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British Open Preview: If Anyone’s Left To Play

148th Open Championship - Day One Photo by Matthew Lewis/R&A/R&A via Getty Images

Tournament: The Open Championship, July 15-18, 2021

Course: Royal St. George’s GC, par 70, 7,211 yards. Just southeast of London, near the shores of the English Channel. Nearby? The town of Sandwich.

Purse: $11.5 million in total, $2,070,000 to the winner

Defending Champ: Shane Lowry in 2019. The 2020 edition was canceled due to COVID-19. This was the only major tournament in 2020 not to be rescheduled for later in the year. But in 2019, it was all about the portly Irishman. Mostly due to the fact the Open was contested in Ireland for the first time, at Royal Portrush. Local favorite Rory McIlroy failed to make the cut, but a 3rd round 63 by fellow-Irishman Lowry gave him the eventual lead and support of the entire crowd. And thanks to the 2020 cancelation, Lowry has been able to enjoy the Claret Jug for his evening stout for almost 2 years.

Fun Fact: One of the most famous members of this club was Ian Fleming. Not only did the Royal St. George’s figure prominently in the novel “Goldfinger”, but legend has it that the bus from the club to London was numbered “007”.

TV Times: Welcome to breakfast with golf. Thanks to the time difference, US East Coasters can catch plenty of golf before heading off to work or school. The only problem is that NBC has the US broadcast rights and will utilize the Peacock streaming service, at least until the weekend. There is an app, though not much is known how it compares to the Masters app (which is awesome). Whatever the sitch, here’s the published schedule.

Thursday-Friday, 1:30 a.m.-4 a.m. (Peacock), 4 a.m.-3 p.m. (Golf Channel), 3 p.m.-4 p.m. (Peacock). Saturday, 5 a.m.-7 a.m. (Golf Channel), 7 a.m.-3 p.m. (NBC). Sunday, 4 a.m.-7 a.m. (Golf Channel), 7 a.m.-2 p.m. (NBC)

‘Dawgs in the Field: 8. No, 7. Harris English, Brian Harman, Russell Henley, Kevin Kisner, Chris Kirk, Keith Mitchell, Brendon Todd, Bubba Watson.

Is it 8? 7? Wait - let me refresh my browser again... did anyone else drop out?

The reason for my attempt at humour is because 16 eligible qualifiers have withdrawn in the last couple of weeks - 6 or 7 of them since this past weekend. Which is remarkable, and quite unheard of. If you’re of British descent, I’d say this is simply not done. Yet here we are.

Why so many fly-like droppings? (I should rephrase that). Anywhoo, two major factors figure into these unprecedented declinations to compete in the most historic golf tournament in the world. One, the schedule. Two, and more importantly, the COVID-19 virus.

Most top pros set their schedules around the majors, and the associated travel. This season has a quadrennial curveball - the Olympics. Golf returns to the Olympics for the 2nd time in recent memory (played in Rio 2016 for the first time in a hundred years), and there are several who are keen to play and do well in two weeks. One in particular has some extra motivation to win.

See Woo Kim is a 26 year old South Korean pro golfer and quite accomplished. Yet all able-bodied South Korean men are required to serve a 20 month military service, started before their 28th birthday. There is an exception for those who medal in the Olympics - that award exempts them from the mandatory service requirement. This is See Woo’s last chance to medal and skip the military service (and continue making millions per year as a pro golfer), so I think he’s fairly focused. And thus he withdrew from the Open in order to prepare for the Olympics in Tokyo. Fellow countryman Sungjae Im is in a similar situation, except he’s only 23 and would likely have one more Olympic chance at the exemption.

Japanese sensation, and current Masters Champion, Hideki Matsuyama would’ve likely taken the same steps and skipped the Open, and the travel halfway around the world from his home country and the Olympic host country. Except... he tested positive for COVID-19. Because of that alone, he was forced to withdraw from the Open.

