There is one person who knows the links at Royal St George’s better than any other and that is the club’s head greenkeeper, Paul Larsen. He works on the course, he lives on it and, when you ask who he sees as the likely winner of this week’s Open Championship, he comes up with a name for good weather and one for bad.
For the good weather, he opts for Dustin Johnson, who was in the hunt all the way in 2011 until he found out of bounds on his approach at the 14th on Sunday. And if Johnson fails to come up with the goods, he suggests Jordan Spieth, though he is not so sure about him after the way he hacked lumps of turf out of the practice area at the recent US Open. Never mind what others might have suggested in the interim, he likes to think that it was nothing more than a weird practice routine – though Larson would prefer there is no repeat on his patch.
On to Larsen’s favourite in bad weather. With Darren Clarke having negotiated some vile conditions in 2011, he goes for Clarke’s old comrade-in-arms, Lee Westwood. The latter is no different from Clarke in being at his best on a difficult day, while it helps that he has been playing some of the finest golf of his life across the past few months. And what so tickles Larsen is the thought that the two men who teamed up to beat Phil Mickelson and Chris DiMarco and then Tiger Woods and Jim Furyk in the 2006 Ryder Cup fourballs each could achieve his major dream at Royal St George’s.
In a normal year, players from all around the world would have been dropping in at the Open venue for months in advance. Because of the pandemic and quarantine measures, that has not been happening this time around. Matt Fitzpatrick, though, put in an appearance in 2020 and loved what he was seeing. “I’d been told that there were lots of blind shots, but I had very few, and one of those was of my own making,” Fitzpatrick said. “I was out of position off the fifth tee.”
Players are good at arriving at a near-perfect figure when it comes to guessing the length of a putt, but at what point will they realise the fairways are as much as 2 yards wider than they were in 2011, and sometimes 3. In Larsen’s opinion, their first comments are more likely to relate to the length of the rough. “With all the rain we had in May and June it’s definitely going to be a talking point again,” he said. “It’s not as tough as it was in 2003, when it was just too lush. And it’s not as easy as it was in 2011, when it wasn’t thick enough. Instead, it’s slap-bang in the middle.”
Usually, there would be complaints about balls taking off into the wilderness via fairway mounds. This year, such shots are designed to pull up in the semi rough. Only genuinely bad blows will end up in real trouble.
The other interesting aspect of the rough for the 149th Open Championship is that it is of uniform length – something which, incidentally, will not necessarily apply to Larsen’s hair. As this most cheerful of head greenkeepers told the National Club Golfer a couple of weeks ago, it is seldom the same as he goes in for “all sorts of cuts, colours and God knows what.” Of the rough, Larsen suggests that is at its most dramatic at the short 16th, where fans lucky enough to get a seat in the wrap-round stand are going to be mesmerised by what they are seeing: “Apart from the grass walkway from tee to green, the rough starts at the tee and comes up to the green’s apron.”
Not least because the players are hitting so much further than they were, the carry over the rough from your average tee is around 200 yards. “It can’t be any more than that because of what the wind can do in this neck of the woods, but it’s great for nature and great to look at,” Larsen said.
Also in the aesthetic category are the wildflowers, which are everywhere. Spectators who know a thing or two about rarer species are likely to find the Lizard Orchids, currently in full bloom, something of a delightful distraction.
The bunkers, fifteen of which have re-turfed tops, are so good-looking as to be a main feature of the links, while fairways and greens are in similarly award-winning shape.
Not that the greens necessarily make for the most welcoming of havens. Anyone who likes to see famous players having a hard time of it with their putts would be well advised to head for the ninth green, where the surface is on a slope and only grudgingly offers enough flat spaces for four pin positions. The 11th, too, is tricky, a fact which will not have been forgotten by Phil Mickelson since this is where he missed a 2-footer in Clarke’s Open and was left runner-up with Johnson.
Things could be tough in the coming days for those who have not had the chance to practise in a variety of winds. From what Larsen has seen in well-nigh 12 years at Royal St George’s, these links call for more learning than most. “The more rounds a man has under his belt the better his chances of understanding their idiosyncrasies,” he said.
Then, however, he remembers Luke Donald. Though Donald went on to do the double of the PGA Tour money list and European Race to Dubai in 2011, he probably had more practice rounds than anyone ahead of that year’s Open, only to miss the cut.
Top: Greenkeeper Paul Larsen (left) and TV commentator Ken Brown in the rough at Royal St George's