The Open: Long wait is over and it's something to celebrate

It’s been a long wait. Seven hundred and twenty five days, to be precise. But, at 6.30am on Thursday, The Open will swing back into action.

Lee Westwood plays his shot from the third tee during a practice round ahead of The 149th Open at Royal St George’s. Picture: Andrew Redington/Getty Images.
Lee Westwood plays his shot from the third tee during a practice round ahead of The 149th Open at Royal St George’s. Picture: Andrew Redington/Getty Images.

After being cancelled 12 months ago due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the 149th edition will be played out at Royal St George’s - the 15th time the event has been staged at the Sandwich course.

Claret Jug contenders on this occasion are having to operate in a strict biosecure bubble, but will be bidding for glory in front of 32,000 fans per day on the Kent coast.

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Excitement will be thick in the air from the moment Englishman Richard Bland hits the opening shot all the way through until the name of the Champion Golfer of the Year is announced on Sunday evening.

Jon Rahm is watched by fans from behind the first tee at Royal St George’s on the final practice day. Picture: Andrew Redington/Getty Images.

This isn’t just any golf tournament. It has a special place in the hearts of so many people, making its return something to celebrate and cherish in an event that sees Irishman Shane Lowry as the defending champion.

“After such a difficult time in the last year or so for the whole world, I have to admit we are relieved, thrilled, and a little bit emotional, I suppose, in being able to get to stage The Open once again,” saisd R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers on the eve of the tournament.

“It's a great privilege to welcome the best men's golfers around the world and a large number of fans to the championship. It has been quite a challenge being able to get to this point.

“We're under no illusions of the complexity of the problems that are caused by the pandemic, specifically when you're trying to stage a global sporting event with players from 27 different countries participating and bringing them all into the country.”

The 149th Open is being staged at Royal St George's in Kent.

The 156-strong field has some notable absentees, with Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama and two-time Augusta winner Bubba Watson among those having been forced to withdraw due to Covid-related issues. That is unfortunate, but it won’t detract from the tournament, which is offering a first prize in excess of $2 million for the first time.

“At the end of the day, what counts is that we'll have 156 of the world's best men players teeing off tomorrow morning, and on Sunday we will present the Claret Jug to the next Champion Golfer of the Year,” added Slumbers.

In most of those previous stagings at this venue, patience has been like a 15th club in the bag due to adverse cambers on fairways often leading to arrow-straight tee shots ending up in the rough.

Following some really wet weather in the build up to the season’s final major, that rough is pretty nasty on this occasion and, therefore, measures have been taken to try and allow good play to be rewarded and not punished.

“Actually I'm delighted with it,” insisted Slumbers, even though the course overall is a lot greener than the R&A would ideally like to see for its showcase event. “I think it looks absolutely fantastic out there.

“We set out to have a course which is fair, plenty of room on the fairway, rough that's meaningful, and greens that will run at around 10, so I think it's just where we wanted it.

“It is a bit greener out there than you would have seen at some other courses, and that's purposeful. We're very conscious that this course has got a lot of very severe undulations in the fairways and in the landing areas.

"We've been conscious right the way through to ensure that a ball that lands on that doesn't get kicked off at a pace that could take it into deep, deep rough.”

Rory McIlroy who was still a young whippersnapper in the professional game when he teed up here a decade ago, likes the look of the test, albeit it having partially been shaped by Mother Nature’s hand.

“It's certainly not as penal or unfair as it has been in previous years,” said the 2014 champion. “2011 it was a little bit like that, but looking back to '03, for example, it looked really burnt and crispy then, and it looked like a bit of a pinball machine out there. But that's not going to be the case this week.”

Dustin Johnson tied for second along with Phil Mickelson on his first outing here 10 years ago. “It was a little bit firmer in 2011,” observed the new world No 1, having jumped above Jon Rahm again in the updated rankings on Monday despite the Spaniard recording a top-10 finish in the Scottish Open.

“But it's starting to firm up a little bit, and I feel like the course in really good shape. The rough is definitely a little bit thicker than it was back then. I feel like it's a tough golf course. It's going to play difficult, especially with the wind direction that it's supposed to blow for the week.”

It is mainly due to come from the north-east and could gust around 25mph on all four days, with no further rain in the forecast and the temperature to be in the mid-20s during sunny spells.

In 2003, Tiger Woods famously started here with a triple-bogey 7 after losing a ball - the first time ever as a professional - with his opening tee shot. Hopes will be dented early again on this occasion as it is probably the toughest first shot on the Open rota.

“I think it's to play with the wind out of the left most of the week,” said Lee Westwood, who is among those bidding to land a first English title triumph in the event since Nick Faldo did the trick in 1992. “So stay down the left, hit, find it and hit it again.”

Let the opportunity for cherished Open memories for both players and fans be re-ignited after that lengthy lull.

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