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Royal St George’s is not a beloved Open Championship venue, although it is beloved by me. The purists say the course is at once “too dull” and “too quirky”, too unfair and lacking the personality of other Open venues. The Kent coast landscape has dull, industrial hue that doesn’t photograph too well, even on a sunny day. Agreed.
On the other hand – the hand favoured by people who understand that while Kendall Jenner photographs well she might not be the person you’d pick to make a par down the last to save mankind – Royal St George’s has produced more thrilling Open championships in recent times than any other venue.
It was also the site of the first Open Championship I covered as a journalist, Greg Norman’s win in 1993. Being the 12th man on the Guardian’s Open coverage totem pole, I was assigned to cover the ‘plucky Brits’ not called Nick Faldo (aka, Paul Lawrie, who was then anonymous Scottish journeyman) and didn’t see the main contenders hit a single shot. But history records that Sunday afternoon as one of great Open final rounds, with a leaderboard peppered with the very best in the game. In the end Norman’s final round 64 was enough to hold off Faldo and Bernhard Langer.
I can still picture Norman sitting behind the table at the far end of the small, and quite smelly, press tent (no such thing as a “media centre” back in 1993), his face aglow with excitement. Not even he could believe he’d shot 64 to win an Open.
Fast forward ten years, to 2003, and the man behind the table on the Sunday evening of the Open was Ben Curtis. Ben Who? People were asking and they still do to this day – although the question mark is less punctuation than it is an insult. Ben Curtis, I respond.
Now I love Ben Curtis (a mate of mine picked up his bag the Sunday before the tournament, told him during a practise round, “put the f***ing lob wedge away, you’ll be chipping with an eight-iron this week” and by Sunday night had 10 per cent of the winner’s cheque in his back pocket) but not even his best friend would call him one of the greats. But he was no mug. Far from it, having won three more times on the PGA Tour and making one Ryder Cup appearance for the USA before he retired a few years back.
The point here, however, is not to defend the reputation of Curtis, but simply to draw attention to the quality of the players he beat that year. As in 1993, Royal St George’s produced a five-star leaderboard, with Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh and Davis Love, three of the world’s best, right behind the American ingenue. Thomas Bjorn was arguably the best player in Europe at that time and but for a series of self-inflicted misfortunes he would have won. Instead, he finished one behind Curtis.
Bjorn was hanging around on Sunday when the Open came back to Kent in 2011 but the rest of the cast had changed. VJ was no longer a serious contender and Tiger was mired in a post-scandal/injury hiatus. In their place there was a new generation of young Americans – Anthony Kim (remember him?), Dustin Johnston, Rickie Fowler – and a smattering of more familiar stalwarts; Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia, Davis Love.
Famously, Darren Clarke won. Infamously, he showed up to meet the press on Monday morning having not slept a wink. He may have had a pint or two. That press conference is what many people remember most of the 2011 Open Championship, a travesty, really, because Clarke’s golf that week was worthy of an Open champion. His 68 on Saturday, when he got absolutely screwed by the weather Gods, was – there is no other word for it – magnificent.
Once again, Royal St George’s produced a great winner and a fantastic leaderboard. So much for not being photogenic. Forget beauty, the measure of a great championship venue is the quality of the winner and the leaderboard it produces. By that standard RSG is one of the best. So as we stand on the eve of the 2021 Open there is very little we can guarantee other than that the winner will be from the top drawer and that the leaderboard chasing him down to the end will feature many of the biggest names.
In truth, this looks like one of the most wide-open Opens in recent memory, rather like professional golf itself. We are now definitively in the post-Tiger era where no one player is dominant. Jon Rahm is a justifiable betting favourite after his US Open victory but winning two successive major championships in an era of such competitive parity is probably asking too much of the big Spaniard. It would be a surprise if he failed to contend but the same can be said of Brooks Koepka, Bryson DeChambeau, Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Xander Schauffele and DJ.
As that list suggests the Yank challenge is strong this year. The European challenge, Rahm aside, less so. Viktor Hovland is a great player but perhaps still too young. Rory McIlroy is an enigma at this stage and might best be ignored. Which leaves us with the likes of Shane Lowry, favoured by some of the wisest observers, Tommy Fleetwood, Sergio Garcia and Tyrrell Hatton.
If we were contesting a Ryder Cup this week you would say with near certainty the Stars and Stripes will be flying high on Sunday. But it’s an Open, which raises a measure of uncertainty, although not enough to dispel the notion that an American will win. I take Spieth. He’s on form, he’s been here and done that, and he is due.
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