Windswept Open should be fun to watch, but not to play

Windswept Open should be fun to watch, but not to play

Bernhard Langer and the rest of the field could face tricky wind conditions all week at Royal St. George's.
Tim Hales/AP

SANDWICH, England — There was no anemometer handy in the press tent at Royal St. George’s, so I can’t tell you exactly how windy it was Wednesday morning at the Open Championship.

The only wind gauges you really needed, however, were the flagsticks at the nearby Royal Cinque Ports Club, where I was doing some deep research on early-morning links golf conditions in the area. At least, that’s what my expense account is going to claim.

Anyway, the flagsticks at Royal Cinque Ports were bent over at the waist and making noises like a motorboat’s outboard engine as the flags snapped, crackled and popped. It’s not scientific and it’s not official, but those felt like 30-mile-per-hour winds.

How windy was it? On one 212-yard par 3 that was playing downwind, I hit a 7-iron to 12 feet, the kind of club selection I can normally only dream about.

So, the one thing you need to know about this week’s British Open: the wind is going to blow. The Scots say, “If there’s nae wind, there’s nae golf.” By that standard, we’re in for an extra large dose of golf at Royal St. George’s. The wind is expected to stay up for a few more days, although weather predictions here are even less reliable than Jim Cramer’s stock picks.

Factor in the rock-hard, firm-and-fast conditions and a course that gives up quirky bounces, and you’ve got the recipe for a real blood-letting. The Open at Royal St. George’s may turn out to be the penal U.S. Open we didn’t get at Congressional, where soft greens caused the John Deere Classic to break out.

One TV commentator I chatted with said he wouldn’t be surprised if an over-par total wins this Open. That’s not much of a long shot, really. Just two years ago at windy Turnberry, Tom Watson and Stewart Cink finished 72 holes at just two under par.

Length isn’t a factor for the world’s best golfers. Royal St. George’s measures 7,211 yards with a par of 70, but it does have a pair of attention-getting, 240-yard par 3s.

Some players can handle firm conditions and make an approach shot stop on a cement driveway while singing “Hello, Dolly,” but wind is the Great Enemy. It is the game’s only sure defense against advances in equipment and player fitness and strength. As I was reminded Wednesday morning, wind doesn’t just mess with club selection and distance and roll and ball flight. It’s also a factor on the greens. With 30-mph winds, it is difficult to stroke a good putt because gusts blow the putter, not to mention the ball as it rolls.

Royal St. George’s and its quirks and mounds and ball-repelling fairways leave many players feeling uncomfortable on a good day. In high winds, it’ll be even worse.

“At the Open, sometimes you don’t even see the fairway, you just see rough and bunkers and landscaping and background,” said PGA champion Martin Kaymer of Germany. “You have to be very precise with your targets, and that makes you think a lot more. It takes more energy. It’s a very tiring week.”

The Royal & Ancient, which runs the Open, is aware of the weather challenges. Peter Dawson, head of the R&A, said Wednesday the course setup will take into consideration the weather forecast.

“The back tee at No. 7 was always going to be challenging,” Dawson said. “It’s 270 or 280 to the top of the crest there, and 220-ish to the fairway. Some players were having difficulty reaching the fairway from the back tee yesterday. So we made the players aware that some tees may be moved up.”

One other factor makes Royal St. George’s so tough in the wind. It is common for many links courses to go outward for nine holes, all in one direction, and then come back. Royal St. George’s loops out toward the ocean, then inward, then back out and around. No two consecutive holes run in exactly the same direction. Based on a compass, for instance, No. 1 heads southeast, No. 2 is due east, No. 3 is southeast, No. 4 is due south, No. 5 is northeast, No. 6 is southwest, No. 7 is mostly north, No. 8 is west, and so on.

“I don’t think we’re going to get particularly low scoring this week,” Dawson said. “The course is tough and for my money, it’s right up there with the best.”

Give a tour player the same wind direction on nine straight holes and he’ll adjust. Give him a different wind direction on every hole — on almost every shot — on a course with quirky bounces, and he’s going to be very, very frustrated.

“Even par would be good,” said Luke Donald, the No. 1 player in the world, after his Tuesday practice round. “It was playing very tough. If you could shoot 70 out there, you would be doing well. Tee to green, it was a challenge.”

The official Open weather forecast calls for winds of 20-25 mph, gusting over 30 on Thursday, followed by a relatively calm Friday morning with isolated gusts of 30 mph in the afternoon. The wind direction may switch for the weekend — the players won’t enjoy that, either — and rain could be a factor in the last two rounds.

This is going to be a fun and possibly wild Open to watch. Fun to play? Maybe not so much.