The PGA team got up early yesterday and met for breakfast at 6:30 a.m. Joining us in the hotel dining room were three of the players we've seen quite a bit already this week - Camilo Villegas, Matt Kuchar and Paul Casey. Interestingly, all three had early practice round times and they had their own separate transportation.
Kuchar and Villegas were playing together today. Casey offered Camilo a ride in his personal car, but Villegas declined saying, "Thanks, but I want to make sure I get there. I trust my driver more than you!" Funny.
We wanted a little more local flavor and to learn more about the playing conditions for the week, so we headed down to Sandwich - not to Royal St. George's - but to Royal Cinque Ports, which is located next to the 2011 Open course. These two courses are very similar and playing would give us a great idea of what the Tour players will be dealing with this week at the 2011 Open Championship. The conditions were cool and cloudy with sustained winds in excess of 35 mph.
Royal Cinque Ports was founded in 1892 by a group that saw its location on the Sandwich coast as a way to replicate the classic Scottish links courses. This course features fast fairways, enormous greens and windy weather. It is a typical 'out' and 'in' links course, the front nine running away from the clubhouse, then when the holes stop, just turn around and play straight back.
The course guide sums Royal Cinque Ports in this way. "The course is set on an expanse of nature's finest golfing land, wild & rugged and a challenge to all lovers of the traditional British links game of golf. It is a course where the contours of the land are as much a factor as the elements of the weather.
"As you tee up in front of the Clubhouse, you are about to follow in the footsteps of champions. You will have the opportunity to challenge your control of the golf ball from elevated tees exposed to the sea winds.
"Beyond the large rolling fairways, expanses of tight firm seaside turf which are dry and firm underfoot all year round. Beware, however, the cavernous bunkers, which were originally nature's shelters for grazing sheep but now capture wayward shots. Beware too of the deep contoured swales in the fairways.
"Finally, you reach the hallowed greens, truly nature's dance floor. "
Royal Cinque Ports hosted the 1909 and 1920 Open Championships. As you would expect, the wind yesterday was howling off the English Channel. The first hole played downwind, but then the next eight played into a strong headwind. As we hit the back nine, the winds shifted and the homeward holes featured the stiffest left to right crosswind that I have ever played in. Finally, the 17th and 18th holes were downwind, but it was nearly impossible to stop the ball.
Every shot was a war. Even the shots around the green were treacherous as you could easily chip a ball off the putting surface when hitting downwind. Needless to say, the putting was equally treacherous and every stroke came with the fear that the ball might start rolling after address, as it quivered in the wind. But, this is what you come to expect from UK golf.
If this week's Open Championship at Royal St. George's is anything like what I experienced yesterday, it should fulfill all of the advanced billing that the course has received. In fact, RSG is probably more severe in its topography than Royal Cinque Ports. Ground conditions at both courses are fast and hard. The greens are mottled and spotty, making the putts hard to anticipate.
Many Open players bagged their practice rounds at Royal St. George's due to the windy weather. But, with the prospect of playing in these conditions, which will be unique to both PGA and European Tour players, it could be advisable to deal with the elements early this week in preparation for the weekend.
Wagering is legal here and the BETFRED Store had many betting options on the Open. After dinner last night, I stopped at one of the local gaming houses to assess the field and see who was shaping up as favorites among the betting public. I don't root for or against anyone, but I did place a few quid down on some players; mainly because I was surprised at the odds I could get on some that I think could legitimately contend: Jason Day 33-1; Steve Stricker 35-1; Matt Kuchar 40-1 and Bo Van Pelt 125-1. I think most golf fans would think these are some good odds considering:
Stricker has also checked into The Abode Hotel where I am staying here in Canterbury. He comes off his third straight win of the John Deere Classic. Stricker birdied the final two holes on Sunday to gain his 11th PGA Tour victory. The Wisconsin native is one of the classiest and most humble professional golfers in the world. A major championship is really the only thing missing from his resume.
Jason Day, the young Australian, has played great in the first two majors of the year. He was runner-up at The Masters and recorded a top five finish in the U.S. Open. No one has played better in the 2011 majors than Day has.
Matt Kuchar won the Vardon Trophy last year for low scoring average on the PGA Tour. "Kooch" is one of the most well liked players on the Tour. I am picking him as a dark horse because Harry Vardon actually won two Open Championships at Royal St, George's. Besides that, he was kind enough to pose for a picture of the Vardon Trophy at the PGA Show in January with my grandson, Reid and me.
Bo Van Pelt was born in Richmond, IN. He grew up playing junior golf on the Indiana Jr. Tour and has had the best aggregate finishes of all American players in the 2011 majors. He is a laid back guy who probably has the patience to deal with what Royal St. George's has to offer.
It could be worthwhile to keep an eye on Jeff Overton this week. The Evansville, IN native has recorded two consecutive top twenty finishes in the Open Championship. Overton played well at the Ryder Cup in Wales and will be the first to tell you that he loves this style of golf- the low, trapping hooks that are needed in windy conditions.
However, no one could have predicted Louis Oosthuizen's eight shot victory at St. Andrews' Old Course in 2010. History will tell you that 10 of the 14 Open winners at Royal St. George's were first time Open champions. Locals like the chances of another unheralded longshot, ala Ben Curtis in 2003.
To quote the Brits, "whoever wins this championship will be 'brilliant', have 'no worry' and enjoy a 'lovely' week of golf." Don't kid yourself, the winner will earn this one - the old fashioned way.