Five talking points from The 149th Open at Royal St George’s, featuring some heart-warming feelgood stories and a number of Open records – some cherished, some questionable!
The Open feelgood factor
One of the annual features at The Open is the volume of feelgood stories generated by the Championship, both during tournament week and in the build-up.
There are always a few journeymen pros who may be down on their luck before getting to live the dream of competing on the biggest stage of all. Some miss the cut by a mile, some get into the weekend and land a plum pairing with a golfing superstar.
Take Marcel Siem, for instance; a popular German with bags of character, and a four-time European Tour winner who lost his card at the end of last season, and battled hard to earn enough to cover his travel expenses on the Challenge Tour this year. He was even carrying his own bag before investing in an electric trolley.
How quickly fortunes can change. Siem won for the first time in almost seven years in France to earn a place at The 149th Open, and back-to-back 67s – the first of which was on his 41st birthday – took him into the weekend as a genuine contender for the Claret Jug.
Then there’s Richard Bland, whose 2021 diary includes; first European Tour win (aged 48 and playing in his 478th event), US Open leader at halfway (a US Open record), first tee shot at The 149th Open, played with Rory McIlroy in the third round.
Bland is 15th in the current qualifying standings for the European Ryder Cup team. He couldn’t, could he?
Covid and crowds
One line from R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers hit home on the eve of The Open: “We must not forget we are staging a major event while still in the middle of a global pandemic.”
After being the only major to be cancelled in 2020, it was a huge operation littered with logistical difficulties to ensure The 149th Open would go ahead – with crowds – in July, 2021.
The R&A negotiated with the UK government on a daily basis, ensuring every box was ticked, and it was announced that up to 32,000 spectators would be permitted at Royal St George’s per tournament day, subject to a negative Covid-19 test or being double-jabbed with vaccines.
From a player perspective, the build-up to the Championship was laced with a number of withdrawals, including Masters champions Hideki Matsuyama, Bubba Watson and Zach Johnson, triggering fears that many in the final field who did make it to Sandwich would also fall by the wayside.
And in the weeks leading up to The Open, the number of reported positive coronavirus cases in the UK climbed sharply to levels not seen since the winter lockdown, triggering fears that the R&A would have to consider a significant reduction in attendance.
Neither of these fears were realised. The 149th edition of golf’s oldest and most prestigious Championship went as smoothly as the tournament organisers could have hoped for. Restrictions were tight, well-managed and observed to the max by players, fans, officials and volunteers. The R&A deserve huge credit for their efforts, not just this week, but for the best part of 18 months.
Course for concern?
As Sir Nick Faldo observed, when you arrive at Royal St George’s for an Open Championship, the historic links is often brown, burnt in places, and players are often left scratching their heads in bewilderment when an arrow-straight drive kicks off the middle of the fairway and into the rough.
The R&A countered that this year, purposefully making sure the severely undulating fairways were heavily watered, green and lush, to ensure that the vast majority of those arrow-straight drives stayed on the short grass.
The punishment for missing was brutal, with some of the longest, thickest rough ever seen at an Open awaiting any stray missile – Bryson DeChambeau can testify to that, several times.
But then Louis Oosthuizen blitzed the Sandwich layout for 10 birdies and an eagle over the first two days, dropping only one shot in 36 holes to set the lowest halfway score in Open history – 129 blows.
And with perfect weather forecast for the weekend, it looked inevitable that further records would drop, until the R&A considered their pin positions for the third round. Rory McIlroy described some as “diabolical”, Oosthuizen went for “very questionable”, and Jon Rahm claimed they were “the hardest, collectively, I’ve ever seen”.
The defending champion, however, saw where the R&A were coming from, and understood the need to slow down the bumper scoring with more than a few pins that were almost impossible to attack.
Of the top 12 players on the leaderboard, only one was over par for the third round. Hard to argue with the R&A, once again consolidating their reputation as the best organisation in major golf when it comes to setting up course sensibly, and fairly.
Jacklin’s record stays intact
One player who would be pleased, however quietly, that another Open went by without an English winner would be Tony Jacklin.
That does not mean Jacklin is not patriotic, of course he is. It means that he remains the most recent English golfer to be crowned Champion Golfer of the Year at an English venue.
Having spoken to him many times about this, Jacklin is fiercely proud of this record, which now extends to 52 years since he lifted the Claret Jug at Royal Lytham in 1969. And he’ll have that honour for at least another two years, when he will be watching with vested interest at Royal Liverpool.
And Jacklin, who has just turned 77, would have also had fond memories of another career highlight when he saw big Jonathan Thomson make a hole-in-one at the 16th in the second round.
The 16th at Royal St George’s is notable for a first in golf – Jacklin making the first ace broadcast live on British television in the 1967 Dunlop Masters, which – of course – he won!
Westwood’s major accolade
Talking of career records, the mark achieved by Lee Westwood this week would be seen as unwanted by many players, although the veteran Englishman was all positive about it.
Westwood has now played in 88 majors without managing to win one, taking him past American Jay Haas in that category. The Englishman has long been in the conversation of “best player to never win a major”, along with the likes of Colin Montgomerie.
But ahead of The 149th Open, Westwood insisted that playing in 88 majors was something to be proud of, refusing to dwell on the negatives or the numerous near-misses.
“That’s nice, that record,” he said pre-tournament. “It shows I’ve been a good player for a long, long time. Another accolade? Yeah, I love it!”
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