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Assessing Royal St. George's Place in the British Open Rota, and the Field of Contenders This Week

Royal St. George's isn't well known, but it's a worthy venue. As for who can conquer it, look for ball-strikers to contend, starting with the reigning U.S. Open champion.

Scotland’s famous and revered British Open venues are highly familiar to even the casual golf fan: St. Andrews, Muirfield, Carnoustie, Turnberry, Royal Troon.

The English Open courses are a trifle less so. Royal Liverpool and Royal Lytham and St. Annes.

And then there is Royal St. George’s, located in Sandwich, England, and site of this week's British Open. Sandwich is more ho-hum than wow when it comes to Open venue prestige. 

But why? We could start with the fact that over the past 28 years there have been only two Opens played there — won by Ben Curtis and Darren Clarke, respectively. So no question it suffers from lack of familiarity.

Next, what does it say about a British Open venue that it’s most famous (and exciting) stretch of golf was played in a book, when James Bond outcheated Auric Goldfinger? (Ian Fleming, a member at Royal St George’s, called it Royal St, Marks in the book.) Or that the lowest-ranking player ever to win any major — the much picked-on Curtis ranked No. 396 — triumphed in 2003 at Royal St. George’s?

Some of us like to judge the prestige of a major site by the quality of its winners. Royal St George’s, at least since the 1940s — it was off the rota from 1950 until 1981 — does have a very good list of winners, but with some notable outliers.

Obviously there was Curtis in 2003. In 1981, Bill Rogers won his lone major. Rogers had a terrific four years (1980-1983) and was PGA Player of Year in 1981, but unless you are a golf fan who consumes history, his name begs the question of “Who’s he?” Clarke won in 2011. Clarke was a superb ball-striker with time spent in the world ranking's top 10, but honestly, was his sole major not more a sentimental favorite than “Wow, the cream finally rose to the top?”

Then there is a pair of two-time major winners: the formidable Hall of Famer Sandy Lyle (1985), who absolutely crushed the golf ball and was loaded with all sorts of skill, and the often-snake-bit Greg Norman (1993), who spent 334 weeks as No. 1 in the Official World Golf Rankings, but has just two British Open titles on his extensive major resume.

Norman, utterly dominant in his prime, was probably the greatest long driver who ever played, and it remains a head-scratcher how he was unable to get out of his own way at the conclusion of majors. He had eight major championship runner-up finishes and he received the highest percentage of votes for Hall of Fame induction.

Historically, Royal St. George’s fares even better. South African Bobby Locke won in 1949, and in the 1930s Henry Cotton prevailed. Before that Walter Hagen, Harry Vardon and J.H. Taylor, all all-time greats. Reg Whitcombe also won in the 1930s.

By the way, Locke is very arguably in the conversation for best all-time putter. He’s also author of two wonderful pieces of advice: “Drive for show, putt for dough,” and “Always have dinner with good putters ... they always talk about holing putts, never their misses.”

Locke was so good that he holds the Tour record for margin of victory — 16 shots — and while unstated officially, the real reason he was banned from the PGA Tour for a time was that he was just too dammed good for the Americans. He racked up 12 top-5 finishes in majors, including five in U.S. Opens. He did win 15 times on the PGA Tour, but seldom was seen on these shores after his suspension was lifted.

Cotton was an RAF flier, a classy dresser and enjoyed something just short of a Hagen-esque lifestyle and reputation. He won three Opens. Matter of fact, in a very real sense he was England’s Walter Hagen — not for his three Open titles, but for helping morph golf pros from second-class citizens to welcome additions in the clubhouse. His second-round 65 at Sandwich during his 1934 win was so dominant and astonishing that the Dunlap 65 golf ball was created. He had huge powerful hands that he strengthened by belting tires with a golf club. He was revered in the United Kingdom.

And Walter Hagen. The incomparable one. Bon vivant, raconteur, total gamesmanship to accompany incredible skill. Like Raymond Floyd, he was a pro baseball prospect. But like no one else, he brought golf pros from changing in the parking lot to the front door of the country club. Stylish and winner of 11 majors, he lived for a time at Westchester Country Club.

All the winners, save for Locke and Rogers, were relatively long hitters and, save for Cotton, world-class ball strikers. Interestingly, Locke and Hagen played important and well-publicized challenge matches against the purported best players of their eras — and trounced them soundly. Locke over Snead, and Hagen over Bobby Jones.

As for the course itself: It’s the only Open venue located in southern England, and the first English course to host the Open, as each previously venue had been in Scotland. It’s essentially laid out as valleys between huge sand hills. It’s a classic British links course. It might fairly be said that Sandwich is more at the high end of country club courses than a threat to crack the list of top 50 world courses, unlike others in the Open rota.

It has a couple of very famous bunkers: Hades and Maiden.

It’s a fine venue. I just think it’s still relatively unfamiliar to modern fans compared to its rota peers. And its finishes have not, in living memory, been particularly dramatic or exciting. Even Curtis' one-shot win over Thomas Bjorn and Vijay Singh is most notable for poor Bjorn famously needing three shots to exit a greenside bunker down the stretch.

The incomparable British scribe Bernard Darwin, who once served as president of Sandwich, wrote this back in 1910:

“One great characteristic — I think it is a beauty — of Sandwich is the extraordinary solitude that surrounds the individual player. We wind about in the dells and hollows amoung great hills, alone in the midts of a multitude, and hardly ever realize that there are others playing on the links until we meet them at luncheon. Thus, on the first tee, we may catch a glimpse of somebody playing the last hole, and another couple disappearing over the brow to the second, and that is all; the rest is sandhills and solitude.”

It’s beauty aside, the educated view is that Sandwich is just somewhat less challenging a test compared to the other Open courses. Gary Player has said that it’s the easiest venue on the Open rota, and unless the wind blows the pros can take it apart.

Jon Rahm, 2021 British Open

Jon Rahm enters Royal St. George's fresh off his first major win and as the odds-on favorite.

The course is 7,100 yards and plays to a par 70 for the Open. Here’s a prediction: we will see a very good ball-striker emerge as the winner. Apart from the usual suspects these days (Jon Rahm, Brooks Koepka, Bryson DeChambeau, Dustin Johnson) it will not be a surprise if Mickelson, especially if his 2-wood enables him to stay in play off the tee, has one more competitive resurrection in him. Rory McIlroy has every skill to contend this week, and being winless the past seven years in majors has him itching to be relevant again. From non-major winners, Matt Fitzpatrick, Xander Schauffle and Will Zalatoris, great ball-strikers all, could be on form and threaten to become the 2021 Champion Golfer of the Year.

A few words about Rahm, who is the betting favorite. Red-hot, 26 and now already in his prime, he has dialed down the passion to the level where it still fuels him but no longer cripples him.  

Rahm is now a major winner and no one is more deserving of his acclaim and recent world No. 1 ranking. He has it all — incredible heart, strength, short game, length and can he ever putt. He is very old school, a total feel putter. 

More Morning Read Coverage of 2021 British Open:

- The Five Best Opens of the 21st Century
- Unfazed Bryson DeChambeau Turns Page on Caddie Saga
- Bettors' Roundtable: Favorites, Sleepers, Best Bets from Pool of Experts
- No Course Embraces Quirks Quite Like Royal St. George's'
- Shane Lowry Can Make Rare History This Week
- The Perfect Venue to Cap 2021 Major Season? It's Royal St. George's
- Americans Need to Man Up an Deal With British Open Travel Protocols
- Elements of Style: What Pros Will Wear This Week at British Open
- Gary Player Says St. George's is Easiest of Open Venues