The Hacker: The Open course is great but I find a lot of sand in Sandwich
Sunday 24 April 2011
Had an early look at The Open course at Royal St George's last week and although the 140th Championship is still 16 weeks away, the place is looking as majestic as ever; although they could do with a bit of rain.
What will appeal to spectators is that for the first time there will be a high-speed direct train service to whisk you from the centre of London to the gates of the course in 95 minutes, which is an hour quicker than usual. Never before has The Open been as accessible from the capital.
At this time of the year, the Royal & Ancient take the media to the venue to explain the changes they've made to the course. But they haven't done much since the event provided a brutal challenge there in 2003.
Apart from adding a modest 105 yards to the length and tinkering with a few bunkers, the main change is to make it easier for the players to find the fairways on certain holes.
Their research showed that in 2003, fewer than 30 per cent of the competitors managed to hit the fairways on holes 1, 17 and 18, which is remarkable.
So they've either widened or moved those fairways which I think is pretty sporting of them and ought to cheer up Tiger Woods, who in 2003 lost his drive on the first hole in the first round.
It is a shame they weren't as sympathetic to the hackers among the writers and photographers who turned up to sample the course in a Press competition last Monday.
They slapped on a handicap limit of 18 for men and 27 for women. Now, it is the hacker's role in golf to be at the mercy of superior players so a touch of the forelock is often necessary on these occasions.
The R & A are the strict but kindly uncles to 30 million golfers in 128 countries. Since about half of those are likely to be hackers, I am sure they mean us no harm.
But when you turn up to play a course as tough as Royal St George's you don't need a couple of handfuls of shots confiscated before you reach the first tee.
Never mind, it was a lovely day and although the course is as dry as a bone, it means that the rough hasn't grown to its full ferocity yet.
I was playing with Lewine Mair, formerly golf correspondent of The Daily Telegraph, Jock MacVicar of the Scottish Daily Express and Shane O'Donoghue of CNN.
Needless to say, the others fared better than me, Lewine winning the ladies prize with 28 points. Had I been allowed to play off my official handicap, I wouldn't have been in the low twenties.
What I will say in my defence is that I found well over a dozen bunkers. And not all of them were the result of bad shots. I was hitting the ball fairly well but these shots sped through the air like sand-seeking missiles.
What do you expect when you let someone like me loose on a course that proved so difficult in 2003 that only the winner, the American Ben Curtis, broke par?
Apart from being a great course, St George's is splendid for spectators. There will be room for 16,500 in the stands but there are so many dunes and hillocks that there are a number of natural vantage points from which to witness the action.
And if you fancy taking the high-speed train there, there are two an hour from early morning from St Pancras International and the cost is £38.20 return. Tickets and timetable are available now at southeasternrailway.co.uk.
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