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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
”I don’t care what the course looks like,” he said. ”I just
want to win the thing, you know?”