Sunday, July 17, 2011

Open Championship 2011- Day 7

When I come to the United Kingdom for a golf related event, the weather is always a factor that I relish. You come to expect the unexpected in this part of the world and this weekend did not disappoint. The forecast in England or Scotland will change a couple times a day making it nearly impossible to figure out a proper dress assignment.
Saturday morning found us playing our final leg of the four Open qualifying courses at the Rye Golf Club, which is located about an hour northeast of Canterbury. Thomas Lewis, the young amateur who was tied for the lead after the first round, shot 63-64 at Rye a couple of weeks ago to win the qualifier and set a course record. Par at Rye is 68. Do you think the USGA would conduct a U.S. Open qualifier on a par 68 golf course?
Rye GC joined Littlestone GC, Royal Cinque Ports and Prince’s Golf Club as the foursome of courses the R&A chose to conduct its local qualifying for the 2011 Open Championship at Royal St. George’s. I found the playing conditions at Rye on Saturday to be the most brutal of my golfing career. Strong winds accompanied by heavy rain, made the day one I will never forget.
Every facet of the game was nearly impossible, but having a pair of rain grip gloves made playing on this day a doable deal. For those that don’t know, rain grips are worn on both hands. These gloves are designed to perform better as they get wetter. It also makes it unnecessary to keep the grips on the golf clubs dry.
By the third hole my shoes were full of water. My pants and underwear were soaking wet under my rain suit an hour into the round. Soon my upper body was drenched and the weight of my wet rain gear added at least ten pounds to what I carried. 
My caddy was a grizzled Englishman in his early 60’s named Freddie. He was the best caddy that I have ever had in the UK. Freddie was himself a six handicapper. Winds on Saturday were between 60-70 kilometers, or 40-50 mph. Two things I will always remember about Freddie. He rolled his own cigarettes on this blusteriest of days and before I hit every shot he would say, “Commit to the shot, Ted.”
A few miles away, the players in the Open Championship were battling similar conditions. Peter Alliss, English golf legend and BBC commentator, called Saturday brutal. He said it was one of the three worst days of weather in the 140 year history of the British Open. Need I say more?
Saturday’s morning players at Royal St. George’s got the raw end of the draw. Many had played Thursday morning and Friday afternoon, which turned out to be the windiest and rainiest portion of the 2011 Open. When Darren Clarke teed off on Saturday, he only experienced three holes of tough weather. Phil Mickelson had nine.
Tom Lehman said it best this weekend, “Playing in this weather is as much about attitude as anything.”
Tom Watson had 18 holes of this brutal weather on Saturday morning. That evening I ran into Jim Nantz who was working for the BBC this week. He called Watson’s third round 72 a great round and one that will be lost in the agate type of the sports pages. The 61-year old Watson who has five Open titles to his credit just continues to amaze every year of this championship.
As the weekend progressed, it became hard even for us Americans not to root for Clarke. Several years ago he lost his wife to cancer. He has been a stalwart of golf for the Europeans over the years. The Northern Irishman paved the way for younger stars such as Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy. He is well like by Tour players and it was a popular win.
The Americans placed five players among the top seven including co-runnerup finishes by Mickelson and Dustin Johnson. Everyone in the world was ready to bury the boys from the U.S.  When all was said and done, eight Americans finished in the top 12 of the 2011 Open Championship.
We spent our Sunday morning at Royal St. George’s and then returned to Canterbury to watch the final round of the Open at a local pub called Bishop’s Finger. I couldn’t resist. My final lunch at this year’s event included the best fish n’ chips I had all week washed down with a pint of Bishop’s Ale, a locally brewed dark libation.
Here are a few of my memories from this wonderful trip to the south of England.
-          Playing the four Open qualifying courses in some of the rudest weather I ever teed it up in.
-          The tightest fairways and firmest greens I ever played anywhere. The opposite of U.S. golf!
-          The toughest, most brutal weather I have experienced at a professional golf event.
-          Making back to back birdies into the winds at Royal Cinque Ports on Holes 3 and 4.
-          Enjoying the R&A Dinner at the Canterbury Cathedral where Thomas Beckett was murdered inspiring Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales.”
-          Playing the 17th at Littlestone GC and being a few yards from where the U.S. launched its invasion at Normandy.
-          Renewing acquaintances across the pond with Jim Nantz and Harvey Green of the Miami Dolphins.
-          The Abode Hotel where many Tour players stayed including Steve Stricker, Camillo Villegas, Matt Kuchar, Paul Casey, Thomas Bjorn, Thomas Lewis and Hunter Mahan. Anthony Kim lodged across the hall from me all week and it was great to see him back in form.
-          The narrow pedestrian streets of Canterbury with its pubs, shops and eateries.
It truly was a “cracking” week and I really enjoyed taking you on this trip with me.         

