After being cancelled in 2020 due to the Coronavirus pandemic, the Open Championship, the de facto world championship of golf, returns for its 149th iteration in the grandest of English traditions. The setting is the sparkling white cliffs of Dover, the ancient, storied town of Sandwich, and the hurly-burly gnarled mounds and frightful bunkers of Royal St. George’s Golf Club. Better still, the metaphoric backdrop is one of rebirth as the U.K. does its best to turn the page on an infamous year.
“The Open Championship and Wimbledon were cancelled last year, which was – both, arguably, the biggest tournaments in their respective sports,” began a grateful, hungry looking Rory McIlroy, 2014 Open Champion at Royal Liverpool. “In the clubhouse there’s a board with the list of winners and the courses, and it says ‘2020 championship not played,’ and you’re [only] used to seeing at that like 1941 or 1945, like war years and stuff like that. The fact that every time now you look at 2020 it’s going to say ‘championship not played,’ it just sort of stuck with me….I think everyone is just so glad to be back and playing again and inching our way back to some sort of normality.”
And what a place to return to it is. Named in honor of St. George, the Dragonslayer, Royal St. George’s was the first course to host the Open outside of Scotland (1894) and has the distinction of hosting more Opens than any other English venue, 15 including this one. Only St. Andrews (29), Prestwick (24, now retired from the Rota), and Muirfield (16) have hosted more Opens since the tournament was founded in 1860.
St. George’s is a stunning links: Hard by Pegwell Bay, gateway to the North Sea, its windswept hillocks are perhaps both the most beguiling and bewildering of all the courses of the Rota. Beguiling because of their raw, primal beauty; you stand on the edge of the world, with the boundless sea roiling back at you, the noble white cliffs over Dover standing sentinel in the distance. And bewildering because though only 7,189 yards in length – paltry by modern standards – its hip-high heather, thick gorse, coffin-deep bunkers, rumpled fairways, and curvy greens defend its par 70 admirably…and it’s nigh impossible to break par when the gales blow in off the sea to lash and scour the coastline.
This dichotomy once inspired writer John Hopkins to ask himself whether a round at St. George’s was something more akin to a sleepless night in bed with Jennifer Aniston or 15 rounds with Conor McGregor. After due consideration, John, I’m afraid it’s both.
St. George’s tenure as a member of the Open Championship’s Rota is divided into two distinct periods: 1894-1949 and 1981-present. It hosted nine championships in its first 55 years and saw legends hoist the Claret Jug amidst its dunes and fescue. Harry Vardon won here twice (1899 and 1911. In 1911 they had just moved to rubber core balls from gutta percha). So did American Walter Hagen (1922 and 1928). Between them they won a total of 18 majors, including ten Open Championships.
It also saw heartbreak and cautionary tales. The Brits still lament “poor old Harry Bradshaw and that business with the beer bottle in 1949.” Leading the Open, Bradshaw, didn’t know the rules well enough to get a free drop that likely would have saved him the disastrous double bogey that sunk his tournament hopes like a Napoleanic-era French frigate going down in the bay after being sunk by the British navy. Bradshaw’s ball rolled into the neck of a broken beer bottle. Under the rules of golf relief was a certainty, but there was no rules official available, and Bradshaw rashly decided to play the shot. He managed to advance it only a few yards and eventually lost the Open in a playoff to Bobby Locke, another legend of golf from an era long past.
It was 32 years before we saw Royal St. George’s again. It looked to have fallen out of favor with the pros, its wayward bounces deemed “unfair” and its occasional blind shots pooh-poohed as “anachronistic” by those who don’t like being forced to think their way around a golf course. It didn’t help when Jack Nicklaus inadvertently and unintentionally dismissed Sandwich when he noted in an interview that “Open Championship courses get better the further north you go.” It seemed St. George’s might be retired and join such masterpieces as Prestwick, Deal, Musselburgh, and Prince’s in the “Where are they now?” file.
Happily, saner heads prevailed. A new road made traffic flow much faster, enabling modern-day crowds to attend easily. (Though journalist friends of mine still get lost trying to drive back and forth to Ramsgate…) Architectural touch-up work by Frank Penick smoothed some of the more controversial blind shots of the Laidlaw Purves layout without homogenizing it. And three new holes – three, eight, and 11 were well received by players and cognoscenti alike, so much so that St. George’s was awarded what pundits call their “Renaissance Open” in 1981 and another in 1985.
Since then puzzling strangers and shotmakers have won at Sandwich, as the course is sometimes referred to by its friends. American Bill Rogers won in 1981 and casual fans asked if he also raced marathons. Dour Scot Sandy Lyle won in 1985, but he’s still best known for serving haggis at Augusta National for Champions Dinner and for a rather unseemly spat with fellow Scotsman golfer Colin Montgomerie.
The most celebrated name among modern era champions maybe Australian Greg Norman, who gave us his magnum opus and a time capsule moment in golf history in 1993 when he fired a final round 64 to surge past Nick Faldo, himself winner of three Claret Jugs. Finally providing the closing round that his immense talent had promised but had not yet delivered until then, Norman also shattered the all time record for aggregate scoring at a major, 267, a record that seven bested Tom Watson’s 268 at Turnberry in the famous 1977 Duel in the Sun against Jack Nicklaus. That record stood for eight years before David Toms shot 265 at the 2001 PGA at Atlanta Athletic Club.
