Major Mailbag: 2019 Open Championship

Andy answers your queries about Royal Portrush, links golf, the schedule, and whether his alarm will be waking you up


You sense that? A different vocabulary is in the air. Reporters are running through their go-to synonyms for “firm” and pro golfers are reacquainting themselves with the word “trajectory.” It must be Open Championship week. Time for a mailbag.

I put out my usual request for questions on Twitter, and you delivered some gems. Here goes….

This week, I say no. Admittedly, you could make a compelling case for Japan’s favorite son, and his recent form is solid, as Will Gray highlighted last week.

That said, in the past 18 months, there hasn’t been a moment when I felt like Hideki would or could win a tournament. I don’t see that changing this week, and I predict a long, dreary offseason for the inhabitants of Hideki Island.

Underrated, especially in how they negotiate modern championship golf. They set up golf courses properly and stand up to the players in smart ways. Last year’s surprise driver test was brilliant, and this year’s drop areas are equally so. (More on that in a minute.) Yes, the R&A’s and USGA’s joint negligence on matters of equipment technology over the past 20 years is a black mark. But on the whole, if American golf just copied everything about UK golf, we’d be in a better place. The game is an affordable, inclusive recreational activity in Great Britain and Ireland, and it’s the opposite in America.

It’s one of the most sensible things I’ve seen a tournament organizer do in a long time.

For those who missed this story, the R&A has grown deep rough in drop areas to penalize players taking drops from the grandstands. Typically Tour pros get generous relief from grandstands, and recently they have begun using these structures as backstops from poor positions. The R&A’s drop areas simulate the situations players would find themselves in if the stands weren’t there. I’d love for the PGA Tour to take note, but that might cause players to complain, so it won’t happen.

Tough not to go with the Home of Golf, St. Andrews. I’d also love to see the original Open site, Prestwick (featured earlier today on our website), host an event in the future, even if it’s a wacky six-club challenge on the European Tour.

The 1st green at Prestwick Golf Club. Photo credit: Jaeger Kovich

Nothing would get my juices flowing like seeing an Open Championship at a majestic, parkland course sculpted by Tom Fazio, so without a doubt it would be Adare Manor….

I kid, I kid. For this discussion, I assume we are throwing par, infrastructure and modern “requirements” out the window. With that in mind, I’d choose Royal Dornoch. It’s the course that inspired America’s most prolific Golden Age architect (Donald Ross), today’s most prolific developer (Mike Keiser), and the modern era’s most prolific Open champion (Tom Watson). Here’s an excerpt from a Golf Digest article in which Watson describes the moment he fell in love with links golf:

“The next day we headed up to Dornoch and played Dornoch, and in the morning it was beautiful, no wind.

“We go in there, Donald Grant was the historian at Dornoch and he had a reception for us after we played, Sandy [Tatum] and me, and we had a few pints and we ended up—looked outside, and it had started to gray in the last few holes, and the wind was blowing and the rain was coming down sideways. And I look at Tatum, and I said, ‘Tatum, what do you think?’ He said, ‘I’ll organize the caddies.’ So he organized two caddies, our original caddies, and we went out and we played another 18 holes in the wind and the rain. That’s when I fell in love with links golf.”

Royal Dornoch Golf Club. Photo credit: royaldornoch.com

→ Why do you think the average age of the winners in the Open over the past decade is so much older?

Quick stat for you: the average age of the winners of each major since 2011…

Masters – 31.3
PGA – 28.2
U.S. Open – 27.9
The Open – 36.1

I think that the Open offers the most nuanced and varied test of any major. The conditions—firm and fast turf, unpredictable wind—reward shot-making, a skill honed and learned over time. The Open is less about Trackman and more about feel. Compared to the typical true-and-false quiz that is the usual PGA Tour stop, the Open is an essay that requires introspection and independent thought. To thrive here, you have to know not only your carry distances but also your trajectories and shot shapes. Wind and firmness amplify misses and curb the advantage of raw power. Shorter, wider, firmer tests make for a more democratic and interesting test of golf, so we tend to see experienced players with a broad array of shots and skills rise to the top.

At this point, I don’t think there’s enough in the world.

It has been a strange year for Phil. He won at Pebble Beach Pro-Am, sending expectations through the roof. Then, after he discovered the true purpose of Twitter (trolling people), Phil’s game came completely undone, so much so that he resorted to a hard reset of his body that included a “six-day fast.” Needless to say, Lefty seems miles away from Open contention.

