The 2021 Links Season Begins!

A Scottish Open primer and the Royal St George's backstory as The Open Championship nears

The Scottish Open and Open Championship play out over the next two weeks at Renaissance Club and Royal St George’s. Both figure to be full of pent-up excitement due to a nearly-two-year separation from championship links golf.

Golf’s equivalent of the grass court season is a relatively new thing and would be better if the Irish Open could become more links-focused. (Rumors of a date after The Open could help keep players around, but they should stay seaside if possible.)

From 1995 to 2010 the Scottish was played at the inland Loch Lomond. Before that, it was primarily played at Gleneagles with one Old Course visit and a couple of Carnoustie stops. Since 1987 the Opens have been played back-to-back but only since 2011 has the Scottish been offering a linksy tune-up. That’s thanks largely to Aberdeen Assets’ Martin Gilbert (now retired and a European Tour board member), who sought links and American TV. The Gilbert years received enthusiastic support from First Minister Alex Salmond and the European Team of George O’Grady, vaulting the event to another level. The field this week reflects their efforts and we may learn of a new co-sanctioned status for the Scottish soon.

Jon Rahm turns up as does Rory McIlroy. They’re joined by Justin Thomas, Collin Morikawa and Xander Schauffele to give them five of the world top ten. Other notables include Tyrrell Hatton, Tommy Fleetwood, Henrik Stenson and Francesco Molinari, with three last-minute spots to The Open available.

I’m hardly going out on a limb by saying the Scottish should only be played on links or links-adjacent ground because, (A) it’s bloody Scotland, and (B) having a tune-up on windswept ground will always attract a strong pre-Open field. This year marks the third Scottish at Tom Doak’s Renaissance Club and features a garbled name that is someone’s hipster way to reimagine a bank’s brand: abrdn Scottish Open.

Yes, someone was paid money to develop that. Hate to think what finished second.

The Renaissance Club is not a true links and the entire vibe is more American than Scottish, but it is still infinitely better than visiting something like last week’s inland Irish Open venue. Renaissance is also a wonderfully-run place with a welcoming purveyor in developer Jerry Sarvadi.

Besides Renaissance, Castle Stuart hosted four times, Gullane twice, and Royal Aberdeen once. I attended the last three venues while hosting and they were as special as any non-majors I’ve been to.

As for what the Scottish tells us about The Open? Form does matter and we see who is working to get acclimated. Winning both events? That’s difficult:

One other twist in 2021: NBC has shown the Scottish for several years, forcing a very late finish and quick turnaround to The Open. With a good bit of distance between venues this year, players will welcome an earlier evening conclusion. But an American network presence was helpful in building the event and we’ll see what happens when the PGA Tour and European Tour outline the event’s future.

After Renaissance the players will head to the southeastern tip of England where it’s looking like Royal St George’s will be green and leaning lush, just as it was in 2011 when Darren Clarke won. There will be nothing like the browned out zaniness of 2003.

(Note to Americans with Golf Channel: the 2011 Open final round re-airs on Wednesday at 8 pm ET and again at midnight.)

I plan to go a bit deeper into the more incredible tournaments at Royal St George’s, or Sandwich. (Yes, I’ll be using both the next two weeks. My royal fatigue demands it.)

For now, a few general backstory notes kickstarting the run-up to 2021’s final major.

“This is as nearly my idea of heaven as is to be attained on any earthly links,” wrote Sandwich’s greatest admirer and eventual club president, Bernard Darwin. Others have been less enamored in large part because of the severe undulations, obstructed views and relentless awkwardness of the questions posed.

“The first nine holes—tremendous fun, not very good golf,” said Walter Hagen. “Second nine holes—tremendous golf, no fun at all.”

Hagen won two of his four Open Championships at Royal St George’s.

Increasingly, old images and common sense have plenty wondering if Sandwich could use a return to more quirk, exposed sand and yes—blindness—by undoing some of the 1970s de-quirking from architect and writer Frank Pennink. Those modifications helped lure The Open back after a thirty-one year break from 1949 to 1981. But in key spots the course lost some drama and flair.

Ben Curtis’ 2003 Open win reaffirmed the bias that Royal St George’s leans goofy. But in watching it again, I came away with a better appreciation for that bizarre week:

  • Thomas Bjorn really, really blew it and should have won.

  • Tiger Woods had every opportunity to back into this one.

  • Curtis’ win remains one of the greatest Cinderella shockers in golf history.

  • The setup did not do the course justice.

