Different Doesn’t Mean Bad

Posted: July 14, 2011 in golf
Tags: , , , ,

According to research I’ve read most American golf fans rate the British Open last among the major championships. They scoff at the notion that courses in the United Kingdom deserve to be ranked in the same universe with great American layouts. They marvel at the skill required to perform well on great American courses and shake their heads in disgust about the good luck needed to succeed on the scruffy UK courses.

I shared such feelings . . . until I had an opportunity to play golf in the United Kingdom. Now I don’t rate one above the other. I simply appreciate the difference between how golf is played here and across the pond; appreciate the difference between the British Open and golf’s other major championships.

Anyone who follows golf knows UK courses look different than American courses. The words “goat ranch” have been used to describe UK courses, including golf’s shrine, the Old Course at St. Andrews. By contrast, American courses are manicured rolling sheets of green carpet punctuated by pristine lakes and perfectly constructed bunkers filled with fluffy sand.

In this case, appearances are NOT deceiving.

American golf is about execution. Hit a good shot and you’re rewarded. Drive it here; hit the approach shot there. A 200-yard shot is a 5-iron. Sand traps are called hazards, but often they’re the intended target. Hit the ball in the fairway and you’re almost guaranteed a perfect lie. The speed of the greens is the same from holes 1 through 18.

UK golf is about imagination. The ball takes funky bounces. What you see may not be what you get. You have to “feel” your way around the course. A 200-yard shot calls for anything from a knockdown 2-iron to a cloud-high 7-iron. There are no sand traps; there are bunkers. With few exceptions they are to be avoided. Most water hazards are hidden. The fairways differ from one hole to another. Ditto for the greens.

This isn’t a matter of right or wrong. It’s the way it is. Both, I think, are beautiful.

I bring this up on the eve of this year’s British Open because American fans need to prepare themselves for what promises to be a week of more funky bounces than even the British are accustomed to seeing. Royal St. George’s in Sandwich, England as been called the worst major championship venue ever by at least one Open competitor (an American, of course).

Royal St. George’s has been labeled as weird, a pinball machine, Funkytown and other things I’d rather not say in case a child happens to read this. Ironically, the course looks more American than most UK courses, but players complain they have little control of the ball because the ball bounces every which way but straight. Royal St. George’s does have its admirers, including top English players Luke Donald, Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter and Paul Casey.

Still, this could be the last time Royal St. George’s plays host to a British Open. Since the tournament was first played in 1860, ol’ St. George has been the host 13 times. From 1894 to 1949 it was the Open site nine times, but only four Opens have been played there in the last 31 years. The last time was 2003 and American Ben Curtis, ranked 339th in the world at the time, won in his first ever start in any major championship. Clearly, the Royal & Ancient has cooled to the layout.

Many think the funkiness of the course will produce another surprise champion, but even more experts are ready to concede the title – and the next dozen majors – to Rory McIlroy, the runaway winner of last month’s U.S. Open and the newly-crowned heir-apparent to replace Tiger Woods as golf’s superstar. There are at least two reasons why McIlroy, who hasn’t played since the U.S. Open, will not win: Too much rust from a three-week layoff and, perhaps, he’s is still recovering from a celebration hangover. If McIlroy falters the timing seems right for two of the English stars, world No. 1 Donald and world No. 2 Westwood.

Donald is coming off of a victory in the Scottish Open. Meanwhile, instead of obsessing about being the “best player to never win a major”, Westwood is hoping the power of positive thinking works its magic. He has nothing but praise for Royal St. George’s.

Another story line is will an American ever win another major. Phil Mickelson is the last American to win a major, the 2010 Masters. He’s a bad bet this week for two reasons: He’s seldom played well in the British Open and he’s currently in a funk. Steve Stricker is a top-10 player who stacks up victories tournaments such as the John Deere Classic but seldom shows up in majors. Matt Kuchar is a money-winning machine who seldom wins anything. Bubba Watson has become the shrinking man since grabbing the spotlight with two victories earlier this year. Dustin Johnson made a lot of noise in majors last year but has disappeared in recent months. Ricky Fowler is going to win something one day, but for the here and now he’s best known for his clown-like wardrobe.

A more likely trend to continue is the domination of 20somethings in the majors. Aussie Jason Day has back-to-back runner-up finishes in majors. South African Charl Schwartzel’s Masters victory wasn’t a fluke. South African Louis Oosthuzien did win the 2010 British Open by seven shots. And then, of course, there’s the 22-year-old McIlroy.

Whoever wins likely will benefit from a funky bounce, but more importantly he’ll envision and then pull off creative shots. He’ll also be the guy who shakes off a bad bounce and remains mentally strong. He’ll be the guy who doesn’t complain about the weather but adjusts to it.

Whoever wins will be a true champion because no major asks more of its winner than the British Open. I’ve finally learned to appreciate that.

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