Friday, July 15, 2011

Open Championship 2011- Day 6

I was up early because I wanted to walk all 18 holes at Royal St. George’s and in doing so follow the threesome of Steve Stricker, Lee Westwood and Charl Schwartzel, which teed off at 9:10 a.m. My day always starts in the hotel restaurant with a nice cup of coffee, English breakfast and a newspaper.  Stricker showed up in short sleeves  after I did. He downed a couple of eggs with bacon and white toast. Stricker washed his breakfast down with a cola. We sat at adjacent tables and talked a little bit about the weather, which was great for an Open Friday. I was reading The Times article about Thomas Lewis, the British amateur who had shot 65 to share the first round lead.
Stricker talked  about how cool it was for Lewis to have shot 65 and done so while being paired with Tom Watson. As luck would have it, when Steve was leaving the restaurant, Lewis walked in with his girlfriend. Stricker stopped and introduced himself and congratulated Lewis on Thursday’s round. Pretty classy move by the world’s number five. Ironically, Lewis was named after Tom Watson.
Let me interject a bit of breakfast information. The English scramble their eggs differently and serve them with the consistency of cottage cheese. The bacon is awesome- more like our ham. The toast is generally served as warm bread and not toasted by American standards. The coffee rather bitter.
Friday was my first real look at Royal St. George’s. The fairways contain more undulation than any course I played this week. They are rock hard. The intermediate roughs are whispy, but playable. The greens are big and fairly fast. I cannot describe how firm the greens are here. I have yet to see or fix a ball mark in my three rounds in Sandwich. Royal St. George’s greens are like concrete.
Before the round started, I was near Watson and Lewis. The five time Open Champ gave the rookie a noteworthy tip. “The key to my victories here has been staying out of the bunkers,” directed Watson.
The group that I chose to follow was one of the featured threesomes of the day. Schwartzel was solid all day. He got off to a great start and showed the early form that allowed him to win this year’s Masters.  He finished the day with a 67, which put him at -2 and clearly in the hunt for the Claret Jug.
Westwood hit the ball good all day. He was subject to bad breaks. On two occasions he hit perfect drives only to have his ball come to rest in a fairway divot. The stocky Englishman is playing in his 54th major championship and he dubiously has yet to win a major. Westwood has numerous runner-up finishes in the majors and today his frustration was evident.
Unfortunately, the English media are the first to hammer Westwood for his major championship failures. He wound up with a 72, which left him at +4 and on his way to a missed cut. I find him to be likeable, a great competitor and a player deserving of a major championship. At this point in time, Westwood is the best active player in the world not to win a major. Hopefully, it happens.
Stricker shot 71 and rested at even par through 36 holes. Today’s round was “unStricker like”. He three putted the 16th and 17th for bogeys. Stricker also made a bogey on the par 5, 7th hole which most players reached in two shots. Those three holes probably cost Stricker a share of the lead. He played Royal St. George’s rather conservatively and it was obvious part of his strategy was like Watson, to avoid the bunkers.
Stricker had the ball going left most of the day. It was one of those rounds that could have gone either way. He made great birdies on #2, #8 and #10. But, it was apparent that he was a little bit out of whack. Still, he is within striking distance heading into the weekend.
The most bizarre hole of the day was the 14th, a 545 yard par 5. The wind was blowing left to right. The hole features rare out of bounds on the right side, so players favor the left. Schwartzel snap hooked his tee into the deep rough. He summoned a rules official who allowed him to mark and remove the ball for identification.
Schwarzel verified that the Nike ball was his. He gently placed the ball back in its original lie. He tapped it down into the grass with his index finger and then softly moved the grass back over the top of his ball with hands and the ball disappeared in the long grass. This was a classic example of recreating the lie, which is what the rules of golf demand.
The South African took a sand wedge, hooded the face and took an upright swing. He lined his ball back into the middle of the fairway probably 200 yards from the green. His next shot went way left and landed in the grandstands. The ball caromed out into a greenside bunker on the left. Schwartzel blasted out to within a couple of feet and made a par. That was easily the save of the day.
I offer couple of final thoughts. As I walked down the 7th fairway, I couldn’t help but notice the bicycle riders on a sand path near the coast line of the English Channel, maybe 75 yards from the golf course. They pedaled along, totally oblivious to the golf that was being played. It was one of those serene moments that are reserved for the British Open.                 
Seconds later, there was a tremendous roar behind me. My little transistor radio was providing the BBC feed and I was informed that Tom Watson, two groups behind us, had just made a hole in one on #6. It was his first in the Open, but his 15th career hole in one. Good for him. At 61 years old, he will make the cut in this major thanks to that ace.
The BBC radio commentators couldn’t help but feel real proud about this gorgeous sun drenched day. It was described as “a sunny Sandwich” or a “toasted Sandwich,” recognizing the town we are in.
At one point, the BBC made reference to the fact that American golf professionals are not allowed to wear shorts. “It seems to be an infringement on your rights as a human being, not to be able to wear shorts,” said the clever English announcer.
Infringement of human rights? Our American forefathers might say that was the pot calling the kettle black!    

