Date: July 20, 2017
Author: Mike Clayton

Clayton: Birkdale, the fairest test of all

The great challenge of links golf is dealing with the inherent unfairness of it all. Balls kick off undulations shaped like – but barely bigger than – a knuckle into spots making the next shot significantly more difficult than it might have been.

Indiscriminately placed pot bunkers offer a variety of crazy lies and stances; some that would have the average player on a normal course calling for the head of the architect or greenkeeper, or possibly both.

A heavy wind can even ground the seagulls, yet a few hours later, a hole half the field might have played with a driver and a long iron finishes up as a drive and barely more than a flick because the tide changed and the wind fell away to nothing.

In 1985, Bernhard Langer shot one of the great rounds, a 69, in some brutal morning weather at Royal St Georges. Sandy Lyle went out late in the afternoon on the same Friday and slipped around in 65 in perfect, almost windless, conditions. Lyle’s round was brilliant and it ultimately won him the championship from Langer, but the German’s round was better.

Links can be cruel places, but the most difficult of them, the courses on The Open rota, have dependably found the best players in the game for more than a century because better than any other form of course, they force players to strike and flight the ball with power through the seaside winds.

They are hard courses, too, because they were made to test championship play. There are always plenty of "lesser" courses nearby; easier courses for the average player to enjoy but none of these great links succumbed to the modern mantra of making the golf "playable for all".

The Old Course at St Andrews is very playable, but if you’re not particularly competent, picking up after three attempts to escape Strath bunker on the 11th, the Beardies or Hell at the 14th or the Road Hole bunker is a good alternative.

The best players stoically manage the good and the bad breaks. It was the great Jack Nicklaus, in response to a reporter noting an unfair bounce he'd endured, who said: "It was unfair – but the game’s not supposed to be fair."

The Scots understood the "fair" concept better than anyone and made their courses accordingly. Blindness was of little concern. The weather didn’t matter because most golf was matchplay, so your opponent was playing in the same conditions.

The crumpled, hard ground produced its share of good and bad bounces, but they evened out by the end of the day, the week and The Open – and it was generally the great ones who came out on top.

This week at Royal Birkdale, players find what they invariably describe as the fairest of all the Open courses. It’s the ultimate stadium course with huge dunes down the sides of the fairways offering brilliant views of the play below, yet the playing corridors are relatively flat with lies and stances predictable, leaving most touring pros to unsurprisingly find it a favourite and the antithesis of Royal St Georges.

The favourite to win is a much more problematic question.

Gone are the days when Tiger Woods was the automatic selection. It looked for a while his dominance would be quickly followed by the Rory McIlroy era, but the Northern Irishman has inexplicably missed the last two cuts on the European Tour and looks to have barely a chance.

He’s had more clubs in his bag in the last couple of years than Nicklaus had in his whole career and messing with the implements is always dangerous. The manufacturers say they can make exactly what you need, but at Rory’s level the different feels are measured infinitesimally and trust is easily lost if the ball does anything unexpected.

Dustin Johnson was playing great golf until he fell down the stairs at Augusta and we have heard little since. But, like Rory, he is dangerous and it’s surely never far away.

Jordan Speith won a few weeks ago, the week after he missed the cut in the US Open, but he’s always one the rest are watching because his putter is deadly when it’s going. As Gary Player once said of his wand: "It’s crippled more men than polio."

Masters champion Sergio Garcia is the most versatile of the shot-makers and he knows how to play the wind and the links. Now Woods has gone, men such as Garcia, who played for a decade in his shadow, have a window open to them to make their mark in history.

Indeed, it was the defending champion, Henrik Stenson who, at 40, took his chance last year at Troon with golf so awesome his duel with Phil Mickelson rivaled that between Nicklaus and Tom Watson 40 years ago at Turnberry.

The Australians weren’t much good at the US Open with only Marc Leishman making the cut and nor were we any good at Wimbledon. It’s time someone stood up and played a great tournament and, at Birkdale, we have had more than a little success with Peter Thomson winning twice and Ian Baker-Finch going 66-64 on the weekend to win in 1991.

Leishman is always a consideration because he’s really good and he grew up in Warrnambool where the seagulls walk most of the time.

Jason Day and Adam Scott have way-above-average records in The Open, but can Adam make enough putts and can Jason claim back some of the form of two years ago?

And just as links courses ask the game's most interesting questions, so too, above all others, does the Open Championship.

The poser remains whether Day or Scott can pass the examination put forward by the most predictable of all the links.