SANDWICH, England -- Eyeball that dateline, because the jokes will probably be fast and plentiful.
For some American fans, it might take a dollop of spicy mustard to make this particular Sandwich digestible, since the host venue for this week's Grand Slam fare is considered by many to be the least palatable of the links in the regular British Open rotation.
If the 2003 championship staged at Royal St. George's is in any fashion enlightening, expect almost anything to happen -- that way, you won't be surprised, if not annoyed.
Great drives surely will carom sideways into the rough. Crooked shots will take undeserved bounces toward fairways and flags. St. George's has the rep as the quirkiest course used by the host Royal & Ancient, and hardly anybody bothers to dispute it.
There are blind shots, fairway moguls, a smattering of pot bunkers not always within full view, and confounding hillocks. If this is your cup of tea, you might very well be English or living on the other side of the Pond.
European Tour correspondent John Huggan and CBSSports.com senior writer Steve Elling, both on hand at the tournament grounds Monday, take on the task of dissecting the venue, breaking down the field, and kibbitzing about another wild weekend of results on the global tours.
Whether you call it the Open Championship, the British Open or the third leg of the Grand Slam, this week on the links is unlike any other all season. The differences, or at least some of them, are what make it great.
Luke Donald certainly seems primed and willing. But is he ready and able to finally contend at a major championship? The English contingent is 0-for-5 in the Open at St. George's.
Elling: Donald visited the Deal/Sandwich area last week and logged rounds at St. George's and its next-door track, Royal Cinque Ports, a tremendous layout. He is certainly the best player in the game, with three victories in 2011. In fact, my biggest hesitation as it relates to advocating plunking down dinero in the betting parlor is whether Donald might be a bit burned out after winning Sunday. You just don't see players win two in a row, on as many weekends, these days. Well, now that Tiger's no longer in the mix, anyway.
Huggan: Luke has always made the game look easy and Sunday he made winning look easy, something he hasn't always managed in the past. He is looking more and more like the best player out there, at least of those who have yet to win a major. That's the next step for him ... and the other English lads who have flattered to deceive over the last few years.
|Englishmen Luke Donald and Lee Westwood are both looking to win their first major title. (Getty Images)|
Elling: You were at the Scottish Open, trying to stay dry. How impressed should we be by Donald finishing 19 under for 54 holes? It was soft, but bloody hell, that's a slew of red numbers by any standard.
Huggan: The one question I have always had about Luke is down the stretch he tends to hit the ball left. That, it seems to me, occurs when that beautiful rhythm gets a little too quick under pressure. But, then again, he is well on the way to proving me wrong. It would come as no surprise were he to win here at Sandwich.
Elling: Watching the BBC broadcast here in England was illuminating and entertaining, especially listening to
Huggan: But 19 under is great playing by any standards. But it was so disappointing to see Castle Stuart so soft and defenseless because of the prodigious amounts of rain that fell. The area averages 50 mm for the whole of July and got double that in one day. It was a credit to the green keeping staff that it was playable at all. Luke has always inflicted pain by 1,000 cuts rather than a swift decapitation.
Elling: Maybe that barrage will help Donald get over whatever mental hurdle he has erected at the Open. Donald has exactly one top-10 finish in 10 tries and missed the cut the last time around in Sandwich. Even after going 19 under on the weekend, tread lightly people. Mine is a qualified endorsement. Personally, I like Westwood better.
Huggan: I'm certainly rooting for Westwood, as most golfers with half a soul will surely be doing. But this is an event where luck enters the equation more than anywhere else. Last year, for example, had
Elling: No doubt about that. Rory got blown away in the winds because of a bad draw, weather-wise.
Now that you two are back in England, what can you tell us about your impressions of the host venue, Royal St. George's, which seems to be the most lightly regarded of the courses in the Open rotation?
Elling: This design has quirks and craziness like no other. I'm guessing that fastidious, tactical players like Hogan would have disliked the place. Of the Opens I have watched or attended over the years, randomness plays a bigger role here than any other venue. You'd be better off trying to predict the caroms a golf ball might take if you bounced it in an asphalt parking lot. I am all for quirky, but not as a synonym for "unfair."
