A British Open Comeback: A Two-Year Wait Ends at Royal St. George’s

SANDWICH, England — Just forward of the British Open at Royal St. George’s Golf Club, Edward Kitson walked briskly by the dunes on Wednesday night time, making his approach to the clubhouse and pondering again to final yr.

The Open was canceled then due to the coronavirus pandemic, so Kitson and different members of the membership performed a match amongst themselves, changing the well-known gamers on the well-known hyperlinks.

“Four days, and we could even play off the back tees if we wanted to,” mentioned Kitson, a Londoner.

Now, after an unusually lengthy wait, the world’s finest golfers — or at least most of them — have convened at the English seaside course that first hosted the Open in 1894 and final staged it in 2011.

It isn’t enterprise as standard.

The gamers are required to stay in protecting bubbles with a small variety of help personnel when they don’t seem to be on the course, and they don’t seem to be permitted to combine with most of the people at eating places or shops. Social distancing and masks are required indoors, even for vaccinated gamers, which is not the case on the PGA Tour within the United States.

But there shall be 32,000 followers per day, to roar from exterior the ropes.

“I’m very proud that they’ve been able to manage this,” Kitson mentioned. “It’s particularly meaningful to have the fans.”

The gamers would agree.

“I think everybody missed the Open Championship last year, watching it on TV or playing in it,” mentioned Lee Westwood, the English star who, at 48, is probably the most profitable lively males’s participant to not have received a significant.

Of the 4 males’s golf majors, solely the Open was not contested in 2020. The monetary blow was softened as a result of the Open was one of many few sports activities occasions with cancellation insurance coverage that included pandemic protection. Wimbledon had related protection and was the one Grand Slam tennis match canceled in 2020.

“I’ve said many times that it was probably one of the most difficult decisions we had to make, but we had no choice at the end of the day,” mentioned Martin Slumbers, chief government of the R&A, which organizes the Open. “But the insurance we had in place enabled us to mitigate much of the financial exposure and actually enabled us to increase our investment into the game as part of that. We launched last year a 7 million pound, $10 million Covid recovery fund, which went straight into grass-roots golf.”

It was the primary time the Open was not performed since World War II, some extent that resonated with Rory McIlroy, the 2014 champion, when he appeared at the listing of match winners and venues within the clubhouse this week.

“The fact that every time you look at 2020, it’s going to say, ‘Championship not played,’ it just sort of stuck with me,” he mentioned. “It was like, ‘Wow, it was a really different and weird year,’ and I think everyone is just so glad to be back and playing again and inching our way back to some sort of normality.”

Not fairly everyone seems to be again, although. Hideki Matsuyama, the winner of the Masters this spring, has examined optimistic for the coronavirus, as has Zach Johnson, the winner of the 2015 British Open. Bubba Watson, the two-time Masters winner, needed to withdraw as a result of he had been in shut contact with somebody who examined optimistic.

Though the variety of virus instances is rising once more in England, the British authorities nonetheless plans on Monday to rescind many of the remaining formal restrictions on gatherings. The authorities had already approved giant crowds for sports activities occasions, on an experimental foundation, starting with the ultimate rounds of Wimbledon and the ultimate of the European soccer championship at Wembley Stadium on Sunday in London.

The Englishman Lee Westwood throughout a follow spherical on Wednesday. At 48, he’s probably the most profitable lively males’s participant with out a main title.Credit…Rebecca Naden/Reuters

The Open Championship is the subsequent part of the experiment. Though there have been severe safety breaches at Wembley, as followers with out tickets broke down limitations and entered the stadium, Slumbers mentioned he was assured that the Open wouldn’t face related points.

“Big-time sporting events need big-time crowds,” he mentioned. “We’ve worked really hard with the government to do that. We’re very conscious of the environment that we’re all operating in. There’s very strict conditions for any of those spectators to be able to get into the grounds, and they’re being held further back from the players than we would normally do.”

Royal St. George’s is the southernmost course within the British Open rotation and the closest to London, which is a part of the rationale it stays within the rotation. Though the Open started in Scotland at Prestwick Golf Club in 1860, Royal St. George’s was the primary English course to host it.

More than a century later, it continues to divide opinion due to its a number of blind tee photographs and bumpy fairways, which might generate sudden bounces and ship well-struck photographs into the tough.

After an unusually moist spring, that tough is larger than standard, which might result in harder scoring circumstances on a par-70 course that’s no paradise in any circumstances.

“This week, there’s going to be a premium on keeping it on the fairway,” Darren Clarke mentioned. “That long stuff is really long and thick.”

Clarke, a Northern Irishman, received the 2011 Open, his solely main championship, at Royal St. George’s. He did it at age 42, in climate that ranged from sunny and benign to a Saturday squall that shredded umbrellas and loads of contenders’ hopes.

But Clarke, who grew up taking part in at Royal Portrush and different nice Irish hyperlinks programs, was in a position to climate the storm with the assistance of two sports activities psychologists and a capability to decrease his ball flight.

He completed at 5 beneath par, three strokes forward of Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson.

“My whole mind-set was very accepting,” Clarke mentioned on Wednesday. “This golf course, you can hit really good shots. But because of the undulation — like any links but here maybe a little more, especially if it’s firm and fast — you can get some funky bounces, should we say. That’s part of playing links, but here sometimes it can get a little bit worse. I was very prepared to accept it that week.”

The bounces must be much less excessive at the beginning of this yr’s match as a result of the rain has softened the fairways. But the forecast requires dry climate, and hyperlinks programs can agency up shortly.

Paul Larsen, Royal St. George’s head greenskeeper, mentioned in an interview on Wednesday night time that he and his workforce had tried to arrange the fairways and the primary minimize of tough to scale back the probabilities of photographs randomly bouncing into deep hassle.

“We did not do that because of any complaints, but because we wanted to make it fairer,” mentioned Larsen, whose untamed mop of darkish hair has earned him acclaim on social media.

His mane appears an apt reflection of the robust winds on this scenic stretch of English coast, with white cliffs seen within the distance.

Wednesday night time was comparatively calm as Larsen’s workforce walked the course, filling divots and making ready for Royal St. George’s largest second in a decade. As they labored, digital scoreboards close to the greens confirmed photographs of previous winners there. Some had been a number of Open champions like Harry Vardon, Walter Hagen, Henry Cotton, Bobby Locke and Greg Norman. Others had been huge surprises like Clarke and the American Ben Curtis in 2003.

On Sunday night time, after an unusually lengthy wait, one other man will be a part of them.