Adjustments were made in 2011 and greener turf took some of the edge away. But in reviewing the Opens over the years, the place has largely produced the best, or one of the best players at the time, and has seen every kind of weather week.

While the initial design credit is slightly muddled, the course is undoubtedly the work of Dr. Laidlaw Purves, a Wimbledon Golf Club regular. He joined forces with fellow members to build a seaside links within two-hours of London via a 12-shilling train ride.

“Whether this breakaway was conceived in bitterness is not clear,” wrote B.J.W. and Peter Hill, authors of the club’s 1987 history.

“Dr. Purves was a masterful personality and a man of many parts,” they wrote.

Was he ever. And what a name too. Go with the Spanish pronunciation if you say his name out loud. Even if it’s wrong. Language has evolved since his day.

A leading ophthalmic surgeon and author of several medical treastises, Purves edited a version of Robinson Crusoe and translated Gil Blas from French. He learned to play golf at Bruntsfield Links in Edinburgh and developed a strong taste for undulation and extreme links. He was also known to welcome women into the game well before some of his peers, though Royal St George’s remained essentially an all men’s club until not that long ago. Women could play with a male member but the clubhouse was off-limits. So when Queen Elizabeth’s mum was Dutchess of York she had to use a side door.

Laidlaw planned a course at Littlestone in 1888 and later printed a pamphlet containing a full analysis of bunkers and hazards where he proudly concluded that St George’s had seven more cross hazards than the next most.

Big cross-hazard guy!

Carry distance was the strength of his game and he designed accordingly. The dunes he designed over and through could be extreme in spots, necessitating a number of blind shots. None more dramatic than the 6th hole, the Maiden, depicted here from behind the green and highlighting safety issues then. Today the green can be seen from the tee.

The club founders had lofty ambitions: they named it St George’s to form an English rival to the R&A of St Andrews. While there had been forms of golf on the land in 1860s and 1870s, the official iteration formed on May 23rd 1887 and Scottish golf professional Ramsay Hunter oversaw construction. He undoubtedly played a key role in a design spread over nearly 400 acres. That space and its proximity to London make it an R&A favorite while keeping its neighbor, Royal Cinque Ports, off the rota. Significant investments have also made for arrival by train.

Early on, Royal St George’s was known for the blind shots and hazards “at instances varying from 120 yards to 150 yards from the tees,” according to the Hills. The lack of visibility was an issue, prompting a comprehensive system of directional flags. Red indicated the line for a strong driver who could expect a tee shot to carry the first hazard, a blue flag marked the line for the weaker player and typically to the side of the red. And the blind or obstructed greens were marked by a white flag at the far edge, while the actual flag was marked by a shorter white version. Sounds complicated.

An 1896 survey of the course even included the system:

All but the white flags are gone and it’s hard—unless you hate England—to deny the simple beauty of the current presentation:

An old farmhouse was used for the clubhouse and remains a modest set of buildings set back from the field of play. Something about the comfortable and understated situation makes me recommend this and Muirfield as examples I wish more clubhouse developers would use for inspiration. They also reportedly do an epic lunch should you get an invite.

The course was 6,012 yards at the outset and grew to 6,857 by 1987. Then it jumped to 7,211 yards for the 2011 Open but the R&A’s Chief Executive Peter Dawson insisted, “distances haven’t increased since the Open was last here.”

Funny man, the Chief Inspector.

There is more to say about past championships, the Maiden, Lady Astor’s “house”, cross-country golf, blindness and even some tweaks by Martin Ebert for this year’s Open. There is also the question of where Royal St George’s fits in the grand company of Prince’s to its north and Royal Cinque Ports to the south. It’s a remarkable stretch of linksland on the English Channel and I can’t wait for the proceedings to begin.

Whether I fulfill all of the above commitments to go full-wonk remains in some doubt. But the more I re-read from past accounts and while I await answers to a few questions, the more I’m not sure this week’s run-up provides enough time to fully savor Sandwich. There will be interruptions for breaking news given the issues players face to get there and even when they do pass all the tests, we will have plenty to brace for. (Like a lively press session with Phil Mickelson after last week’s griping about a Detroit News story.) Furthermore, the golf after Royal St George’s isn’t too inspiring. So a few topics may get put off to post-event newsletters. If nothing else that’ll be out of desperation to prolong a links and major season wrapping up way too soon.*

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*But there is Women’s Open at Carnoustie to enjoy and after links season, a Ryder Cup that’s shaping up to be a doozy. The Quadrilateral will have you covered.