Huggan: I just walked the front nine and the course is in great shape. Greens are really nice and there isn't too much long grass like there was last time here. If we get a nice breeze all week, it will be a great test of golf. I like the blind shots too. Anything that gets the modern pro out of his comfort zone is fine with me.
|More on 2011 British Open|
Elling: I guess I'm more anal retentive and like some semblance of control (whether it's an illusion or not). One national writer said, "There's no such thing as a bad bounce at Sandwich. There are only bounces, as dictated by the nature of the heaving landscape." Sorry, but that seems to be a simplistic view. These guys are playing for millions and the most meaningful golf title outside the States. Entropy should not share the stage with the winner. For the love of the deities, isn't the game hard enough without bringing capricious cruelty into the equation?
Huggan: Oh, for goodness sake. If only for the reason that is not yet another boring week on the PGA Tour, this event should be embraced as the ultimate test of everything golf is about, not just, "Can you hit it between the goal posts on shot after shot after shot." Boring. Golf at its best examines character, patience and temperament as well as technique. You need to get out more.
Elling: I don't disagree with you there. I just hope the thing doesn't get decided by some lucky bounce. Hasn't Sergio Garcia been persecuted enough? Heh, heh, heh.
Huggan: So what? Luck has always been part of golf. The best golf, that is.
Elling: Within reason. Brother, I am still stewing over the lucky bounce that Angel Cabrera got at the Masters two years ago, where his shot from the trees on the 18th bounced dead left into the fairway, after which he saved par and won. Biggest break at a major in years.
Huggan: There you go then, and who did he beat? Oh yes, that "world-class" player, Kenny Perry. Remind me when he last did anything notable outside of his PGA Tour comfort zone.
Elling: Cabrera hit a great wedge, saved par, and beat Perry and Chad Campbell in extra holes, but wow, he had no idea where that punch shot through the trees was going. We're going to see some of that this week. Well, minus trees. Just trying to warn the American fans.
Huggan: Indeed, no trees on proper links. Just lots of humps and bumps and slopes and bitching from frustrated pros. I love it.
Meanwhile, in another place, far, far away, Steve Stricker won his second title in five weeks, pulling off a rousing defense of his title Sunday at the John Deere. Is he the best pick this week from among the Yanks?
Elling: People are betting on Americans? With real money?
Huggan: There is much to admire in Steve Stricker, both as a player and as a man. But his record in the majors -- given his obvious ability -- is terrible. Clearly, something is missing and I think it is in his temperament. I just don't think that Stricker believes he is a major champion. His career epitaph will read: "Pretty good but not quite great ... especially when it really counted."
Elling: What's the term for bettors over here, John, punters? In American lingo, I'd punt before I'd bet more than a pound or two on any of Uncle Sam's contingent. Just not feeling it. After failing to win a major in the past five tries, a record drought for the United States, this week doesn't shape up as a trend-buster.
Elling: You could do worse that picking Stricker, but he only has two top-10 finishes in 11 starts at Ye Olde Open. So that's hardly a ringing endorsement of his links abilities, is it?
Huggan: No indeed. Like Hank Haney announced at the weekend, I find it hard to back any of your compatriots this week. Which probably means Ben Curtis will win again.
Elling: Still, you have to respect Stricker's late-bloomer capacities. Eight of his 11 career wins have come since he turned 40 four years ago. He usually heats up best in the FedEx Cup portion of the year, which is a couple of months away. He could join Jim Furyk and Vijay Singh as PGA Tour Player of the Year honorees after age 40.
Huggan: Of course, he will have to beat McIlroy to win. No easy task at the moment.
Elling: I have to admit, watching Stricker on the back nine when he's in contention is a helluva ride. It must be tough on the stomach linings of his family members. He usually makes it interesting. And by that, he's taking some roads less traveled to get to the 18th green.
Huggan: Exactly, you better be in full control of your emotions and your swing over the closing holes. Steve has never, to my mind, had either in such situations.