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Open Championship 2011- Day 5

I sat in solitary quiet just after 6:30 a.m. Thursday morning in the dining room of the Abode Hotel here in Canterbury. The only other person in the room was Camillo Villegas, PGA Tour player from Argentina. A few miles away, the first tee shots were being hit at Royal St. George’s Golf Club in Sandwich.
Villegas and I have opened the restaurant each morning this week. Today, he seemed more focused, less relaxed and ready to finally get this Open underway. He went on to card a one over par 71 and is tied for 53rd.
As I drank my morning coffee and waded through The Times, London’s newspaper, one story couldn’t help and catch my attention. On page 71, was a headline that read, “Overawed, overrated and over here- the Yanks are coming, not just yet.” The British are clearly at a point where they show little respect to American golfers. Here is a little bit from The Times article written by Matt Dickinson.
“Come back Tiger, all is forgiven; at least by American golf journalists desperate for a good news story. Or any story.
“It is bad enough that the new boys from the U.S. do not win majors. Less forgivable still is that they are, how can we put this politely, lacking in “wow” factor. Or just plain dull. Whatever you think of Woods, he brings a crackle of anticipation.
“Anthony Kim? He’s decided to have his parties in his room and not on the 18th greens. Ricky Fowler? America wants to believe he’s the torchbearer, but he’s never won. He dresses funny, he’s recognizable, but I want someone who can win. Nick Watney? A nice, young guy, but I don’t think he’s going to be the champion golfer of the year.
“Steve Stricker? He is not getting any younger. As for Bubba Watson, he has made it hard to take him seriously.
“So, over to Phil Mickelson, a man in such dubious form that successive questions this week were ‘Is it true that the marshals used hard hats because you were spraying it all over the shop?’ and ‘What’s happened to your driving?’ “
Dickinson goes on to point out that the most repeated statistic of the week is that the U.S. has no claim to any of the majors, which has happened only once before, in 1994, when Jose Maria Olazabal (Masters); Ernie Els (U.S. Open) and Nick Price (PGA and British Open) reigned for Europe and South Africa just as Rory McIlroy, Charl Schwartzel, Martin Kaymer and Louis Oosthuizen do now.
Of today’s top ten in the World Rankings, only four are Americans. There were no Americans in the top three of The Masters for the first time ever.
Dickinson took one final punch at the Yanks. “As Europe celebrates the brilliance of McIlroy, the high rankings of Luke Donald and Lee Westwood, and readies itself for Matteo Manassero to start challenging for majors, America looks to the horizon. And keeps looking.”
While it is hard to argue with Dickinson’s numbers, Thursday’s first round at the Open found many American flags on the leaderboard. Lucas Glover and Webb Simpson were tied for third at 4 under par. Four more Americans, including Indiana’s Jeff Overton, were tied for seventh place. A total of 11 Yanks were in the top eighteen after one round.    
Friday’s forecast calls for partly sunny skies with a high temperature of 67. The winds will be medium strength. Players will look at the second round as their chance to go low. The weekend forecast calls for rain and high winds- it could be a 36-hole endurance contest on Saturday and Sunday.
Thomas Bjorn from Denmark is the first round leader. I like the karma here. Bjorn took a two shot lead into the final three holes of the 2003 Open Championship held here at Royal St. George’s.  He hit a shot into a bunker on the 16th hole and left with a double bogey after leaving three shots in the bunker. Eventually, he finished runner-up to Ben Curtis.
This year, Bjorn who is ranked 80th in the world, only gained an invitation to play in the Open after Vijay Singh withdrew with a bad back.
“I am not in the greatest of form. I haven’t been for awhile,” said Bjorn. “But, if you come in with low expectations and just try to enjoy yourself, knuckle down and work hard, you can get the best out of it.”
It probably would be wise for those unheralded Americans to take heed to Bjorn’s advice. They should certainly have low expectations. I would guess they know how to enjoy themselves. The American way is to work hard and try to get the best from all situations. The good news for the Yanks is that ten of the former 14 Open champions at RSG were first time major winners.
There is one final statistic that Dickinson failed to mention regarding his own countrymen. Not since Nick Faldo won the 1992 Open Championship at Muirfield has an English player captured the Claret Jug. BBC promos for the television coverage of the Open show highlights of the English golf stars with the caption, “Will this finally be the year that the English break through?”
After being in Jolly Ole England this week, I think these Brits are still upset about that Tea Party! Go USA…………

