By Andy Farrell, Special to PGA.com
SANDWICH, England -- One of the busiest people at the Open Championship this week will be the man from the Met. Robin Thwaytes is the on-site forecaster at Royal St. George's from the Met Office, Britain's meteorological service.
On the eve of the 140th Open, forecasting the new champion golfer of the year to be crowned on Sunday is as nothing as to predicting the weather. On Sunday and Monday, we enjoyed perfect summer days on the Kent coast, sunny with a light breeze.
For the last two days, it has been dull and overcast, with the odd spit and spot of rain, and a bit of a gale blowing in off the English Channel. If you could see them amid the cloud, the turbines out past Pegwell Bay, which form one of the biggest wind farms in Europe, would have been whirling away, producing plenty of electricity. What of the championship days themselves and the prospects for golfing electricity?
"The Open is set to start with favorable weather for the competitors," said Thwaytes, "but over the weekend the potential for strong winds and rain should make for more challenging conditions."
In setting up their courses for the Open, the R&A like to take what Mother Nature gives them. This year it has been a mixed bag.
In March, April and May, the prime spring growing season, there was hardly any rain at all. The fairways and greens were irrigated as usual but the rough refused to grow.
Once June arrived, so did the rains. Just in time. The rough has grown back but it has left the links neither one thing nor the other, neither soft with thick rough, nor firm, fast and browned off with little rough.
If this means the test provided to the best players in the world is also not extreme, then we could be in for some high quality entertainment. In 1993, when conditions were similar, the leaderboard was a virtual replica of the world rankings and Greg Norman needed to score a 64 to hold off the likes of Faldo, Langer, Price and Pavin. Last time Sandwich hosted the Open, the rough was brutal, the links at its most bouncy and, though again many of the top names were in contention, unheralded Ben Curtis stole the Claret Jug.
Peter Dawson, chief executive of the R&A, is pleased with the way the course has developed in the last month. "Royal St. George's have got the condition of this course just where we would want it," he said.
"By the end of May, we were facing the prospect of having a championship with very little rough indeed," Dawson added. "What we have now is pretty close to what we would like. We don't like rough where you just hack out. The players all say it's enough to give them some issues with flier lies and so on."
Back in 2003, this links gave the players fits, but it has been doing that ever since Dr. Laidlaw Purves laid it out in 1887 in the "sporty" fashion of the day. Many have been the little alterations over the decades, including the widening of the first and last fairways prior to this championship to help the players hold their drives in the short grass.
Lee Westwood explained eight years ago that when he was an amateur and played here, drives naturally landed on to the flatter bits of the fairways. But by 2003, the driving zone had now shifted to the humpy, bumpy mounds, making it far harder to control the ball.
This time, Geoff Ogilvy said: "I'm enjoying it much more than I did before. Strategically, it is much more interesting than I gave it credit for."
Andrew Brooks, the club professional, spent time talking with Curtis prior to his first practice round in 2003 and explaining how the course changes in differing winds.
"The changes can be very subtle," Brooks said. "We play loops sometimes in the evening and you might play the same hole 20 minutes apart and with only a slight change in the direction of the wind, the hole plays completely differently."
"I think this course needs knowing more than most," said Dawson. "There are rather more slightly blind shots and kicks you can get off the fairways than you get at other links. You need to know them. You have to have a pretty good idea where you hit the ball to get a good bounce."
Jim McArthur, the chairman of the championship committee, added: "It is a true Open Championship test for the strategic player rather than muscle per se. Players have to use most of the clubs in their bag. I think the long irons, in particular, are going to be important this week and I think that's good for spectators to see how the players do that."
Depending on wind conditions, Dawson said some tees may be moved up. In the wind of the last two days, the par-5 seventh and the par-3 11th might be shortened.
"I think it is fair that players can reach the fairway and reach the par-threes, frankly," Dawson said.
Reach, maybe. What they do once they are there is another matter entirely.