I was up early because I wanted to walk all 18 holes at Royal St. George’s and in doing so follow the threesome of Steve Stricker, Lee Westwood and Charl Schwartzel, which teed off at 9:10 a.m. My day always starts in the hotel restaurant with a nice cup of coffee, English breakfast and a newspaper. Stricker showed up in short sleeves after I did. He downed a couple of eggs with bacon and white toast. Stricker washed his breakfast down with a cola. We sat at adjacent tables and talked a little bit about the weather, which was great for an Open Friday. I was reading The Times article about Thomas Lewis, the British amateur who had shot 65 to share the first round lead.
Stricker talked about how cool it was for Lewis to have shot 65 and done so while being paired with Tom Watson. As luck would have it, when Steve was leaving the restaurant, Lewis walked in with his girlfriend. Stricker stopped and introduced himself and congratulated Lewis on Thursday’s round. Pretty classy move by the world’s number five. Ironically, Lewis was named after Tom Watson.
Let me interject a bit of breakfast information. The English scramble their eggs differently and serve them with the consistency of cottage cheese. The bacon is awesome- more like our ham. The toast is generally served as warm bread and not toasted by American standards. The coffee rather bitter.
Friday was my first real look at Royal St. George’s. The fairways contain more undulation than any course I played this week. They are rock hard. The intermediate roughs are whispy, but playable. The greens are big and fairly fast. I cannot describe how firm the greens are here. I have yet to see or fix a ball mark in my three rounds in Sandwich. Royal St. George’s greens are like concrete.
Before the round started, I was near Watson and Lewis. The five time Open Champ gave the rookie a noteworthy tip. “The key to my victories here has been staying out of the bunkers,” directed Watson.
The group that I chose to follow was one of the featured threesomes of the day. Schwartzel was solid all day. He got off to a great start and showed the early form that allowed him to win this year’s Masters. He finished the day with a 67, which put him at -2 and clearly in the hunt for the Claret Jug.
Westwood hit the ball good all day. He was subject to bad breaks. On two occasions he hit perfect drives only to have his ball come to rest in a fairway divot. The stocky Englishman is playing in his 54th major championship and he dubiously has yet to win a major. Westwood has numerous runner-up finishes in the majors and today his frustration was evident.
Unfortunately, the English media are the first to hammer Westwood for his major championship failures. He wound up with a 72, which left him at +4 and on his way to a missed cut. I find him to be likeable, a great competitor and a player deserving of a major championship. At this point in time, Westwood is the best active player in the world not to win a major. Hopefully, it happens.
Stricker shot 71 and rested at even par through 36 holes. Today’s round was “unStricker like”. He three putted the 16th and 17th for bogeys. Stricker also made a bogey on the par 5, 7th hole which most players reached in two shots. Those three holes probably cost Stricker a share of the lead. He played Royal St. George’s rather conservatively and it was obvious part of his strategy was like Watson, to avoid the bunkers.
Stricker had the ball going left most of the day. It was one of those rounds that could have gone either way. He made great birdies on #2, #8 and #10. But, it was apparent that he was a little bit out of whack. Still, he is within striking distance heading into the weekend.
The most bizarre hole of the day was the 14th, a 545 yard par 5. The wind was blowing left to right. The hole features rare out of bounds on the right side, so players favor the left. Schwartzel snap hooked his tee into the deep rough. He summoned a rules official who allowed him to mark and remove the ball for identification.
Schwarzel verified that the Nike ball was his. He gently placed the ball back in its original lie. He tapped it down into the grass with his index finger and then softly moved the grass back over the top of his ball with hands and the ball disappeared in the long grass. This was a classic example of recreating the lie, which is what the rules of golf demand.
The South African took a sand wedge, hooded the face and took an upright swing. He lined his ball back into the middle of the fairway probably 200 yards from the green. His next shot went way left and landed in the grandstands. The ball caromed out into a greenside bunker on the left. Schwartzel blasted out to within a couple of feet and made a par. That was easily the save of the day.
I offer couple of final thoughts. As I walked down the 7th fairway, I couldn’t help but notice the bicycle riders on a sand path near the coast line of the English Channel, maybe 75 yards from the golf course. They pedaled along, totally oblivious to the golf that was being played. It was one of those serene moments that are reserved for the British Open.
Seconds later, there was a tremendous roar behind me. My little transistor radio was providing the BBC feed and I was informed that Tom Watson, two groups behind us, had just made a hole in one on #6. It was his first in the Open, but his 15th career hole in one. Good for him. At 61 years old, he will make the cut in this major thanks to that ace.
The BBC radio commentators couldn’t help but feel real proud about this gorgeous sun drenched day. It was described as “a sunny Sandwich” or a “toasted Sandwich,” recognizing the town we are in.
At one point, the BBC made reference to the fact that American golf professionals are not allowed to wear shorts. “It seems to be an infringement on your rights as a human being, not to be able to wear shorts,” said the clever English announcer.
Infringement of human rights? Our American forefathers might say that was the pot calling the kettle black!