From the unpredictable wind to the quirky bounces, Royal St. George's presents a unique challenge

From the unpredictable wind to the quirky bounces, Royal St. George’s presents a unique challenge

Luke Donald practiced on Wednesday from one of the many bunkers at Royal St. George's.
Toby Melville/Reuters

SANDWICH, England — During a trip to London last fall, Ben Curtis hopped a train two hours east to Royal St. George’s Golf Club. Curtis didn’t play. He was merely sightseeing with his family, revisiting the site of his greatest victory, the 2003 British Open. It was a blustery day — at one point Curtis and Co. took shelter in a pot bunker — and without the Open infrastructure in place, the course looked different to Curtis.

“I didn’t realize that there’s all these fields beyond where we are now,” Curtis recalled earlier this week. “We were standing on the tees and my dad is like, ‘Where do you hit it?’ I’m like, ‘I don’t really know without all the grandstands and that.’ You totally get a real sense of what links golf is all about when you see it in that way.”

The grandstands, merchandise tent and makeshift meat carveries are back in business this week at St. George’s, and so is one of the quirkiest and most confounding exams on the Open rota. Indeed it’s remarkable that Curtis won here on his first try eight years ago, because the humps and bumps and swales that define this layout can take a lifetime to learn. (Merely decoding the 39-page yardage book requires a degree in topography.)

“This [Open site], I think, needs more knowing than most because there are rather more slightly blind shots, and the kicks you can get off the fairway, you need to know them,” Peter Dawson, the chief executive of the R&A, said Wednesday morning. “But once you know this golf course, I think once you hit the shot, you’ve got a pretty good idea if you’ve hit where you’re going to get a good bounce or not.”

Confused? You’re not alone. As players plotted their way around the 124-year-old track during Wednesday’s practice round, their body language said it all. A grimace here, a cheeky grin there, befuddlement just about everywhere. Even the world’s No. 1 player looked uneasy.

At the par-4 second, Luke Donald pulled two drives — one into a fairway bunker, the other into gnarly fescue left of that bunker. At the par-3 third, he tugged another tee shot, thinning a long iron that left him shortsided. (“You don’t really want to be here, do you?” he said to his caddie when they arrived at his ball.) And at the par-4 fourth, he struck what looked like a perfect drive over the towering bunker that protrudes from the front end of the fairway only to find his ball had leaked into the left rough. From there, Donald, maybe the game’s best iron player, couldn’t hold the green.

“A good score out here?” Padraig Harrington, the two-time Open champion, said after spending more than 20 minutes fiddling about on the 18th green. “No idea. I just couldn’t tell you.”

When pushed for a number, Harrington said, “If you shot 59 that would be a good score. I know that’s one parameter. And you wouldn’t be happy with 80. So somewhere in between those two.”

That’s the essence of St. George’s. It’s impossible to predict just about anything here, from how hard the wind will blow, to where a drive will come to rest, to who might clutch the claret jug at week’s end. (Raise your hand if you had Curtis, then the 396th-ranked player in the world, in your ’03 Open office pool.) It’s not a golf course. It’s a Rubik’s Cube.

“You’ve got to figure out how much roll you’re going to get after the ball lands,” Curtis said on Monday. “And that’s just through a little bit of preparation, just getting used to seeing how far each club in the bag would roll downwind, into the wind, side wind. You have a pretty good idea by Thursday, and then you still learn more as you go on and on.”

Charl Schwartzel and defending Open champion Louis Oosthuizen learned how long it can take to play a nine-hole practice round on a course full of hard-working pros and note-taking caddies: 3 hours and 10 minutes. (“They walked in because they just had enough,” said their agent, Chubby Chandler.) Phil Mickelson learned what the wind around here can do to a tee shot. At the par-4 17th on Tuesday he bombed a drive 380 yards. At the par-3 11th, he also pulled driver, flying it just 210.

“The wind is perhaps a wee bit stronger than we would like at the moment, but we like that wind on links courses,” said Jim McArthur, the chairman of the R&A’s championship committee. Dawson added that the R&A would not hesitate to push up some tees if it really starts gusting.

A stiff breeze can wreak particular havoc at the daunting par-4 fourth, which requires players to knock their drives over a mountain of sand about 220 yards from the tee. Then again, the wind can defang the hole, too.

“Today it was a driver and a wedge,” Davis Love III said after his practice round Wednesday. “It blows the other way, it’s a par 4 and a half — at least.”

Such are the vagaries of links golf. And especially links golf at Royal St. George’s, which despite its rich history makes few players “Favorite Open Venues” lists. Harrington thinks he knows why.

“It wouldn’t be one of the more popular courses because of the fact that it’s so traditional in how it plays,” he said. “Professional golfers like everything to be ordered and neat, and the guy who hits it the best and hits it on the green and two putts should be the winner.

“But that doesn’t happen in links golf. There are a lot more curve balls thrown at you, and you have to deal with them. It’s as much a mental test as a physical test, and I suppose we’re conditioned to the physical test: we like flat lies on fairways and everything to be predictable.”

In other words, everything St. George’s is not.