Oft-cursed Royal St. George's also where wonderful things happen

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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It's not that Royal St. George's is a bad course exactly; the Open Championship, golf's oldest and most important event, doesn't tend to visit venues that are anything less than spiffy. But it is also true that -- despite it being the first course outside Scotland to host an Open back in 1894 -- the southern-most member of the nine-strong rota (five in Scotland; four in England) is almost universally regarded as the weakest of the bunch. Even Jack Nicklaus thinks so.

Ben Curtis owns the last Claret Jug given to the winner of the British Open at Royal St. George's, from 2003. (AP)  
Ben Curtis owns the last Claret Jug given to the winner of the British Open at Royal St. George's, from 2003. (AP)  
Back when the Graying Bear was still Golden, the 18-time major champion was quoted as saying, "the Open venues get worse the farther south you go," an obvious knock on St. George's, whose "Royal" moniker was added in May 1902 by King Edward VII. Of course, the fact that Nicklaus shot his highest-ever Open round there -- an opening 83 in 1981 -- may have something to do with his antipathy.

The news is not all bad, though, especially if you like your Grand Slam events to include the odd surprise or two. Royal St. George's seems to be the kind of place -- quite apart from the shock 2003 victory of then 396th-ranked Ben Curtis -- where weird and wonderful things are known to happen. It is, after all, an all-male club whose clubhouse does not have a bar. Instead, there is a "smoking" room where refreshing alcoholic beverages are available -- but where no one is allowed to smoke.

Back in 1949, for example, Irishman Harry Bradshaw lost a play-off for the Open to Bobby Locke of South Africa, two days after his drive from the 5th tee finished (depending on which report you believe) inside or close to a broken beer bottle. Eschewing the free drop he was surely entitled to, Bradshaw foozled his next attempt and hit the ball only a few yards. But for that extra shot, he could or should or would -- who knows -- have been what tournament organizers, the R&A, proudly call "the champion golfer of the year."

Almost as sad was the case of Reg Glading. Playing in the 1979 English Amateur Championship, Glading plugged his drive at the par-5 4th at the very top of the strangely nameless 40-foot-high bunker that dominates the hole. After cautiously making his way into the steeply sloping trap, the unfortunate Glading swung at the ball, missed and fell all the way to the bottom. And, just to add insult to potential injury, his ball landed on him seconds later. Sorry, Reg -- loss of hole.

Because of all of the above and much more, Royal St. George's has never been anyone's favorite course. The combination of blind shots, bunker-less par-3s (the 3rd) and almost unhittable fairways (in 2003 only about one in four drives at the 1st, 17th and 18th finished on short grass) is just too much for most players to stomach, especially when the wind blows. Which it tends to do rather a lot on the South Eastern tip of the Kent coast.

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"Royal St. George's does take a bit of knowing," acknowledges Peter Dawson, chief executive of the R&A. "It's difficult to just show up on Monday, play a couple of rounds and be ready to go on Thursday. There are a lot of humps and hollows and bumps and slightly blind shots and so on. You need to know where you are going."

Still, the R&A, despite their outwardly stiff, "fuddy-duddy" image, are not above making changes when necessary.

"We were aware that a very low percentage of the field were able to hit those three fairways eight years ago," continues Dawson. "That was because of the severe contours on all three. And, I also think, because players tend to hit the ball so much higher these days. It's coming down more steeply, so it is more likely to go sideways on landing.

"Anyway, we have widened the first fairway on the left. And we have reshaped the 18th to make it more likely to accept a drive. We moved it to the right, which has the effect of 'softening' the slope. And it is probably slightly wider. We have not changed the 17th fairway because we do think that is playable. I just think you need to know how to play that hole. It's a great hole.

"I do accept though, that the course is an acquired taste. But it's a lovely spot and our only venue in the south. So Royal St. George's will still be Royal St. George's despite the changes we have made. We have also put in some new tees, at the 3rd and the 7th, but the course isn't much longer than it was. Any increase is insignificant [although par has been reduced from 71 to 70]. And there has been some re-contouring just short and right of the 5th green, all to make the chip from that side rather less easy. I'm sure the players will like it."

"Easy," of course, is not a word much used when Royal St. George's is the topic of conversation. And the list of past winners is impressive enough, including the likes of Greg Norman, Sandy Lyle, Locke, Sir Henry Cotton, Walter Hagen, Harry Vardon and JH Taylor.

Then again, the full roll call of esteemed champions does contain the odd clunker. Apart from Curtis, Alf Padgham, Jack White and Bill Rogers have also finished first at St. George's.

"I actually go back and forth on who I like to see win the Open," muses Dawson. "There is no doubt that it is to the championship's credit when the winner is one of the best players in the world. You obviously want that to happen much of the time. But to have a sprinkling of unexpected winners is also great. That keeps the Open dream alive and is very important to the ethos of the championship. So I like a mix, even if you want a top player to win most of the time. Just not all of the time."

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