As the Open is played in the UK, the pandemic protocols are dictated by their local rules. They announced those protocols about 3 weeks ago, and it didn’t go over well. On the surface, these seem like cautious rules for the greater good. You must be tested before you leave your home country and upon arrival. A positive test is a forced withdrawal. If someone on your airplane traveling to the Open tests positive and you were sitting in near proximity, you are forced to withdraw (close contact rules). Spouses and children are not allowed to attend; a player may have up to 3 additional support personnel, and that includes your caddie. A coach or agent is likely to make up the quota. But only 4 people associated with a competitor can stay in the same accommodations, meaning players and their support group must isolate their overnight lodgings - this is particularly troublesome for caddies who often group up to share more cost-effective beds. These are just a few of the long list of regulations imposed on the competitors.

And there are some twists. The “close contact” rules extend to those who are vaccinated. For example, UGA’s own Bubba Watson withdrew late Sunday night because though he is vaccinated, he was in close contact with someone who tested positive for the virus Sunday and thus had to withdraw.

Zach Johnson, an Open Champion himself, was set to leave the John Deere Classic Sunday night on the charter flight, but he tested positive before boarding. He too was forced to withdraw and didn’t even board the plane.

One might still reason, logically so, that these are just precautionary measures for international travel amid a still ongoing pandemic. Counter to that argument is that the Royal & Ancient (the organization running the Open Championship) is going to allow 32,000 spectators a day to attend. Huh? You’re going to impose stricter rules than any other tournament in the last 6 months, but you’re going to invite more fans inside the grounds than any tournament in 18 months? Even your public health conscious author finds this one a little confusing and head-scratching.

Purists and Brits get snippy when you call this tournament the “British Open”. It was the first “open” championship, so it does make sense to call it “the Open Championship” which is its official name. There’s some belief that only Americans call it the “British Open”, which isn’t true. You’d be surprised how many South Africans, Australians, and those from Korea to the Phillipines who use the “British” qualifier. Sure they’re the first, and oldest major. Sure its been around since 1960 and this is the 149th playing. But the US Open has been around since the 1890s and has 121 editions under its own belt. With as much, or at least a 1)a) status of cache’ and prestige, it only makes sense that if talking about a golf tournament you specify it. After all, there is both an Irish Open and a Scottish Open played within shouting distance (and dates) of the Open Championship, so what’s the harm?

All the negative aside, it should be a good tournament. The course is very much in the traditional links style with the appropriate amounts of tall fescue, gorse, heather, pot bunkers, blind tee shots, and fairway undulations that will leave your perfectly struck drive in surprisingly bad places.

And this course has provided its share of underdog champions. Ben Curtis famously won here out of nowhere in 2003 thanks to poor play by Thomas Bjorn down the stretch, and Darren Clarke captured old lightning in a bottle of Jameson’s here in 2011 at the ripe age of 42. So who is to say some of our longer-shot ‘Dawgs can’t bring the Claret Jug home to the States?

To close, I’ll give you the Thursday and Friday tee times for our beloved Bulldogs in the Old Country:

Chris Kirk starts off at 8:36 am local, which is 3:36 am ET. His Friday tee time is 1:37 pm/8:37 am ET.

Brian Harman gets things going at 9:36 am local (4:36 am ET), and Friday at 2:37 pm/9:37 am ET.

Harris English tees up at 10:42 am local (5:42 am ET), and Friday at 3:43 pm/10:43 am ET

Keith Mitchell takes his first swing at 1:37 pm local (8:42 am ET), and Friday at 8:36 am/3:36 am ET.

Brendon Todd puts his peg in the ground at 2:15 pm ET (9:15 am ET), and Friday at 9:14 am/4:14 am ET.

Russell Henley is scheduled for 2:26 pm local (9:26 am ET), and Friday at 9:25 am/4:25 am ET.

Kevin Kisner will start at 2:48 pm local (9:48 am ET) and has a featured pairing with Phil Mickelson and hot-headed Englishman Tyrell Hatton. Their Friday start time is 9:47 am/4:47 am ET.

And as always...