I haven’t been to Royal Portrush, but my impression thus far from digesting videos and photos is that it will be a tremendous championship test. The Dunluce Links has wide fairways with great micro-contours, which will yield uneven lies. These uneven lies make for difficult approach shots to greens that have many repelling edges. Pair these factors with Northern Irish winds and a property of massive scale, and you have a venue that will likely allow the world’s best tacticians and iron players to rise to the top.

As the tournament unfolds, we will profile more holes and look at how their features affect play. But one hole that has piqued my interest already is the 17th. This downhill, 408-yard par 4 features a blind tee shot and fairway draped over a hillside that has pronounced slopes. When it’s slightly downwind, players could even drive the green, but that option comes with obvious risk. At the same time, the layup doesn’t leave a particularly appealing approach shot. To me, one of the most difficult shots is a wedge from an elevated perch to a small target, especially when the wind is cross or down, as it probably will be on the 17th. Players who take the safe route will be left essentially with a challenging short par 3. On the other hand, those who pull driver will have a small target thanks to the hog’s-back-like slope of the fairway.

Check out Frank Nobilo’s profile of the hole for Golf Channel here:

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We are just beginning to see the effects that the new schedule will have on professional golf. The monthly majors, WGCs, and elevated events have created a cramped season that forces players to make more difficult scheduling decisions. The tournament after the Open Championship used to be the Canadian Open; this year, it’s a no-cut WGC that hands out free money, FedEx Cup points, and world ranking points. Thus, many of the top players will find it hard not to attend, which will change the dynamic of the “links season” lead-up to the Open.

Say someone wants to play both the Irish and Scottish. He’ll be looking at four weeks in a row of tournament golf, a rarity for the modern pro. That means the loser in the new schedule will likely be the Irish Open. The shift was clear even this year, as we saw an extremely weak field at Lahinch. If I were a player, though, I’d probably do the Irish Open and take a break the week of the Scottish to play golf around the Open site.

I’m okay with the world’s best players caring more about majors. For the top ten or so golfers in the game, those four tournaments are all that really matter. But at some earlier point in those players’ careers, PGA Tour events did matter—and that’s why we should care.

A regular Tour event like the 3M is like a February NBA game between the best team in the league and a scrappy young squad hoping to make the playoffs. The established team will probably win if they make shots and execute, but they are likely not in top form. For up-and-coming team, on the other hand, the game means everything. It’s an opportunity to ascend to a new level and build confidence by beating the best. That’s what makes the game worth watching.

Similarly, we should care about the week-to-week Tour grind because we can track the rise of the next great players. A golf career is about getting comfortable at different levels of competition and understanding how your game fares at each rung. You start with junior state-level tournaments and advance to AJGA and national-level events to prepare college golf. In college, you have regular and national tournaments. Then, on the summer amateur circuit and USGA schedule, you get a taste for truly elite golf, a full examination. Moving from there to the KFC, European, and PGA Tours presents another degree of discomfort, just as going from the PGA Tour to a major championship does. The questions asked by major golf are (or should be) the most difficult, the least likely to be answered correctly by a player who has not won or at least contended regularly on the PGA Tour.

So we should care about the PGA Tour because it sheds light on what might happen at the next major. And that, by the way, is what frustrates me about the PGA Tour’s marketing strategy. The Tour should cater to the sickos, not to casual fans. The casual fan is tuning in primarily to five golf properties you don’t own: the four majors and the Ryder Cup. So why not create a product that appeals to core fans instead of ones who don’t exist?

Koepka talkin' 'bout practice at his Open press conference. Photo credit: USA Today

As for how highly, even exclusively, Brooks Koepka prioritizes majors, I love it. He has taken Tiger’s focus on majors to its logical conclusion. For Brooks, it’s major or bust, just as it should be for the three to five best players in the game.

Only two players in the past 50 years have had the ability to dominate pro golf week in, week out: Tiger and Jack. Other players have had runs of dominance, but few have sustained it for more than five years. So maybe Brooks’s approach will enable him to perform at the highest level in majors for a longer period. Would you rather have Jason Day’s 2015-2016, when he won eight tournaments but just one major, or Brooks’s past 24 months, with his four majors and five total wins? That’s not a real question. Of course you’re going with Brooks. Plus, he’s more likely than Day to win in the future because he hasn’t worn himself out grinding for FedEx Cup points.

