Commentary

Quirky Sandwich not loved by all

Updated: July 13, 2011, 1:32 AM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

Royal St. George'sGlyn Kirk/Getty ImagesSome might say Royal St. George's more resembles the lunar landscape than a golf course ready to host one of golf's major championships.

SANDWICH, England -- Perhaps it has something to do with being a good line, and making some sense, and coming from a guy who certainly has the credentials to know.

But the quote and its various permutations have been kicked around so many times over the years that it has come to be accepted truth that Jack Nicklaus said, and we paraphrase, that British Open venues get worse the farther south you go.

That would be a direct slap at Royal St. George's, the first course in England to host the world's oldest golf tournament and the site of the 140th Open Championship this week. Located in southeast England, it is the closest Open venue to London -- and the farthest south.

"I would never have said that," Nicklaus said recently when asked directly about the quotation, then quickly quipped: "Probably did."

The three-time Open champion went on to explain.

"I preferred the Scottish venues to the English venues," said the Golden Bear, who won two of his Opens at St. Andrews and the other at Muirfield, both in Scotland. "I think the type of golf in Scotland is a little different than the type of golf in England and the farther south you went the more sort of a hummocks and bee hills and stuff that was different.

"I didn't have very good finishes at St. George's. You always seem to rank courses on how you perform, so I like the Scottish venues better."

Whether Nicklaus made such statements about the course known simply as Sandwich or not, it is clear that Royal St. George's has its detractors.

Asked where he would rank it among the list of British Open venues, 1989 champion Mark Calcavecchia didn't waste words: "Dead last," he said.

Steve Elkington once famously said that Royal St. George's was 10th on his list of Open venues.

Of course, there are only nine in the current rotation.

And yet, it will host the Open for the 14th time this week, the first since Ben Curtis' shocking victory in 2003. It has some unusual distinctions, such as being the only Open venue to have a winner shoot all four rounds in the 80s -- as well as another winner shoot all four rounds in the 60s.

Perhaps Nicklaus' opening-round 83 in 1981 has something to do with his feelings about the course, and Bobby Jones once shot 86 there.

"There are a bunch of fairways you can't hit," Calcavecchia said. "There are a few blind tee balls. And it seems like some of the angles and where bunkers are, are kind of quirky.

"Having said that, it's still my favorite tournament. I'm looking forward to it."

The course measures 7,211 yards, will play to par-70 and, like any links, will very much be at the mercy of the weather. Eight years ago, Curtis beat Vijay Singh and Thomas Bjorn by a stroke in a heat wave, which made the course extremely dry and fast. Curtis was the only player to finish under par. And yet, 10 years earlier, both Ernie Els and Greg Norman shot all four rounds in the 60s, the Shark winning his second Open by shooting 13 under par.

What bugs those who don't care for the course is the abundance of slopes and bumps that propel a seemingly good tee shot into a bad one. Several of the fairways are crowned in the middle, and some adjustments were made after 2003 to either smooth things out or widen the landing areas. Still, that kind of luck factor has a way of getting on players' nerves.

"I think it's the most unpredictable of the venues I've played," said 1996 Open champion Tom Lehman. "There are so many unique shapes on the golf course where the ball gets kicked one way or another. It requires a lot of course management and really understanding how to play the course to do it right.

"I'll give you an example, the 17th hole, the areas where the drives come down. There are a million bumps all over the fairway. Guys were so upset because they hit a good-looking drive, they hit the side of a bump and it would kick one way or another and run down into the high crap," he said.

"But just short of that is a real flat area. The course was designed to hit a shot into that flat area and run into the bumps. You can keep yourself in the fairway. To me, understanding the strategy of the course is what is very, very interesting to me. It's very enjoyable."

Or perhaps ignorance is bliss.

Curtis won the tournament eight years ago having never before played a links. It was his first visit to England, his first start in a major championship. He said upon arriving at the first tee, he couldn't even tell how the fairway went.

"The course itself is really a beast of a golf course," said Sandy Lyle, who won the Open at Royal St. George's in 1985. "St. Andrews is a lot more friendly golf course even though last year we had some unfriendly conditions. The Birkdales and Carnousties and Royal St. George's … those are the beasts. You really have to have your game. Be patient.

"There are no adjoining fairways like a lot of links courses. You get deeper and deeper in to the rubbish. You have to be very accurate in places and it's not a very friendly course if it is breezy."

For all the supposition about Nicklaus' apparent dislike for the venue, the Golden Bear actually won at Royal St. George's during a 1959 amateur event he played while in Britain for the British Amateur and the Walker Cup matches.

And that came after four-putting the first green, he recalled.

It also should be noted that Nicklaus' prime as a golfer in the British Open never saw him play at Royal St. George's. After the 1949 Open, the tournament did not return to the venue until 1981, at which point Nicklaus was 41. From 1963 through 1980, Nicklaus' worst finish at the British was a tie for 12th.

At Royal St. George's, Nicklaus tied for 23rd in 1981, then missed the cut in 1985 and 1993.

"I just did better at the Scottish venues so I like the Scottish venues better," Nicklaus, 71, said. "But I never said the further south you got, the worse the courses were. I never said that. Not that I can ever recall."

Uh, Jack … could it have been the other way around? The farther north you go, the better the British courses get?

"I might have said that," Nicklaus joked.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com