Perhaps the most unlikely winner at St. George’s was American Ben Curtis, who entered the tournament ranked 396th in the world, and left with the Claret Jug in one hand, his fiancé Candace in the other, and the honor of being the only person since Francis Ouimet at the 1913 U.S. Open to win the first major championship they entered. One by one, the crème de la crème of the age fell away like leaves over the difficult back nine on that windy Sunday – Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh, Davis Love, Nick Faldo, Retief Goosen, to name a few – while Curtis posted a 69 for a four day aggregate of 283, and then watched as it held up. Swede Thomas Bjorn was the last to succumb. Holding the lead on the par-3 16th tee, Bjorn’s tee shot took a bad bounce into the greenside bunker.
He had one hand on the Claret Jug, but he dropped it in the bunker, taking three shots to get out.
Almost as unlikely and even more riveting and heartwarming was Darren Clarke’s triumph in 2011. Clarke came out of the mists of history long past; we thought he rode off into the sunset in 2006 when he led Europe’s Ryder Cup team to victory just a few months after losing his wife Heather to breast cancer. We golf writers can attribute a lot of grace and class to guys who win majors, but we didn’t need to embellish a single phrase, word, or comma that week. Before that everyone liked Clarke because he smoked cigars, drove fast cars, and pounded Guinness. But now he entire golf world – American and European alike – embraced the man for his courage, fortitude, open-heartedness, and grace. “He didn’t need to win a major,” was the common theme. He won the heart of every golf fan that day.
And so with that for backdrop, the 2011 Open Championship essentially said, “Hold my beer.” Clarke became the universal sentimental favorite that week and put on a sterling show. Thomas Bjorn was back in the mix, as were a sideburn-sporting younger version of Dustin Johnson, a Phil Mickelson who was just beginning to find his way around links courses, and orange-wearing Rickie Fowler. But the main attraction was Darren Clarke and a seemingly endless army of leprechauns because only luck-bearing magical creatures could possibly account for the flabbergasting confluence of mysterious happenstances, zany bounces, and otherwise inexplicable semi-miracles that gave Clarke the opportunity to seize the title.
First, world number 1 and 2, Lee Westwood and Luke Donald, both Englishmen and their country’s best hope to win the tournament since Tony Jacklin in 1969, failed to make the cut. It was the first time that happened at a major since 1989.
Then a biblical storm of Olympian fury tore through on Saturday, but this is the U.K., and they don’t stop playing golf for trifles like maelstroms. So as the scoring average soared to a bloated 76.7, Darren Clarke steps to the tee, the clouds part, and he strolls to a 69, taking the lead outright over DJ by a shot.
And then there was Sunday, when Clarke drove all over Southern England, but got lucky bounces and favorable lies all day. The shot of the tournament happened on nine, and it was a moment of ridiculous, Leprechaun-manufactured luck. Clarke was in the left-hand rough with a thick, cuppy lie. Facing him were “the spectacles,” a pair of deep cross bunkers well short of the green, not really in play for the pros unless they get out of position but lethal should they get in them.
Clarke proceeds to skull the shot. It’s a wormburner, zipping along the ground directly towards the bunkers…
…whereupon it zips right up the one yard-wide strip between the bunkers as if it had eyes, and runs all the way to the green, safely in range of a two-putt. Are you kidding me? As for Clarke, did you see the look on his face?
“Hello? Pet store? This is the cat. We seem to be missing our canary. Can you send over a replacement please? And a side of wing sauce?”
It was a 1-in-10,000 break, but Clarke cashed it in with smart bad weather golf, and by utilizing the ground game, an imperative at St. George’s. Even Bryson DeChambeau, he of the 330 yard drives in the air agreed, noting that during his pre-tournament press conference.
“I have the utmost respect for that style of play. I think there’s certain advantages to hitting it long in certain places, but not everywhere,” he noted candidly. “There will be certain holes where there is a lot of wind and you can’t really control the golf ball with that type of wind, where it bounces, how it bounces. So keeping it low and on the ground if it gets firm is definitely something I would utilize,” DeChambeau concluded.
Ahh, but the ground is so unpredictable at St. George’s. Yes, the course is far better received than a generation ago, but there are still crowned fairways that have odd mounds that send balls scurrying every which way. There are still places where, as author Ian Fleming of James Bond 007 fame put it, you have top visualize the small tennis court sized area into which the ball must land from hundreds of yards away from a blind tee shot. And there is still the infamous dirty weather that can turn the open championship into the latter acts of King Lear, with a tempest that blasts the heath. St. George’s and the fickle winds don’t care about world rankings; the wind is the great equalizer, and if it blows hard, bet on the smartest player in the field to win, not the longest or strongest. So blow, winds, rage and crack your cheeks, indeed, as the Bard might say.
Indeed, if Shakespeare ever saw Royal St. George’s he’d hold his quill with a perfect Vardon grip, pause deftly at the top of his penstrokes while writing the morning round for the Stratford Times, and then grab a dram of brandy and a beach chair and watch the afternoon players as squalls roll in to soak everyone. It’s English grace and class and incomparable history, and it’s a sterling silver trophy again awarded against the backdrop of a shimmering sea. It’s the Open championship at St. George’s, returning after a year hiatus and proving yet again that golf was at the vanguard of recovering from the Coronavirus pandemic. Where it once held a “Renaissance Open,” it now holds the “Resurrection Open.” And it’s the long awaited return of golf’s most august event to strengthen our resolve no matter what may come next.