Preview: The Open 2011
QUESTION: The last time The Open came to Kent, three Englishmen were in the top 10. Can you name them?*
Quite possibly not (see end for the answer) because at the time it came as something of a surprise, although not quite as big a one as Ben Curtis walking off with the Claret Jug on his first visit to the British Isles, let alone a links course.
But eight years later things have changed, and there is every reason to expect a leaderboard befitting of this quintessentially English Open venue.
It was here that the famous Dunlop 65 ball was inspired by Henry Cotton’s exploits in the 1934 Open.
The Englishman had opened up with astonishing rounds of 67 and 65 and after adding a 72 found himself 10 strokes clear of the field.
But Cotton suffered terribly from nerves. Suffering from stomach cramps, he was out in 40 and had dropped a further three strokes by the time he failed to find the 13th green in regulation.
A brave chip and putt steadied the ship and he eventually ran out a five-stroke winner, duly claiming the first of his three Claret Jugs.
So who could follow in his footsteps?
A glance at the world rankings shows four of St George’s finest in the top 15 and each could make a strong case for becoming the first home winner here since Reg Whitcombe the year before the Second World War began.
Since then, the Sandwich champions have comprised a South African (Bobby Locke), two unheralded Americans (Bill Rogers and Curtis), a Scot (Sandy Lyle) and an Australian (Greg Norman).
To become the first Englishman to win the Open on home soil since Tony Jacklin at Lytham in 1969, the likes of Luke Donald, Lee Westwood, Paul Casey and Ian Poulter will need to do slightly more than merely play at somewhere near or preferably at their very best.
They will need to display patience, but also sense when an opportunity presents itself to attack. They will need to be skilful and creative to save par when greens are inevitably missed. And they will need the stoicism to accept that, just occasionally, Sandwich can be less than kind to shots that deserve much better.
This is an old-fashioned quirky course in places, though less so than you might be led to believe.
Not every hole is supremely difficult but at others bogey is not all that bad a score.
There will be times, as there are at most links courses, where there will be simply no way of getting the ball close to the flag.
And especially after Kent’s driest spring in a century, and this in a county where rainfall is often in demand.
Should the wind blow across what is sure to be a baked, parched, lunar landscape, we can expect an old-fashioned Open Championship, and perhaps another one where those who have seen it all before defy the years to mount an unlikely challenge.
Then again, in 2003, it was a man who had never seen a links course before, let alone one as capricious as this, who emerged victorious.
This goes to show that the best players, with the right attitude, can learn very quickly – especially with the right caddy by their side.
Famously, Curtis, who qualified by virtue of being the highest-placed finisher (13th) not otherwise exempt at the PGA Tour’s Western Open the week before Sandwich, had never even had a top 10 in America until he came to Kent, and was ranked 396th in the world.
What he did get lucky with was in acquiring a local caddy. The story goes that Andy Sutton was on his way back to his native Kent from Loch Lomond, where he had been on the bag for his usual player, John Bickerton, who was not in the field for the Open.
Sutton rang IMG to ask if any of their players needed a local caddy for the Open (he is from Maidstone) and they told him about Curtis. The rest is history. Sutton started working full time with Curtis soon afterwards and is still on the bag to this day.
Curtis was the only player to finish under par that week, when conditions were similar to what we can expect again this year.
That was with the course playing to a par of 71; this time it will be 70 as the 4th reverts to a long par 4.
A glance at the world rankings shows four of St George’s finest in the top 15 and each could make a strong case for becoming the first home winner here since Reg Whitcombe the year before the Second World War began. There was no shortage of quality or experience on the leaderboards that hot Sunday afternoon. Thomas Bjorn led by a shot until leaving not one but two shots in a bunker that has since, curiously, been filled in to the back right of the par-3 16th green. Rumours that the Dane was responsible for this act, turning up in the dead of night with a JCB, remain unconfirmed.
Vijay Singh also fell away, while all that separated Tiger Woods from his unknown countryman was the lost ball he suffered with his very first shot of the championship on Thursday morning.
The 14-time Major winner, more than anyone, may appreciate the changes to that hole that have seen the fairway widened and moved since then.
For the record, of the aforementioned Englishmen, all of whom were in the field that week, only Poulter made the cut, eventually finishing in a tie for 46th.
Not that any of this will count for too much eight years on. Much has changed since then, not least in the world of Woods.
One constant comes in the shape of Phil Mickelson, who missed the cut in 2003. In 17 Open appearances dating back to 1991, he has finished in the top 10 only once.
So if Woods is no longer the automatic overwhelming favourite and Mickelson is to be discounted, which of the American contingent are most likely to prosper? This is a nation that has claimed the Claret Jug in 11 of the last 16 years, but rarely in the modern era have there been so few obvious contenders. It is worth bearing in mind that Sean O’Hair, Nick Watney and Dustin Johnson all went well at St Andrews last year, but then again Sandwich is a very different kind of course.
As for the defending champion, Louis Oosthuizen is yet to post a top 10 since winning the Africa Open in early January. Like many surprise winners before him, the pressures and attention that come with being a Major champion have proved detrimental to his game.
It is easy to forget that less than a year ago he accelerated away from the finest players in the game en route to a seven-shot victory – only six times in the Open’s 150-year history has there been a larger wining margin. A repeat performance, then, seems highly unlikely.
There is a school of thought that suggests the bombers might enjoy themselves at Sandwich. With the rough light and the course firm, the likes of Dustin Johnson and Alvaro Quiros might find they can carry bunkers and ignore doglegs, instead simply taking the shortest route to the green at holes like the 2nd, 5th, 9th and 12th, depending on the wind.
In these conditions, expect to see 400-yard-plus drives, but this approach will only bear dividends if it is allied to some skilful wedge play at the other end of the hole.
Should the wind get up, then those best able to control their flight will surely come to the fore. While the modern ball makes playing in the wind infinitely easier than it used to be, this is a course where crosswinds are commonplace, so those who like to send their drives into orbit might struggle for control.
More than anything, though, playing at St George’s in classic links conditions is an art rather than a science. In other words, there is more than one way to skin this particular cat.
So expect a leaderboard with a little bit of everything – and that includes some home interest late into Sunday afternoon.
* The three Englishmen who flew the flag of St George last time at Sandwich? A fast-finishing Brian Davis ended up in a tie for 6th, a shot ahead of Sir Nick Faldo, his last Open top 10. Open specialist Gary Evans was T-10.
Sandwich in 2003
1 Ben Curtis -1
2 Thomas Bjorn E
4 Davis Love +1
6 Brian Davis +2
8 Nick Faldo +3
10 Gary Evans +4