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Open Championship 2011- Day 4

Our guys got up early yesterday and met for breakfast at 6:30 a.m. Joining us in the hotel dining room were three of the usual suspects- Camilo Villegas, Matt Kuchar and Paul Casey. Interestingly, all three had early practice round times and they had their own separate transportation.

Kuchar and Villegas were playing together today. Casey offered Camilo a ride in his personal car, but Villegas declined saying, “Thanks, but I want to make sure I get there. I trust my driver more than you!”
We headed down to Sandwich ourselves to play Royal Cinque Ports, which is located next to the 2011 Open course- Royal St. George’s. These two courses are very similar and it gave us a great idea of what the Tour players will be dealing with this week at the 2011 Open Championship. The conditions were cool and cloudy with sustained winds in excess of 35 mph.

Royal Cinque Ports was founded in 1892 by a group that saw its location on the Sandwich coast as a way to replicate the classic Scottish links courses. This course features fast fairways, enormous greens and windy weather. It is a typical ‘out’ and ‘in’ links course, the front nine running away from the clubhouse, then when the holes stop, just turn around and play straight back.
The course guide sums Royal Cinque Ports in this way. “The course is set on an expanse of nature’s finest golfing land, wild & rugged and a challenge to all lovers of the traditional British links game of golf. It is a course where the contours of the land are as much a factor as the elements of the weather.

