Royal St. George’s like ‘golf on the moon’

No other links course in England has hosted the British Open

more often than Royal St. George’s. No other course on the rotation

can claim the first Open champion to not break 80 over four rounds

and the first Open champion to shoot in the 60s in all four

rounds.

And when it comes to its terrain, Royal St. George’s is simply

like no other.

”Almost like playing on the surface of the moon,” Justin Rose

said.

The British Open returns to this peculiar links in the southeast

of England for the 14th time next week, and about the only

certainty is that a claret jug will be awarded to one of the 156

players.

Getting from the opening tee shot to the final putt is not

always that simple.

”I’d swear the Royal Air Force used a couple of the fairways

for bombing runs,” Greg Norman said in 1993, days before he began

dismantling the course with four rounds in the 60s to win his

second British Open.

After closing with a 64 in the wind, Norman described it as

”the world championship of imagination.”

How quirky are some of the bounces?

”We had a bet in a practice round on the 17th hole that you had

to hit a driver, and if you hit the fairway, you got $100 from

everybody,” Justin Leonard said about his last trip to Royal St.

George’s in 2003. ”And nobody was worried about paying. Not one of

us even checked to see if we had $100 in our pocket. It’s a little

nutty in spots.”

Geoff Ogilvy spoke for dozens of players in a column for Golf

World magazine that began, ”The funny thing about Royal St.

George’s is that it doesn’t seem to be anyone’s favorite

course.”

Finding someone who lists it among his favorite links on the

British Open rotation is about as easy as it was for Tiger Woods to

find his tee shot in the rough right of the first fairway in 2003,

which he never did.

”You haven’t asked Ben Curtis,” Jim Furyk said with a

grin.

In his major championship debut, Curtis won the British Open at

Royal St. George’s eight years ago. Upon finding him, Curtis rated

it as his fifth favorite. And he’s played only seven of the Open

courses.

Charles Howell III played his first British Open there in 2003,

and while he can’t remember which player said it, the description

stuck with him: ”The world’s largest pinball machine.”

But there’s a reason this gem of a links course in Sandwich, a

small town along the North Sea about an hour east of London, has

hosted so many important championships.

”It’s a really good test,” Royal & Ancient chief executive

Peter Dawson said.

Dawson took umbrage at the idea that no one likes Royal St.

George’s, at first protesting that ”you’re making up a story,

there’s nothing there.” Moments later, however, he conceded that

opinions are largely derived from the most recent experience.

Only one player managed to break par in 2003. That was Curtis,

who was No. 396 in the world ranking, playing his first major and

barely known outside his neighborhood in Ohio. It was easy to

suggest that a quirky course had a surprising winner, but that

would be to ignore who else could have won: Vijay Singh, Thomas

Bjorn, Woods, Davis Love III, Sergio Garcia, Kenny Perry. Most of

golf’s best that year had a chance to win the Claret Jug.

Surely, Royal St. George’s does something right as it tries to

define the champion golfer of the year.

Still, the R&A recognized some changes were in order. Only

30 percent of the entire field found the fairway on the opening

hole last time, so it has been widened by 12 yards. The 17th

fairway also has been widened by about six yards, so Leonard better

check his wallet.

In the week before the Open, Dawson watched as US Open champions

Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell, three-time major winner Ernie Els

and four-time major champion Phil Mickelson played practice rounds.

”They’ve all been raving about how good it is,” he said.

Dawson regards links courses in the rotation as children. He

loves them all and refuses to play favorites, although he can

discern their many differences.

”I suppose St. George’s has slightly more blindish shots than

the others,” he said. ”But it’s a golf course you need to get to

know. It’s a wonderful piece of links land. And this is a very

tough golf course.”

So why so many references to its lunar — some might even

say ”looney” — landscape?

”I think it’s to do with its size,” Dawson said. ”There’s

nothing surrounding it, and apart from the 14th, there’s no real

boundary.”

That tends to accentuate the humps and hillocks. Like just about

any links course, the bounces are unpredictable.

”You could literally hit it down the middle of the fairway, and

the guy you’re playing with could hit it right in the junk,” David

Duval said. ”You get down there and there’s one ball in the

fairway, and it’s not yours. You had balls rolling off sideways,

and that leaves a bad taste in your mouth when you execute a shot

like you’re supposed to and you get up there and you’ve got

nothing.”

That said, Duval can’t wait to get back. Even the bad bounces

are part of the charm of links golf. Love got one of the biggest

breaks ever in 2003 when his tee shot on the 14th struck a white

out-of-bounds stake and caromed back into play.

All the consternation about funky bounces leaves Brad Faxon

perplexed.

He played his first British Open in 1985 at Royal St. George’s.

Faxon said he didn’t know if his shot was going to bounce to the

left or to the right. He realized there was an element of luck. To

him, that’s always been part of the game.

”When they call it the quirkiest of the courses … are you

going to tell me St. Andrews isn’t quirky? They’ve got crossing

holes and double greens. What is quirky?” Faxon asked. ”There are

mounds on the fairways, and a shot bounces into the rough. Are you

telling me that doesn’t happen at any other Open course?”

Adam Scott described it as ”a bit of a fiddly golf

course.”

Was it his favorite?

”Muirfield you mean?” he replied with a cheeky grin. ”It’s

not my personal favorite, no.”

Scott certainly is not out on a limb there. As to why it causes

such hesitation, he blamed that on funny bounces. Scott also

attributes that to players who have too many expectations from a

game that is filled with surprises.

”I think it’s because we’re all pretty spoiled, and when we hit

it down the middle of the fairway we expect it to be in the middle

of the fairway. But that’s not how golf works over there,” he

said. ”That’s why we’re saying these things. But we’re all going

to have to deal with the same things. I’m going to be pretty fired

up to stand on the first tee Thursday and play an Open

Championship.

”I don’t care what the course looks like,” he said. ”I just

want to win the thing, you know?”