- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 15, 2003

SANDWICH, England — You have to wonder about a golf course that is usually referred to as Sandwich.

Mystifyingly, the course also known as Royal St. George’s is set to play host to this week’s 132nd British Open. That’s assuming a quorum of the field finds the isolated course on England’s Southeast coast by Thursday. Here’s a hint: head toward France and take a right into the heather when you see a trio of cooling towers that look like Three Mile Island smoking in the distance.

Welcome to Sandwich — home of a Pfizer plant, a power station and the least beloved course on the British Open rota.

“I’d say it’s in the top 10,” major champion Steve Elkington said yesterday when asked to rank Sandwich among its British Open brethren.

Of course, there are only eight courses on the British Open rota: St. Andrew’s, Birkdale, Troon, Turnberry, Muirfield, Carnoustie, Lytham and St. George’s.

St. Andrews has nativity, the Old Course clubhouse, the Road Hole, the Swilcan Bridge and the Firth of Fourth.

Birkdale has sand dunes that make the Shenandoahs look like anthills.

Troon has the Postage Stamp and the rota’s most relentless home nine.

Turnberry has 1977’s duel in the sun (Watson’s Sunday 65 clipping Nicklaus’ 66) and Ailsa Craig.

Muirfield, perhaps the most exclusive club in the world, might also have the most discriminating taste in champions; try matching Muirfield’s last seven of Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson, Nick Faldo (twice) and Ernie Els.

Carnoustie has the Barry Burn, Ben Hogan’s only Open sighting (1953) and Jean Van de Velde’s personal version of Les Miserables.

Lytham has Blackpool, the rail line, Jacklin’s European revival (1969) and Seve’s parking lot miracle (1979).

And St. George’s, well, it has a funny name and the perfect backdrop if anyone ever decides to make a film about Chernobyl.

The most memorable feature at Sandwich, a pair of massive bunkers called the Himalayas that guard the right side of the fairway on the par-5 fourth hole, don’t really even come into play. The largest of these bunkers, which is 100 feet long and 40 feet high, can be cleared from the tee with a drive of just 260 yards, an extremely modest whack by today’s pro standards.

Of course, it’s not just a lack of aesthetics that makes Sandwich the universal choice as the weakest course on the rota. St. George’s was designed in 1887 by Dr. Laidlaw Purves, a London ophthalmologist with no previous architectural experience. Apparently, Dr. Purves had an affinity for blind tee shots and reverse-canted fairways.

“Almost every fairway out there slopes away from the dogleg,” Scott McCarron said after his first loop around the 7,106-yard, par-71 track yesterday. “In other words, if the dogleg goes left, the fairway slopes right.”

That design theory isn’t exactly at the top of the syllabus of Architecture 101. And it’s not particularly hopeful news for de facto major favorite Tiger Woods. Despite his slump-busting victory at the Western Open two weeks ago, the world No.1 is still struggling mightily with his accuracy off the tee. And that’s on courses with fairways that aren’t nearly as firm and sloping as those at Sandwich.

“You can routinely hit a drive perfectly here, right down the preferred side of the fairway, and wind up in the opposite-side rough,” 1996 British Open champion Tom Lehman said yesterday. “You just have to accept the fact that you’re going to get some lousy breaks. Thankfully, the first cut of rough is very playable. But you absolutely can’t afford to miss big. … I’d say the winner this week will have to play very well and also be very fortunate.”

That element of luck is what made Nicklaus an open critic of the course during his playing days. Nicklaus nearly missed the cut at Sandwich in 1981 after an opening 83 and did miss the weekend action when the Open returned to St. George’s in 1985. Though the British Open was not played at Sandwich between 1949 and 1981, missing most of the game’s golden era, perhaps it’s no coincidence that Sandwich is the only one of the eight rota courses that cannot count Open mavens Nicklaus, Watson, Player or Peter Thomson among its champions.

In fact, St. George’s resume as a bona fide member of the Open rota is almost entirely founded upon one brilliant Sunday in 1993, when Greg Norman and most of the world’s best players turned the final round of the British Open at Sandwich into what Gene Sarazen called “the greatest single day of championship golf in history.”

Norman, then the fourth-ranked player in the world, hit all 14 fairways en route to a 64, the claret jug and his second major victory. Both his closing 64 and his total of 267 are still Open scoring records. And, of course, Norman then further immortalized the moment by authoring the following infamously egotistical quote: “Today I was in awe of myself.”

Of course, Norman wasn’t alone. For on that day, the Shark outdistanced the most impressive cast of players ever assembled on a major championship leader board, finishing just clear of world No.1 Faldo (269), world No.2 Bernhard Langer (270), world No.3 Nick Price (tied for sixth) and world No.5 Fred Couples (T9), all four of whom broke 70 in the finale.

“It was the most impressive display of golf I have ever seen,” Langer said recently. “Not only did Greg not miss a shot, he didn’t come close to missing a shot.”

Given such a rousing victory, how does Norman feel about Sandwich?

“I have to say it isn’t one of my favorites on the rota,” Norman said recently. “But that just proves you don’t have to have a spectacular layout to produce a spectacular championship.”

Let’s hope that’s the case again this week.

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