In his Tuesday press conference, Justin Rose illuminated what matters for the small group of elite golfers: “For me, major championships should be the things that are protected the most. That’s how all of our careers ultimately are going to be measured. 30, 40 years ago there wasn’t a FedExCup, so if you’re trying to compare one career to another career, Jack versus Tiger, it’s the majors that are—they’re the benchmarks.”

If you’re chasing PGA Tour wins, you likely don’t consider yourself one of the greats of the game. Brooks clearly does, and that’s a big part of why he has won four of his last seven majors.

Very few things in life fire me up like the discourse around driving distance. Tweets like “you won’t believe how far a player drove it on Thursday!” create little sparks, but what gets the blaze spreading is blind ignorance to how the game has changed. I lived through the transition. I went from a high-school freshman pumping wound golf balls 230 to a thirty-something hitting it 300+ thanks to a rigorous practice routine of sitting in a chair and punching keys for a living. How anyone turn a blind eye to that change is beyond me.

Yet so many people in important positions have. Frank Thomas (not the baseball player), who was Technical Director of the USGA for 26 years, was asleep at the wheel when equipment advances changed professional golf forever in the late 90s and early 00s. In an article reposted to his website, “Frankly” Thomas debated in 2001 with then-President of the PGA of Europe Jaime Ortiz-Patiño about the emerging technology and distance problem. Patiño argued that golf was in danger of becoming a predictable “driver-wedge” affair, while Thomas argued that the new technology limits would prevent that. Guess who got that one right.

Later in the article, Thomas discusses the increases in driving distance on the PGA Tour: “While from 1968-95 the average drive had lengthened by one foot per year, this had escalated, with new technology, between 1995-00, to 7.2 feet a year, to approach science’s optimum limit.”

Seems like we left science’s optimum limit behind, Frank.

You have to take A. Tiger’s race to catch Jack is the most compelling storyline in sports. No other sport has an active great chasing a past great’s seemingly unsurpassable record. (Sorry, LeBron fans.)

There is a certain romance about Fleetwood: the personality, the flowing locks, the exciting style of play. He did, however, earn his billing alongside premier players with his run in 2017-18. No doubt he has cooled in 2019, which shows how difficult it is to stay world-class for a long period.

But your question also unintentionally suggests that Rickie might be underrated and under-appreciated by golf tragics (not by average fans). While I and many others are frustrated by his low win-to-brand-activation ratio, he has been unbelievably consistent. Fowler hasn’t been ranked outside the world top 15 since the 2014 PGA Championship. The only other players to accomplish the same feat are Justin Rose and Rory McIlroy. Consistently high performance is the most difficult task in golf; it’s what every golfer strives for and most lack. Fowler might not have many wins, but that may actually be part of what makes him compelling, or at least polarizing. He makes golf fans wonder, “When?”

So if Tommy Fleetwood becomes Europe’s Rickie Fowler, I’d say he could do a lot worse.

Fleetwood and his flow. Photo credit: AAP

To address the first question, we saw an over-par win last year at Shinnecock. With Oakmont on the horizon, it seems quite possible, even likely.

Question two: Last year’s Open showed the magic of links golf. In the run-up, many wondered whether the fast fairway conditions would allow players to bludgeon Carnoustie to death. Within hours of Thursday’s opening round, the answer came back a resounding “no.” Firm and fast conditions lessen the bomber’s advantage by placing a premium on precision. To hit great shots, you need control of trajectory, spin, and distance. If we’re not going to roll back equipment technology, we have to force players to think about the exact characteristics of their shots. Links golf has done this for decades, centuries—so to answer your question, to my mind, all of the rota courses will hold up as long as the R&A continues to set them up properly.

Matt Wallace. After winning three times on the European Tour in 2018, many asked whether he was truly a world-class player. One year later, Wallace has backed up that banner year with another strong campaign that features two runner-up finishes, a T-3 at the PGA ,and a T-12 at the U.S. Open. The major performances in particularly are a promising sign for Wallace fans, as few players can contend regularly in majors.

Having done both, I’d say it’s six of one, half a dozen of the other. I lean toward a compromise: choose one night to stay up late and one morning to wake up early. You’ll want to be up for the opening round. Darren Clarke hitting the opening tee shot after 68 years of no major championship golf in Northern Ireland will be one of the highlights in sports this year. So my advice would be tough it out all night on Friday Jr. and give yourself a little treat with a 5 AM wake-up on Friday. The weekend will provide much-needed relief.

Every day, but hopefully just once a day. No promises, though. I know I could write anything here because you would never read this entire article.