any similar problems.
“Big sporting events need big crowds,” he said. “We have worked very hard with the government to achieve this. We are very aware of the environment in which we all operate. There are very strict conditions for any of these spectators to enter the pitch, and they are kept further away from the players than we normally would. . “
Royal St. George’s is the southernmost course in the British Open rotation and closest to London, which is part of the reason it stays in the rotation. Although the Open began in Scotland at Prestwick Golf Club in 1860, Royal St. George’s was the first English course to host it.
More than a century later, he continues to divide opinion due to his many blind tee shots and bumpy fairways, which can generate unexpected rebounds and send well-hitting shots into the rough.
After an unusually wet spring this rough is higher than usual which could lead to more difficult scoring conditions on a par-70 course which is no paradise in any condition.
“This week there is going to be a bounty to keep him on the fairway,” said Darren Clarke. “This long thing is really long and thick.”
Clarke, a Northern Irishman, won the 2011 Open, his only major championship, at Royal St. George’s. He did so at the age of 42, in weather ranging from sunny, mild weather to a Saturday flurry that shredded umbrellas and many hopes for suitors.
But Clarke, who grew up playing Royal Portrush and other great Irish links courses, was able to weather the storm with the help of two sports psychologists and an ability to reduce her ball theft.
He finished five under par, three strokes ahead of Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson.
“My whole frame of mind was very tolerant,” Clarke said Wednesday. “This golf course, you can hit some really good shots. But because of the ripple – like all ties but here maybe a bit more, especially if it’s firm and fast – you can get some funky bounces, we should say. It’s part of the linking game, but here sometimes it can be a little worse. I was very ready to accept it that week.
The rebounds should be less extreme at the start of this year’s tournament as the rain has softened the fairways. But the forecast is for dry weather and the routes may strengthen quickly.
Paul Larsen, the Royal St. George’s chief green keeper, said in an interview Wednesday night that he and his team had tried to prepare the fairways and the first cut of rough to reduce the chances of the shots bouncing randomly into serious problems.
“We didn’t do it because of complaints, but because we wanted to make it fairer,” said Larsen, whose untamed mop of dark hair has won him acclaim on social media.
Its mane seems an apt reflection of the strong winds on this picturesque stretch of the English coast, with white cliffs visible in the distance.
Wednesday night was relatively calm as Larsen’s team hiked the course, filling divots and preparing for the biggest Royal St. George moment in a decade. As they worked, electronic scoreboards near the greens showed images of past winners. Some were several Open champions like Harry Vardon, Walter Hagen, Henry Cotton, Bobby Locke and Greg Norman. Others were big surprises like Clarke and American Ben Curtis in 2003.
Sunday evening, after an unusually long wait, another man will join them.
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