ORGANISERS of the Senior Open Championship were last night encouraged to “play it a bit cagey” after it was claimed that some of the holes at red-hot Royal Porthcawl had become “virtually unplayable” in the first round of the over-50s major.
Already fiery, the fairways and greens were starting to resemble the burnt-dry surfaces at both Hoylake in 2006 and Muirfield 12 months ago for the Open Championship as the temperature touched 85 degrees on the south Wales coast between Cardiff and Swansea.
While the absence of a fairway irrigation system means that Mother Nature determines how the course plays from tee to green – and it’s only going to get faster if the forecast is anything to go by – the opening day unfolded with calls for the putting surfaces to be watered.
“From the off, it was bouncy,” reported Edinburgh man Andrew Oldcorn after posting one of only a handful of sub-par scores – a two-under 69 to sit fourth, four shots behind the leader, Bernhard Langer.
“I’ve played an awful lot of links golf from my youth all the way through my career, but that’s as fiery a golf course as I’ve ever played. It is so difficult to keep the ball on the right parts of the fairway and there are two or three holes out there that are virtually unplayable.
“There was no moisture in the greens and they will crust up a bit this afternoon, so I think the organisers are going to have to play it a bit cagey here, given the forecast. They are definitely going to have to water the greens because they are becoming hard to hold.”
In a 10 mph wind coming from the east, the test proved fearsome for many, with more than a couple of dozen failing to break 80. “If the wind was blowing at 25mph, they’d be shooting 90,” predicted Oldcorn. “And the rest,” added Colin Montgomerie.
After signing for a one-over 72 to sit just inside the top 20, he echoed Oldcorn’s concerns about how firm the course had become. “It’s very fast, à la Muirfield last year or even Hoylake in 2006,” noted the two-times senior major winner this year. “If God doesn’t water it tonight, which he doesn’t look likely to, let’s hope they turn on the sprinklers and get this place a wee bit wetter than it is.”
He described hitting a 5-iron almost 300 yards as “daft”. At the par-15th, his wedge went 169 yards. “That’s the furthest I’ve ever hit a wedge off a tee,” he admitted. “That distance is normally a 7-iron for me.”
Carded in the toughest of the conditions, a splendid 67 in the morning by American Bob Tway looked as though it could lead all day until Langer made an ominous start in his bid to make amends for the uncharacteristic last-hole collapse at Royal Birkdale 12 months ago. Then, he took a 6 from the middle of the fairway at the last when a bogey would have been good enough to take the title for a second time, opening the door for Mark Wiebe to win a play-off.
“To shoot six-under on a course like this is very satisfying,” admitted the 56-year-old after storming to the turn in a majestic 31, four-under, before bouncing back from his solitary bogey – at the 16th – by finishing birdie-birdie.
“We had the best part of the day as the wind lay down for the last six or seven holes and that made a difference. Apart from the 16th, where I took the wrong club and got a flyer, I didn’t do anything wrong. I kept my ball out of the bunkers and the hay.”
Tway, who famously holed a bunker shot to beat Greg Norman in the 1986 US PGA Championship at Inverness Golf Club in Toledo, Ohio, carded a flawless opening effort as he lowered his previous best score in the event by two shots.
“I think as I’ve gotten older I’ve come to appreciate this type of golf more and more,” he admitted.
“But it’s hard to even fathom how a course can play so drastically different from one day to the next.
“The other day on the ninth, I hit a driver and a 3-wood. Today I hit a 5-iron and 7-iron. You tell people that and they look at you as though you’re from Mars, but that’s links golf.”
Oldcorn, who warmed up for this event by playing in a EuroPro Tour event at Royal Burgess last week, covered the last 11 holes in three-under. “I couldn’t be happier as any time you shoot under par on a golf course as tough as that in a major championship is pleasing,” declared the 54-year-old.
In the circumstances, Montgomerie wasn’t too dissatisfied with his start. A birdie at the last helped his mood. “It’s guesswork on a links course in these conditions,” he said. “Phil Mickelson managed it at Muirfield [when winning The Open there last year] but it’s an awful lot flatter.
“This is one of the most undulating links courses you’ll play and a wind of 10-15 miles an hour makes a hell of a difference. This has never really been my form of golf, to be brutally honest.
“I prefer the American-style of courses. This is guesswork and I’m not very good at guessing. I’ve got to go back to the poker tables and guess a wee bit tomorrow and see how we go then.”