“As you tee up in front of the Clubhouse, you are about to follow in the footsteps of champions. You will have the opportunity to challenge your control of the golf ball from elevated tees exposed to the sea winds.
“Beyond the large rolling fairways, expanses of tight firm seaside turf which are dry and firm underfoot all year round. Beware, however, the cavernous bunkers, which were originally nature’s shelters for grazing sheep but now capture wayward shots. Beware too of the deep contoured swales in the fairways.
“Finally, you reach the hallowed greens, truly nature’s dance floor. “
Royal Cinque Ports hosted the 1909 and 1920 Open Championships. As you would expect, the wind yesterday was howling off the English Channel. The first hole played downwind, but then the next eight played into a strong headwind. As we hit the back nine, the winds shifted and the homeward holes featured the stiffest left to right crosswind that I have ever played in. Finally, the 17th and 18th holes were downwind, but it was nearly impossible to stop the ball.
Every shot was a war. Even the shots around the green were treacherous as you could easily chip a ball off the putting surface when hitting downwind. Needless to say, the putting was equally treacherous and every stroke came with the fear that the ball might start rolling after address, as it quivered in the wind. But, this is what you come to expect from UK golf.

If this week’s Open Championship at Royal St. George’s is anything like what I experienced yesterday, it should fulfill all of the advanced billing that the course has received. In fact, RSG is probably more severe in its topography than Royal Cinque Ports. Ground conditions at both courses are fast and hard. The greens are mottled and spotty, making the putts hard to anticipate.
Many Open players bagged their practice rounds at Royal St. George’s due to the windy weather. But, with the prospect of playing in these conditions, which will be unique to both PGA and European Tour players, it could be advisable to deal with the elements early this week in preparation for the weekend.            

After dinner last night, I stopped at one of the local gaming houses to place a few pounds on the Open. Gambling is legal here and the BETFRED Store had many options. I placed four wagers of ten pounds each on the following players: Jason Day 33-1; Steve Stricker 35-1; Matt Kuchar 40-1 and Bo Van Pelt 125-1.
Stricker has also checked into The Abode Hotel where I am staying here in Canterbury. He comes off his third straight win of the John Deere Classic. Stricker birdied the final two holes on Sunday to gain his 11th PGA Tour victory. The Wisconsin native is one of the classiest and most humble professional golfers in the world. A major championship is really the only thing missing from his resume.

Jason Day, the young Australian, has played great in the first two majors of the year. He was runner-up at The Masters and recorded a top five finish in the U.S. Open. No one has played better in the 2011 majors than Day has.
Matt Kuchar won the Vardon Trophy last year for low scoring average on the PGA Tour. “Kuch” is one of the most well liked players on the Tour. I am picking him as a dark horse because Harry Vardon actually won two Open Championships at Royal St, George’s.  Besides that, he was kind enough to pose for a picture of the Vardon Trophy at the PGA Show in January with my grandson, Reid and me.

Bo Van Pelt was born in Richmond, IN. He grew up playing junior golf on the Indiana Jr. Tour and has had the best aggregate finishes of all American players in the 2011 majors. He is a laid back guy who probably has the patience to deal with what Royal St. George’s has to offer.
It could be worthwhile to keep an eye on Jeff Overton this week. The Evansville, IN native has recorded two consecutive top twenty finishes in the Open Championship. Overton played well at the Ryder Cup in Wales and will be the first to tell you that he loves this style of golf- the low, trapping hooks that are needed in windy conditions.
However, no one could have predicted Louis Oosthuizen’s eight shot victory at St. Andrews’ Old Course in 2010. History will tell you that 10 of the 14 Open winners at Royal St. George’s were first time Open champions.  Locals like the chances of another unheralded longshot, ala Ben Curtis in 2003.
To quote the Brits, “whoever wins this championship will be ‘brilliant’, have ‘no worry’ and enjoy a ‘lovely’ week of golf.” Don’t kid yourself, the winner will earn this one- the old fashioned way.
bunker shot on Hole 8 at Royal Cinque Ports

