Monday, July 21, 2003
Technology didn't do much good at Royal St. George's
By Bob Harig Special to ESPN.com
SANDWICH, England -- While the golf world is still pondering how someone named Ben Curtis won the British Open on Sunday in his first attempt at playing in a major championship, an ever-growing debate, at least for a moment, was put on hold.
Tiger Woods has been a big proponent of equipment testing, but a 'hot driver' wouldn't have made much of a difference at Royal St. George's.
You don't hear much consternation today about hot-faced drivers, hot golf balls and the imminent demise of great golf courses on the planet due to technology.
Oh, the talk has only subsided for a short time. Assaults on the golf record books will continue, and other great venues will take a beating.
But for one week, the golf course won. And it was an amazing sight.
Curtis was the only player to complete 72 holes at Royal St. George's under par, and he finished at 283, 1 under. He actually made it to 5 under par on the back nine Sunday, and several other players were in red numbers as well. By the end of the day, however, he stood alone.
A course that was designed in 1887 by Dr. Laidlaw Purves, a London ophthalmologist with no previous golf course architecture experience, beat back the modern golfer and made meaningless all the modern tools of the trade.
Of course, for a golf course to dispatch that kind of misery on the best in the world, there must be an element of trickery involved. It is a fine line, and it wouldn't work every week. Those worried about technological advances will no doubt point to Royal St. George's as proof that only the most severe golf course can have a chance at thwarting elite golfers.
Dr. Purves designed his course with blind tee shots and reverse-canted fairways. All the high-tech equipment in the world isn't going to help a golfer make his ball bounce forward, no matter how well he strikes it.
"Almost every fairway out there slopes away from the dogleg,'' said Scott McCarron. "In other words, if the dogleg goes left, the fairway slopes right.''
"This is the truest links we've played for moons,'' said three-time Open champion Nick Faldo, who tied for eighth. "It's rock hard. The wind is really blowing, and you see we just are unprepared for this. The odds on getting a day or week like this are so low in your whole career. It comes as a complete shock, really. Plus, with the pin positions being so wicked ...''
For the first time in recent memory, a major championship was played without rain being a factor.
Go back over the last several majors, and a common theme developed: a world-class golf course being softened by water. That takes out the sting, and the best in the world typically pounce.
Not this time. Royal St. George's was hard and fast. Fairways were narrow and difficult to hit, the rough brutal. And then the wind blew, too.
"It's tough,'' said Tiger Woods, who tied for fourth, two shots back of Curtis. "When you play most tournaments, you hit a tee shot and if you hit it down the middle, you pick up your tee and don't worry about it. Here, you worry about it. ... It's a little more stressful than most tournaments we play, because good shots aren't always rewarded by being in the fairway.''
Woods, however, relished the challenge, even if he didn't always like where his ball ended up.
"It's a lot of fun if you go out there and you get rewarded for shooting a round in the 60s,'' he said. "You guys watch us play the (PGA) Tour every week, and if you don't shoot 67 or 68 every day, more than likely you're going to get passed. This week is different. It's a major championship and that's the way it should be. If you shoot a round in the 60s, you've played one heck of a round of golf.''
As it turned out, Woods managed that feat just once in four days.
There will be many, of course, who believe that Royal St. George's was tricked up, that if a few of the fairways were smoothed out and the rough not so deep, it too, would succumb to the game's best.
And all you need to do is go back 10 years, to Greg Norman's 1993 victory, at Royal St. George's, where he closed with a 64 by hitting all 14 fairways. His total of 267 is still an Open scoring record. That year, it rained on the eve of the tournament.
Still, Norman did not put the venue among his favorite in the British Open rota. He called it quirky. Before the tournament, Steve Elkington, who shot 86 in the first round (he later withdrew due to an injury), ranked the course among Open Championship venues: "I'd say it's in the top 10,'' quipped Elkington, knowing full well there are just nine.
So not everybody likes the place. Jack Nicklaus once said that British Open venues got weaker the farther south you go, and there is no Open course farther south than Sandwich. And it is interesting to note that Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Gary Player or Peter Thomson -- who combined for 16 Open titles -- never captured one at Royal St. George's.
And there will be those who contend it produced a fluke winner in Curtis, who had never finished among the top 10 in a PGA Tour event -- which sounds good until you consider that world-class players Vijah Singh, Thomas Bjorn, Woods and Davis Love III were right behind.
Tricked up or not, Royal St. George's stood proud.
Bob Harig covers golf for the St. Petersburg Times, and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com