When Phil Mickelson and his plotter-in-chief, Dave Pelz, made their first marathon trip around Royal Birkdale at the beginning of last week they both blurted out one word when they eventually reached the 17th green – "Wow!" There has been a similar reaction as each player has first come across this new putting surface and unfortunately for the Royal and Ancient it has been more a case of "Wow! What the hell have they done here?" rather than "Wow! What an amazing alteration."
Professional golfers are not, generally, a critical bunch, at least not when the tape recorders are running, so the typical response when quizzed about their feelings about the Martin Hawtree "masterpiece" has been – "it's different" or "it's dramatic". Commendably Lee Westwood stepped forward yesterday and said just what he thought, although his observations were not quite as critical as some mutterings on the range.
One labelled it "a sloping mess of mounds" while another concluded that it looks as if it's "contracted a severe case of mumps". Even those not totally anti the mogul run have agreed that it is not in keeping with the other greens that have help confirmed Birkdale's reputation as the finest and fairest course in England. In Westwood's opinion they should unload the shovels and start again. That is exactly what the members are planning. But perhaps not before next Monday.
"Have you had a chance to look at the 17th green?" came the probing enquiry to the Englishman who was about to go out for his first official practice round. "Yeah a couple of weeks ago," replied Westwood. "I'm assuming it's not changed since then. Nobody has dug it up? I think eventually they will. I think everybody has accepted that something has gone wrong with it. It's just out of character with the rest of the course and basically leave it at that. It's not to the standard of the rest of the greens. The rest of them are brilliant."
Indeed, comparison is the area where this bed of bumps falls flat. It sticks out like a sore thumb and has been bashed accordingly. In contrast, professional after professional has strode off the final green with good things to say about the set-up, despite it posing such a daunting challenge. Even the staple fare of their whinges has escaped.
The rough is as Geoff Ogilvy describes it: "pretty healthy, but not silly healthy". The fairways, meanwhile, are narrow and off the back tees stretch the eyes as much as the drivers. But the moans have been reserved for the penultimate green and warnings to the organisers have duly followed. Plonk the pin in the wrong place and it could get daft. "Hopefully, it ends up in a reasonable spot, or otherwise guys could be making any number," advised Ogilvy.
In fairness to the Royal and Ancient, the tournament's organisers, they recognise this and have vowed to ensure that common sense governs their flag placements. "It's a green that could get away from us if we're not careful," said Peter Dawson, the R&A chief executive. "We'll have to see how it goes."
If that sounded like an admission of guilt and a recognition of culpability in screwing up when overseeing the rebuilding and elevating of a green put 30 yards back from its original spot, then it plainly was not supposed to. The R&A's take is that it will be up to the players to take the risk if they are chasing the rewards of going for the par-five green in two. "It's not as if we're expecting the green to be hit at with long irons," declared Dawson.
The trouble, is though, that it is eminently reachable and most will go for it. Mickelson was one of the players who claimed it to be "much more dramatic than the other greens", but many on the range were saying that ironically it could actually lessen the drama. Surely fans do not want to see players laying up, but instead going for the glory of eagle. "It may be different on the Sunday evening when those in the hunt may require an eagle," said one pro. "But for the first three days they may play safe."
With this in mind the R&A will likely put the pins in accessible places, although they will still be open to criticisms from traditionalists who hate to see such a revered layout changed so substantially. Jack Nicklaus played here in April and was aghast. "You've got one of the greatest golf courses in the world, and they changed 16 holes because of a stupid golf ball," said the 18-time major champion. "That is just ridiculous."
Nicklaus was speaking for an ever-growing number who believe that the authorities should have placed limits on how far the modern golf ball travels. They failed to act, however, and now the only defence they appear to have to protect the dignity of old courses is either course lengthening or course toughening. Or in the case of the 17th, both. On occasions, the powers that be have gone overboard like at Shinnecock Hills at the US Open in 2004 when the greens were quick to the point of unplayable. The R&A is blessedly not the United States Golf Association and is not about to let their stubborn mistakes re-occur here. But they have created an eyesore. Slam, bam in the middle of golfing beauty.
Corrigan's dozen: 12 to follow at Royal Birkdale
Four big names:
Sergio Garcia (Best price: 12-1)
The favourite, despite what some cruelly insist on calling his Carnoustie capitulation. Sergio is a better putter than last year, has The Players – the "fifth major" – under his belt and is hitting it as solidly as ever. He will win an Open; this links seems perfectly suited.
Lee Westwood (16-1)
Britain's best shot by far. Rather like Garcia, he has sorted out the one weakness in his game – in Westwood's case, his chipping – and should the putter be kind he will surely be thereabouts. People forget he has 29 titles to his game. He doesn't: he remembers how to win.
Ernie Els (16-1)
If Els was a horse, then the South African would be the biggest each-way certainty since Arkle lined up in a two-horse race. In his last eight outings he has finished in the top four six times. Can justifiably claim to be the most consistent player of links in the world.
Jim Furyk (25-1)
Despite finishing fourth here in 1998, Furyk has at times found himself baffled by the unique conditions of the Open. But this gritty American has knuckled down and now appears ready to launch another challenge. This could prove a nurdler's course and few nurdle it as well as Jim.
Four rising stars:
Andres Romero (50-1)
Would have won last year if he could have played the last two holes in one-over and revealed the disappointment had not crushed him by bouncing back with victories in Europe and America. The Argentine is clearly a natural and around this natural lay-out has a live chance.
Hunter Mahan (50-1)
There is a quiet confidence among the Americans that one of their number can make it seven Open victories in the first nine years of this century and Mahan, who finished with a 65 at Carnoustie, is a player who can take courses apart with a nerveless run of birdies.
Graeme McDowell (50-1)
Maybe the Ulsterman will be completely Bushmilled after Sunday's Scottish Open success and the giddy realisation that he is in the Ryder Cup team. But McDowell has sand in his blood and if he can maintain his form this week then he will feature and feature predominantly.
Anthony Kim (50-1)
Only 23 and described by Mark O'Meara, Tiger Woods' best friend, as having a better swing than the world No 1 at his age. The trouble has been that this wild child has discovered "outside interests". However, two victories this season have refocused his desire.
Boo Weekley (100-1)
A favourite of the press room, Weekley is so much more than the image of a country yokel that he projects. He is a shotmaker and is suited to Birkdale. Also, should he prevail then the fun will truly begin. Orang-utans, alligators, diseased cows... it's all there in his background.
Pablo Larrazabal (250-1)
The Open always manages to haul characters to the fore and in young Pablo there is more than a vague reminder of the young Seve. The manner in which this Spaniard repelled players such as Montgomerie and Westwood at Versailles showed how fearless he can be.
Nick Dougherty (175-1)
There would not be a more popular winner than the local boy who lost his mother two months ago. The tragedy came just after he had performed so well at his first Masters and Dougherty has understandably struggled since. Still worth a sentimental punt.
Mark O'Meara (1,000-1)
Don't laugh, The champion the last time the Open was staged here in 1998, O'Meara should not be discounted simply because of his advancing years (51). He has won on the Seniors recently and is of the opinion that those with Open experience enjoy a considerable advantage.