Monday, July 11, 2011

Open Championship 2011- Day 3

Players who make the field in the Open Championship, earn so by their world ranking, last year’s finish in this tournament, various other exemptions- but most, play their way in the British Open through local or national qualifiers at various courses around the United Kingdom. It is a similar procedure as the USGA uses for the United States Open.
On Monday, I had the privilege of playing the Littlestone Golf Club in New Romney, which hosted an Open qualifier in the past couple of weeks. When the USGA conducts its local and regional qualifiers for the U.S. Open, the courses are top notch and the best in our country. Most of these take place at private clubs throughout the U.S.
Let me describe the Littlestone Golf Club for you. This course is a classic British links variety. The clubhouse is old and fairly modest. The parking lot is rather small. There are no motorized golf cars, just trolleys or pull carts as we know it in America. The practice range consisted of about a dozen stalls with artificial mats.  A warm up range bucket cost 1.5 pounds (approximately $2.50 U.S.) for about 30 old and soiled balls.
The setting at Littlestone is “brilliant”, an often used British phrase. This links course winds up and down the British coast along the English Channel. A comfortable breeze blew throughout the day. Littlestone’s fairways were not irrigated and they were parched, spotty and burned out in many areas. The fairways were guarded by links style fescue grasses and pot bunkers.
The greens were slow by American standards, although our caddies swore they rolled 11 on a stimp meter a couple of weeks ago when the course hosted the Open qualifier.  The cost to join Littlestone is 1,100 pounds per year, which equates into $1,833 U.S. dollars. The caddie fee was 50 pounds including the gratuity or $83 U.S. dollars.
Over the years, Littlestone has entertained some of the top names in the world of golf at its Open qualifiers. I couldn’t but think that Americans would not tolerate a course such as Littlestone.  The playing conditions were sub-standard by our expectations. However, let’s remember where we are and not forget the way the people in the UK approach golf. Maybe their way, is the way golf was meant to be played.
I would guess that the annual maintenance budget at Littlestone has to be near $100,000 U.S. dollars. This is where we screwed up golf in the U.S. We created high maintenance standards, which have resulted in outlandish budgets for our courses. Unfortunately, America will never turn back. But, the British hold the line because golf was invented here and this is how the game was meant to be played.
As I mentioned, several holes at Littlestone border the English Channel. My caddy, a pleasant chap named Mick, pointed out a huge piece of concrete about 100 yards off the coast, near the 17th hole a 185 yard, par three. He explained that this was part of a dock that was used to tie up the U.S. boats in the Normandy invasion, many of which were launched across the English Channel from New Romney .
The dock later broke loose from the shore and floated to sea. Anything bad that happened to me that day at Littlestone GC was minor compared to the day the guys had who left that dock headed to Omaha Beach.
During the round we saw a small steam engine toting eight open air passenger cars on a nearby railway. According to Mick it is “the world’s smallest passenger railway in the world” encompassing a 15-mile stretch from Dungeness to Hythe.                   
The overall experience at Littlestone Golf Club was great. It was another retro British golf round and this is what golf in the U.K. is all about.
On the way home, we experienced a unique bit of the local culture. I am with Allen Wronowski, PGA President and Derek Sprague, PGA Secretary. Allen is from Phoenix, MD and Derek hails from Malone, NY. Sprague was driving, which is no easy task here. You drive on the opposite side of the road and steer from the passenger’s side. He clipped a curb about 15 miles from Canterbury and one of our front tires went flat. We found ourselves stranded on the English country side when our rental vehicle had no spare tire.
We were able to pull the van into the driveway of a nearby farmhouse, where we met Peter Southern, a very nice English gentleman who owned the farm. Four and a half hours later, a recovery truck (wrecker) showed up and took us back to Canterbury. As we departed Southern’s farm he remarked, “I am embarrassed for my country. This was a bit of a sad situation.” Gotta love the English!
Parking is limited at the hotel, so I held a parking spot while Sprague backed in the van with the flat tire. In was doing so, I had to turn away Paul Casey, top English golfer driving a BMW, from the same parking spot. When he saw our flat tire, which hopefully gets repaired tomorrow, we traded a few good natured barbs.
After Casey found out about our debacle he joked and said, “Well, you boys lost some valuable drinking time, but seems you can make that up in short order!”
Many players including Casey, Camillo Villegas, Matt Kuchar and Hunter Mahan are staying at our hotel in Canterbury. Joining us is Tim Finchem from PGA Tour and many other golf officials from around the world.       
It was a quirky day, to say the least!
Hitchhiking in England

