SANDWICH, England – Bryson DeChambeau’s face twisted into a question mark as his tee shot at the second hole early Wednesday drifted hopelessly right and toward the thick hay.
“Fore! See, I yell fore,” he laughed.
There is no better example of the enigma of links golf than DeChambeau. And as a cool wind raked Royal St. George’s, the busy mind was quickly coming to terms with the inevitable. For a man whose mission in life is to remove all the variables from the game, the 149th edition may as well be a single outsized question mark.
Jack Nicklaus is often quoted that the Open venues “get worse the farther south you travel,” and there is no farther south than Sandwich. This week Brooks Koepka offered the modern version of the same take, “It's not my favorite venue that we've played,” he said.
Some have mistaken Koepka’s honesty for indifference, but he’s hardly the only player who considers Royal St. George’s the distant cousin of St. Andrews and Muirfield in terms of The Open rotation; and, to be fair, if Sandwich is the 10th best of The Open courses, that would make it among the top 10 courses in the United Kingdom.
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But what Royal St. Elsewhere may lack in player appreciation is it easily compensates for one of the quirkiest and confounding layouts in the rotation. It’s exactly these oddities that turn some off. “Quite a few blind tee shots, kind of hitting to nothing. Fairways are quite undulating,” Koepka shrugged.
There will be a perfectly hit drive this week that bounces and bounds its way to an awful spot and there will be just as many players who will lament the golf gods and the English coast and links golf.
Unlike most courses in the rotation, which would be considered “proper links” in these parts, Sandwich twists and turns its way over and around the dunes, not along with them in a classic out-and-back routing. It’s a wicked move that keeps golfers off-balance and constantly dealing with new wind directions and odd obstacles.
“A bounce here or there can definitely be the difference between winning a major or not,” Dustin Johnson said. “Definitely around links golf courses or at The Open Championship that can definitely come into play a little bit more, but everybody is playing the same golf course, and it's all the same humps and bumps for everybody.”
Johnson, the world No. 1, endured his share of bounces and bruises in 2011 when the game’s oldest championship was last played along the English Channel. DJ began the final round a stroke off the lead and appeared poised to win his first claret jug until he sent his second shot at the par-5 14th hole onto the adjacent Prince’s Golf Club and out of bounds. He finished tied for second place and three shots behind eventual winner Darren Clarke.
If 2011 is any indication Royal St. George’s may be uniquely immune to the bomb-and-gouge set, DeChambeau, the dean of the long hitters, seemed to suggest as much when asked how he planned to play the course this week.
“There will be certain holes where there is a lot of wind and you can't really control the golf ball with that type of wind, where it bounces, how it bounces,” DeChambeau said. “Keeping it low and on the ground if it gets firm is definitely something I would utilize.”
DeChambeau stopped short of saying he’d go all Tiger Woods at the 2006 Open. That week Woods hit just a single driver on his way to victory on a brown and baked-out layout. But quirky Sandwich does have his attention.
Bad bounces are waiting around every dogleg at Royal St. George’s, so much that officials with the R&A have allowed for the unthinkable – watering of fairways.
“We're very conscious that this course has got a lot of very severe undulations in the fairways and in the landing areas,” said Martin Slumbers, the R&A’s chief executive. “We've been conscious right the way through to ensure that a ball that lands on that doesn't get kicked off at a pace that could take it into deep, deep rough.”
But it’s those bounces, which can be endlessly brutal, and the deep rough, which is as punishing as any in the rotation, that defines the Sandwich Open. While St. Andrews has the history and the Auld Grey Toon and Muirfield has the player’s hearts and minds, Royal St. George’s is largely featureless and slightly forlorn.
The 149th Open was two years and a global pandemic in the making and regardless of the location, it was always going to be a celebration after the 2020 championship was canceled. And while Sandwich may not be on every players’ Christmas card list, it is sneaky nuanced.
“I like it here. I like the quirkiness of it. Typical links,” said Lucas Glover, who began the third round in 2011 tied for the lead and posted his best finish in an Open (T-12) at Royal St. George’s. “Once you get out there the fairways are rolling and there are some funky greens. It’s fun.”
Royal St. George’s isn’t the purest of The Open rotation and it’s certainly not the favorite, but it is an enigma that must be solved and for many that’s fun.