NOTo before the Claret Jug has been awarded to the 150th champion golfer of the year the clubhouse of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club will be turned into a building site. There was fierce opposition within the club to a massive redevelopment that would cost £11million, but the modernization ultimately won the day. Members should empty their lockers – spare pants and such – at the time of the fall meeting. The building will triple in size, mainly due to underground works.
The fear is linked to possible demolition work on the Old Course itself. The R&A would oppose claims that it dithered on driving distance issues, but the fact remains that golf has yet to strike a balance between taking advantage of Rory McIlroy’s athletic prowess and limiting the ease with which best in the world can dominate historical sites. Many of them, in fact, are unfit for professional competition on the grounds that they are considered too short.
St Andrews are hanging on, but the coming days will demonstrate the trickery – largely tied to pin positions – needed to keep scoring in the realms of the sensitive. Gone are the days when rounds of 91 and 88 – see Tom Kidd, 1873 – were enough for Open glory. Kidd claimed £11 for his efforts. Sunday’s champion will pocket $2.5m (£2.09m).
For traditionalists, it would be utter sacrilege if rounds in the order of 60 were displayed in this major. They will reach the fragrant salts. The forecast of a light breeze fueled the discussions around this subject. Could poor helpless Old Course be subdued? Good luck with that, insisted R&A general manager Martin Slumbers when asked about his level for fear that an Open contender might shoot 59.
“We spent three years bringing this golf course to where we are today,” Slumbers said. “The one thing I’ve learned over the past seven years is that two things need to happen during open week. One is highly trained grounds maintenance staff and very hardworking. We are privileged to have this team here.
“The second element is luck and luck with Mother Nature. I think the golf course is exactly where we want it to be. If you go today it’s a lot firmer than yesterday. We held back on the greens because we had very hot weather earlier this week and wanted to make sure the grass was good on Sunday.
“The fairways are firmer than the greens and they run really hard. Mother Nature right now isn’t meant to give us rain and probably isn’t going to give us as much wind as we would like. But we have other ways to develop the golf course. And my philosophy has always been that I want to put together a fair, challenging golf course and let these guys show us how good they are.
“Now let me comment on 59. It’s 13 under par around this course. There are 7,300 yards. There are greens that spin at 101/2 at 11. There are fairways where the ball bounces 50 yards and more if it catches the downslope. Thirteen under par around that, I’ll tell you what, if somebody shoots that, I’ll be the first person on the 18th green to shake their hand because they played exceptional golf.
Slumbers’ point is correct. The sight of players crunching discs within 25 yards of the green at the iconic 17th is one thing, but the potential for wild bursts from turf harder than a coffin nail is real.
McIlroy likened this tournament week to a game of chess. No player has managed to checkmate the field with more aplomb than Tiger Woods. Still, it looks like the latest test of how well Woods’ ailing body can handle tournament play rather than a viable winning opportunity. A third Woods Open success at St Andrews would be the most remarkable of all.
McIlroy’s underlying motivation is twofold. He missed a Claret Jug defense here in 2015 through injury. There is also a desire to win a fifth major before the expectation of such a feat – which would tie Seve Ballesteros – leads to a ninth year. It would be an absurd scenario for someone so talented. This week, there was a bluster in McIlroy’s step.
Although played at a time of year when the venue is more receptive, the Dunhill Links Championship offers some clues as to who can prevail at St Andrews. Tyrrell Hatton, Danny Willett, Shane Lowry are worthy of respect in this context. Jon Rahm has limited experience on the Old Course but the fairy tale of emulating his compatriot Ballesteros burns strongly in the heart of the northern Spanish man.
The US challenge will supposedly be led by world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler, who finished tied for eighth on his Open debut 12 months ago. Jordan Spieth, who really should have won at St Andrews in 2015, was second to Collin Morikawa at Royal St George’s. Morikawa’s defense of the Claret Jug is as low key as has been evident lately, an issue tied in large part to the all-consuming noise attached to LIV Golf.
There would be chuckles if one of the LIV renegades – Dustin Johnson or Louis Oosthuizen seem the most likely – stepped forward to receive the Claret Jug on Sunday night. The R&A would never tell, but it’s an outcome they’d rather avoid for all sorts of reasons.
“This week is a celebration of the incredible history of golf’s original championship and the remarkable impact it has had on the sport we all love,” Slumbers said. Admirable in theory, of course, but the business and game of golf has been unrecognizable even from the time Woods first prevailed outside the old clubhouse in 2000. The scale with which the modern method can overriding the historical nuance might make the spines shiver.