Open Championship 2011- Day 2

Royal St. George’s is located in Sandwich, England about two hours southeast of London. I am staying in the famous village of Canterbury, which is about 15 miles from Sandwich. The Cliffs of Dover, located on the English Channel, are about 20 minutes from where I am. This was a significant area in the annals of World War II.
As the crow flies, the 2011 Open Championship at RSG is literally a few miles from Normandy and Omaha Beach, the site of the D-Day invasion. To get to Normandy, you simply ferry across the English Channel to France and then take the 30 mile drive to Calais. Much of the area that I am staying in was destroyed by German war planes in the 1940’s. On a sunny day, you can clearly see France from the golf course.
A series of German bombings decimated this area in April of 1942. Those air raids were known as the Baedeker Blitz and they targeted many of these picturesque, English coastal towns, such as Sandwich and Canterbury. These attacks by the Germans were in response to earlier bombings by the English on Lubeck, Germany. 
The cities in this area were reputedly selected from the German Baedeker Tourist Guide to Britain. Landmarks meeting certain criteria of having been awarded three stars for historical significance were chosen and the Germans attempted to bomb every English coastal city in this area with any historical implication. The Baedeker raids on five cities in this vicinity killed 1,637 civilians, injured 1,760 more and destroyed over 50,000 houses.
Sandwich and Canterbury are both located in the ceremonial county of Kent. Sandwich is of Saxon origin and means “Sand wake.” Ironically, the 4th Hole at Royal St. George’s has a 40-foot bunker and it has been described by some as the tallest bunkers in the UK. The course guide to RSG advises that the approach shot to the 496 yard, par 4 is “quite frankly, nearly impossible.”      
Canterbury earned its name meaning “Kent’s people’s stronghold” after early religious conflicts in 597 over Christianity. Thomas Beckett’s murder in 1170 at Canterbury Cathedral, located a few yards from my hotel, led to this becoming a place for Christians worldwide and one of the most notable towns in Europe. This pilgrimage inspired Geoffrey Chaucer’s 14th – century literary classic The Canterbury Tales. On Sunday evening, I enjoyed fish and chips from Thomas Beckett’s Tavern.
Julius Caeser landed in nearby Deal in 55 B.C. and the Romans rebuilt Canterbury after early Celtic wars, probably without their golf clubs as the Scots had not invented the game yet. Many historical features remain around Canterbury, including a wall founded in Roman times and rebuilt in the 14th Century.
The Romans eventually left the area and Canterbury suffered great losses of life during the Danish raids in the 9th century. After Beckett’s death in 1170, tragedy would continue to beset the area. The Black Death hit Canterbury in 1348. At 10,000 Canterbury had the 10th largest population in England; by the early 16th century, the population had fallen to 3,000.
And if you are still looking for more history from the area, in 1620 Robert Cushman negotiated the lease of the Mayflower at
59 Palace Street
in Canterbury for the purpose of transporting Pilgrims to America. 
Locals will tell you that the slow, grating sound of the sea and stone on these coastal towns of Kent carry “the eternal note of sadness” in the area. Golfers will speak of that same type of sadness when describing Royal St. George’s.
When asked to rank RSG among the nine British Open venues, Steve Elkington responded, “I’d say it ranks 10th.”
Ian Poulter was asked which of the 18 holes at RSG would be best to watch the action from. His reaction was, “None of them. It’s an average course at best.”
But like anything, others will testify that Royal St. George’s is a classic links course and that it provides a magnificent venue.
This will be my third Open Championship. The beauty of this event is in the diversity of the venues. Turnberry provided high drama and coastal beauty as Tom Watson nearly pulled off the unthinkable in 2009. Last year’s Open was played at St. Andrews and the Old Course, which is the birthplace of golf. The town was fabulous and it is the resting place for Old Tom Morris, the patron saint of golf. 
And this year, I sit several hundred miles away from these Scottish destinations. The history of Sandwich, Canterbury and the county of Kent almost make golf feel insignificant in the big scheme of things. So many things have happened in this area that dwarf the importance of a game played with a ball and a stick.
But, on Thursday morning that will all change when the first ball is struck and the 2011 Open Championship begins. Golf still remains as the primary passion for those here in the United Kingdom. 

