A British Open Comeback: A Two-Year Wait Ends at Royal St. George’s

SANDWICH, England — Just ahead of the British Open at Royal St. George’s Golf Club, Edward Kitson walked briskly through the dunes on Wednesday night, making his way to the clubhouse and thinking back to last year.

The Open was canceled then because of the coronavirus pandemic, so Kitson and other members of the club played a tournament among themselves, replacing the famous players on the famous links.

“Four days, and we could even play off the back tees if we wanted to,” said Kitson, a Londoner.

Now, after an unusually long wait, the world’s best golfers — or at least most of them — have convened at the English seaside course that first hosted the Open in 1894 and last staged it in 2011.

It is not business as usual.

The players are required to remain in protective bubbles with a small number of support personnel when they are not on the course, and they are not permitted to mix with the general public at restaurants or stores. Social distancing and masks are required indoors, even for vaccinated players, which is no longer the case on the PGA Tour in the United States.

But there will be 32,000 fans per day, to roar from outside the ropes.

“I’m very proud that they’ve been able to manage this,” Kitson said. “It’s particularly meaningful to have the fans.”

The players would agree.

“I think everybody missed the Open Championship last year, watching it on TV or playing in it,” said Lee Westwood, the English star who, at 48, is the most successful active men’s player not to have won a major.

Of the four men’s golf majors, only the Open was not contested in 2020. The financial blow was softened because the Open was one of the few sports events with cancellation insurance that included pandemic coverage. Wimbledon had similar coverage and was the only Grand Slam tennis tournament canceled in 2020.

“I’ve said many times that it was probably one of the most difficult decisions we had to make, but we had no choice at the end of the day,” said Martin Slumbers, chief executive of the R&A, which organizes the Open. “But the insurance we had in place enabled us to mitigate much of the financial exposure and actually enabled us to increase our investment into the game as part of that. We launched last year a 7 million pound, $10 million Covid recovery fund, which went straight into grass-roots golf.”

It was the first time the Open was not played since World War II, a point that resonated with Rory McIlroy, the 2014 champion, when he looked at the list of tournament winners and venues in the clubhouse this week.

“The fact that every time you look at 2020, it’s going to say, ‘Championship not played,’ it just sort of stuck with me,” he said. “It was like, ‘Wow, it was a really different and weird year,’ and I think everyone is just so glad to be back and playing again and inching our way back to some sort of normality.”

Not quite everyone is back, though. Hideki Matsuyama, the winner of the Masters this spring, has tested positive for the coronavirus, as has Zach Johnson, the winner of the 2015 British Open. Bubba Watson, the two-time Masters winner, had to withdraw because he had been in close contact with someone who tested positive.

Though the number of virus cases is rising again in England, the British government still plans on Monday to rescind most of the remaining formal restrictions on gatherings. The government had already authorized large crowds for sports events, on an experimental basis, beginning with the final rounds of Wimbledon and the final of the European soccer championship at Wembley Stadium on Sunday in London.

The Open Championship is the next phase of the experiment. Though there were serious security breaches at Wembley, as fans without tickets broke down barriers and entered the stadium, Slumbers said he was confident that the Open would not face similar issues.

“Big-time sporting events need big-time crowds,” he said. “We’ve worked really hard with the government to do that. We’re very conscious of the environment that we’re all operating in. There’s very strict conditions for any of those spectators to be able to get into the grounds, and they’re being held further back from the players than we would normally do.”

Royal St. George’s is the southernmost course in the British Open rotation and the closest to London, which is part of the reason it remains in the rotation. Though the Open began in Scotland at Prestwick Golf Club in 1860, Royal St. George’s was the first English course to host it.

More than a century later, it continues to divide opinion because of its several blind tee shots and bumpy fairways, which can generate unexpected bounces and send well-struck shots into the rough.

After an unusually wet spring, that rough is higher than usual, which could lead to tougher scoring conditions on a par-70 course that is no paradise in any conditions.

“This week, there’s going to be a premium on keeping it on the fairway,” Darren Clarke said. “That long stuff is really long and thick.”

Clarke, a Northern Irishman, won the 2011 Open, his only major championship, at Royal St. George’s. He did it at age 42, in weather that ranged from sunny and benign to a Saturday squall that shredded umbrellas and plenty of contenders’ hopes.

But Clarke, who grew up playing at Royal Portrush and other great Irish links courses, was able to weather the storm with the help of two sports psychologists and an ability to lower his ball flight.

He finished at five under par, three strokes ahead of Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson.

“My whole mind-set was very accepting,” Clarke said on Wednesday. “This golf course, you can hit really good shots. But because of the undulation — like any links but here maybe a little more, especially if it’s firm and fast — you can get some funky bounces, should we say. That’s part of playing links, but here sometimes it can get a little bit worse. I was very prepared to accept it that week.”

The bounces should be less extreme at the start of this year’s tournament because the rain has softened the fairways. But the forecast calls for dry weather, and links courses can firm up quickly.

Paul Larsen, Royal St. George’s head greenskeeper, said in an interview on Wednesday night that he and his team had tried to prepare the fairways and the first cut of rough to reduce the chances of shots randomly bouncing into deep trouble.

“We did not do that because of any complaints, but because we wanted to make it fairer,” said Larsen, whose untamed mop of dark hair has earned him acclaim on social media.

His mane seems an apt reflection of the strong winds on this scenic stretch of English coast, with white cliffs visible in the distance.

Wednesday night was relatively calm as Larsen’s team walked the course, filling divots and preparing for Royal St. George’s biggest moment in a decade. As they worked, electronic scoreboards near the greens showed images of past winners there. Some were multiple Open champions like Harry Vardon, Walter Hagen, Henry Cotton, Bobby Locke and Greg Norman. Others were big surprises like Clarke and the American Ben Curtis in 2003.

On Sunday night, after an unusually long wait, another man will join them.