Martin Dempster: A test of strength and skill - Day has both

Jason Day plays his shot from the 13th tee during practice yesterday. Picture: Ben Curtis/AP
Jason Day plays his shot from the 13th tee during practice yesterday. Picture: Ben Curtis/AP
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How entirely appropriate. Right up to the gun going, Mother Nature gave us a day of two halves on the eve of the 145th Open Championship at Royal Troon. It hammered down for a bit in the morning before the sun broke through after lunch. There can surely be few finer sights on a golf course than Arran – Ailsa Craig, to a lesser extent – as a backdrop when it appears in the sky.

A mixture of those exact same conditions have proved troublesome in the build-up to this event, the ninth to be staged at the Ayrshire venue. At one point during the winter, six fairways were completely under water, requiring a million gallons to be pumped off. A few weeks back, following a rare dry spell, it had become firm and was browning up nicely. “But Mother Nature is the one thing we can’t control,” admitted Martin Slumbers, the R&A chief executive, of the wet stuff then returning to leave the course greener than Leith Walk during Hibernian’s 
trophy parade after winning the Scottish Cup in May.

While that’s a pity – these courses are way more exciting when they have a bit of bounce to them – it shouldn’t detract too much from an event that has been overshadowed by the Olympics and the Zika virus in the build-up but can now help golf to start making the headlines again for the right reasons. It’s a chance for the game to show off its bright new stars, led by Jason Day, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy, to sparkle on a big stage rather than have the sport have fun poked at it, as happened when the USGA turned the final round of last month’s US Open into a shambolic farce.

Most of the words spoken by the leading contenders in the countdown to this event were about other subjects – one in particular as a war of words broke out over the Olympics and whether or not players should be supporting its return to the Games after 112 years as well as playing their part in growing the sport – but now it’s time for them to do their talking where it matters most, especially in the eyes of the paying public.

An intriguing aspect in this particular four-day battle for the coveted Claret Jug is that most of those players near the top of the world rankings, including the aforementioned leading quartet, had never played here before this week. According to McIlroy, in particular, it doesn’t seem as though that is going to prove a big disadvantage, if any at all. “I think the golf course is pretty self-explanatory,” said the 2014 champion who missed out on the chance to defend his title at St Andrews 12 months ago after injuring himself during a football kickabout. “There’s not a whole lot of learning to do. The greens are quite flat. One of the big things here is that you just have to keep it out of the bunkers. Just make sure you’re comfortable with the clubs you’re hitting off the tees. Once you put it in play, you’ve got a chance to make some birdies.”

Most of those opportunities are likely to come over the opening six holes – a stretch that includes three par-4s under 400 yards, two par-5s and a par-3, though it, admittedly, is no pushover at 210 yards. Johnson, one of the game’s big-hitters, if not the biggest, could do serious damage early on, providing, of course, the new US Open champion can keep it straight with the big stick. “The only time I’ve played it is with help (from the wind) on the first five holes,” he said. “I hit driver on one, where I can get it right next to the green, maybe on two, just depending, and then on three for sure and four, where it’s driver and 5-iron if it’s helping.”

The iconic Postage Stamp, of course, will provide the majority of thrills and spills over the next four days and, treacherous as though it may be despite only measuring 123 yards, you can bet your bottom dollar that every single player in the 156-strong field will enjoy that particular test a damn sight more than they did a “short” hole at Oakmont for the US Open that was close to 300 yards.

Where this tournament is likely to be won or lost, though, is on the home stretch and, in particular, the four holes that begin it, all of which measure more than 430 yards and don’t just rely on length as the sole test. The 11th, for example, is one of the toughest holes on any of the nine courses on The Open rota, with the Glasgow to Ayr railway line flanking the fairway on the right and a wall of gorse lying in wait for those being over-protecive in trying to stay away from that. “The holes midway through the round – nine, 10, 11, 12 and even 13, are all pretty difficult holes,” admitted Day, the world No 1 and US PGA champion. “So trying to get through there with how tough the wind and the rain could be is going to be a very difficult task. I do think this golf course is more of a driving course than it is key to hit good second shots. You can take mid-range and go between the bunkers or you can take all the bunkers out and hit driver.”

So, who’s going to win? According to the record books, it should be an American, with the last six winners here – Arnold Palmer (1962), Tom Weiskopf (1973), Tom Watson (1982), Mark Calcavecchia (1989), Justin Leonard (1997) and Todd Hamilton (2004) –all having crossed the pond to record Troon triumphs. Johnson and Spieth will certainly be inspired by that statistic, though it seems more of a coincidence than the course being suited to a specific style of play.

Having listened to what host club member Colin Montgomerie had to say, though, I reckon this particular test could well be suited to Day due to the fact the Australian has the best-all round game by far. “I don’t think it’s a bomber’s course as such,” noted Montgomerie.

“Our motto here is Tam Arte Quam Marte, which means that it’s not just with strength, but with skill. So you have to have both. 
This course demands both, strength and skill.” Day ticks both boxes.