Sunday, July 10, 2011

British Open 2011- Monday

It’s a little ironic, I guess. I am looking out my window at the New York City skyline on Delta Flight #1 from JFK to London’s Heathrow. My seat is 1B and I am on my way to experiencing the number one week of my golf year. This is Open Championship week- the British Open for all you Yanks.
Often I get asked, what is my favorite major golf championship? Ever had four kids and try to pick a favorite? Tough to do. There is no place like Augusta National and everyday on those sacred grounds is pure golf heaven. The U.S. Open was America’s championship until those Irish guys McDowell and McIlroy stole it the last couple of years. The PGA Championship is my event and someday I will present the winner the Wanamaker Trophy.
But, the Open Championship is the history of golf. This tournament started in mid 19th Century at Prestwick and the first few Opens consisted of three rounds on a 12-hole golf course. This is the grandfather of golf’s majors.  The Open Championship is about weather, raw course conditions, quirkiness and timeless tradition.
There are currently nine courses in the “Open rota.” This year’s event returns to Royal St. George’s, which is located a couple of hours southeast of London in a town called Sandwich. This will be the 14th Open played at the course that most would say is the least favorite on the rota menu.
Royal St. George’s has the reputation of being fluky, tricky and unpredictable. It features blind shots, unruly bounces and not a level spot on the course. It has been an extremely dry spring in Sandwich and shots will bounce away from the greens and fairways. There have been plenty of calamities over the years at RSG. Bobby Jones once shot 86. Jack Nicklaus carded an 83. Paul Casey shot 85.
In 1993, Greg Norman won at RSG with a score of 267- the lowest score ever in an Open Championship. In 1894, J.H. Taylor won at RSG with a score of 326- the highest ever in an Open Championship. This course has proven more fickle than the best woman in your life. Walter Hagen and Harry Vardon won twice at Royal St. George’s.         
In 1938, in what has been described as the worst weather in the history of the Open Championship, the exhibition tent was flattened and its contents blown to sea. During the final round only seven players broke 80. Henry Cotton drove the 370 yard, 2nd hole and made an eagle two. The feat was surpassed by Alf Padgham who made an eagle on the 384 yard, 11th hole after driving the green.  
“Open venues get worse the farther south you travel,” said Jack Nicklaus. Royal St. George’s is so far south that on a clear day you can see the white cliffs of France.
RSG was founded in 1887 and was intended to be the St. Andrews South. It was designed by William Laidlaw Purves and named for England’s patron saint, St. George- a Roman soldier who was beheaded in 303 for his Christian views. In 1894 it hosted the first Open Championship outside of Scotland. King Edward VII, an  avid golfer and former R&A Captain, gave it royal status in 1902.
The course, which is open to men only, has 18 holes that sprawl over a 400 hundred acre tract of land on a five mile stretch between the Stour Estuary and the English Channel. In 1928, Walter Hagen, the first American to win the Open said, “The first nine holes is tremendous fun and not very good golf. The second nine holes is tremendous golf and no fun at all.”
Michael Bamberger, senior writer for Sports Illustrated, has this take on the 2011 Open site.
“I caddied in the ’85 Open at Royal St. George’s and I covered Ben Curtis’s win in ’03 and I’ve played it several times and I have to say that it’s WAY underrated. It’s interesting, twisting, demanding, and it’s in a beautiful, civilized setting,” said Bamberger.
“I like her neighbor- remember when people would attach the word “her” or “she” to golf courses- better, Royal Cinque Ports, for my dufferish play. But for Steve Stricker and Co.? RSG is superb,” concluded Bamberger.
Royal Cinque Ports hosted the 1909 and 1920 Open Championships. The course was decimated by bombings in World War II and later suffered from severe flooding from the English Channel. I play there Tuesday.
But, this week is about you being with me at the 2011 Open Championship at Royal St. George’s. I will report daily through Saturday and I look forward to bringing you some golf, English culture and a little history from the southeast coast of the United Kingdom.
I love quirky and different, so this week should be right up my alley!