Elling: Sunday was epic Stricker. He makes birdies on the last two holes after blowing his lead, including one from a one-legged flamingo stance in a fairway bunker on the last, to steal it back? It was the best ending on the tour season this year, easily. Not to mention that it gives him three straight Deere titles. And I saw none of it, because the bed-and-breakfast where several of us Yanks are staying over here doesn't have the subscription package needed to get the PGA Tour feed. I was going through cold-turkey withdrawals Sunday night trying to figure out what was happening.
Huggan: Then again, I do think America has a better chance of victory than Scotland. We have only six guys in the field this week.
Elling: Sometimes, the same emotions that prompt Stricker to get teary-eyed after winning are the ones that hurt him when the ball's going sideways.
Huggan: Does he get to keep a tractor now? Sad to say, but the John Deere Classics and their ilk represent just about the limit of Steve's ability.
Elling: Though he has made some people cringe down the stretch when in contention, he is a perfect 6 for 6 on the PGA Tour with the outright 54-hole lead. He leads the tour with 35 straight made cuts. If not Stricker this week, I'm flummoxed as to who would be much better, truly.
Huggan: By the way, will the U.S. Women's Open ever end? I'm betting on Kim to win. Any Kim.
Nice segue. With a victory in the U.S. Women's Open on Monday afternoon in Colorado, a South Korean player has won on the LPGA for the first time this season. The Korean contingent has been so dominant over the years, so what happened?
Elling: Well, unlike in the men's game, it's early yet on the LPGA. They had only played 11 events before the Open this week. Of that total, not all were official. But there's no doubt that the firepower the Koreans used to bring has suddenly begun to look like spit wads being blown through straws.
Huggan: I don't think the Koreans have been playing so badly. It's just that the next dominant player in
Elling: You are a funny man. Hard to believe the guys who log in at the bottom of these pages line up to poke fun at you. And they haven't even met you in person.
Huggan: Multiple victories by one player can make it seem as if the rest are doing nothing. Of course, the stop-start nature of the schedule doesn't help, either.
Elling: The LPGA has data to back this up, but the Koreans aren't coming to America like they used to for Q-school. There are a few theories -- many of the top players are already here, the tournaments have dried up, the purses are no better than in Korea in some instances. None of the top players, like Jiyai Shin and Na Yeon Choi, have won in months. Yeah, it's surprising, really.
Huggan: Tell those readers that I'll be happy to meet anyone for a chat -- when they start putting their own names on their posts.
Elling: The Open, supposedly the toughest test in the game, just produced two more head-scratching combatants, too. Hee Kyung Seo has won in Korea, but had mustered one top-10 finish in the States in her rookie season before shooting consecutive 68s on the weekend to force a playoff with So Yeon Ryu. Neither had an LPGA win to their credit.
Huggan: That is typical of U.S. Opens, both men and women. I hate to say this, but the USGA too often crosses the line with their course setups, thereby negating skill to a large extent. And when you do that, anyone can win. Exhibit A: Hilary Lunke.
Elling: Will Ryu join other one-hit wonders like Lunke, Birdie Kim and
Huggan: See above. Plus, especially in the women's game -- where brute strength is at a premium -- too much rough makes the event a complete lottery. Hence the proliferation of "no-name" winners.
Elling: Your analysis seems plausible, actually. Heck, anything would seem believable at this point. That's a lot of major champions who haven't done a lick since.
Huggan: The USGA says it's trying to "identify" the best player, but all too often they end up frustrating him/her.
Elling: Is there such a word as countrywomen? In the absence of analysis, here are more goofy Open stats that scream for coherence and contest. Eun-Hee Ji had one LPGA victory before she won the 2009 Open title and hasn't claimed another since. She has one top-10 finish in the past 1½ years. So in other words, four of the past eight U.S. Open winners have not yet won another title.
Huggan: All that does is back up my theory. We are getting dangerously close to agreement here. Not sure I approve of that.
Elling: Must be because we're in the same time zone for once while writing this incredibly lyrical, lucid exchange. That said, I'm jet-lagged, so let's wind this baby down. Let's go out and grab some good British food.
Elling: By the way, that's the first time that sentence has ever been written.