By: Robbie Vogel
The Open Championship ranks as my favorite tournament of the year, for reasons detailed here. During the final round, while wind and rain ravaged Royal Portrush and triple-digit RealFeel temperatures blanketed Boston, I was compelled to jot a few notes down from the safety of my air-conditioned living room. On the surface, it wasn’t a particularly compelling finale, as Shane Lowry coasted to his first major victory. But looking deeper into it, and considering the venue, weather, leaderboard shifts, and assorted oddities, there was enough to satisfy most golf fans. Let’s dive in.
On Royal Portrush, and links golf in general
- On a roll. At Portrush, and many other links layouts, the green’s surrounding slopes create so much roll and rebound that you can hear the crowd’s anticipation when a ball lands in a certain area, because they know it’s got 50 feet left on its journey. It’s the complete opposite of the aerial American style of golf and serves to heighten the viewing experience for those on the ground and watching at home.
- Getting comfy. Of the three majors that rotate venues, the Open is by far the most fascinating when it comes to getting familiar with the course. Everyone loves the Masters in part because we know Augusta so well, and each hole has its own distinct personality. Some are easy, a must-birdie. Some demand a perfectly executed drive, or an approach to a certain tier of the green. And some, like 11, ask you to just hold on and try to escape with a par. Over four days of watching The Open Championship, viewers get familiar with at least a handful of holes, particularly as these British courses generally offer holes that are easy to distinguish at first sight. While most US Open and PGA Championship courses test players with a succession of long, narrow par-4s with high rough, the Open presents new challenges that whet viewers’ appetites. Witness the endless discussion about the OB stakes bracketing the first fairway, the driveable 5th, the new and interesting 7th & 8th, the must-birdie 12th, the calamitous and cliff-hugging 16th, and the potentially driveable 17th. There’s nothing like traveling to a new place and getting comfortable with your surroundings–creating a sense of home in an unfamiliar place. By the end of this championship, viewers can talk intelligently about a handful of golf holes that they may have never laid eyes on before this week, and I think that’s special.
- Wet, wild, and wonderful. The Open is the only tournament where bad weather is good weather. Judging by the reactions of Golf Twitter and the glamor shots of players and fans battling sideways rain, you’d think Northern Ireland had been blighted with a generational drought and hadn’t felt a breath of wind since the Troubles ended. At any other tournament, a final day full of swirling rain and wind might produce an undeserving champion, someone from back in the pack who posted a score before the weather and then watched the rest of the field disintegrate. But at the Open, with its fickle weather and British “grin and bear it” attitude, the sheeting rain is seen as a blessing and a true test to determine the most worthy champion.
- Remember, remember the fifth. After four straight bogeys, Brooks Koepka came to the driveable fifth and put his tee shot to eight feet for an easy eagle. JB Holmes, who also possesses obscene length off the tee, hit a nearly identical spot in the fairway, but his ball skittered past the green on the left, up a hill, and some forty feet away from the green, sending the caddies in the group in front scrambling to move bags out of the way of the approaching ball. Earlier in the day, noted singles-hitter Matt Kuchar attempted to drive the green, and his ball got a vicious kick off the huge center-fairway hump that guards the front of the putting surface and skittered over the green and into the long grass of the hazard area like a frightened rabbit. The vagaries of short grass and undulation make that hole a perfect risk-reward challenge, with a dash of luck thrown in to keep everyone on the edge of their seats.
On Shane Lowry, a deserving champion
- Irish eyes. If you enjoy sports as human interest, there isn’t much wrong with watching Lowry, an Irishman who won his country’s national championship as an amateur in 2009, shouldering the wind, rain, and a nation’s sporting hopes as he rolls through Royal Portrush.
- Between the mayo and the mustard. Lowry’s first tee shot was the most important shot of his life. There’s OB on both sides, and as the announcer said about Fleetwood’s shot: “Once it gets outside this grandstand it’s going to hit about a 30-mile-per-hour wall of wind.” We saw utter disasters on the first from Fowler, JB, and others, and Lowry hit a very relatable yank-pull-smother-hook-”GET DOWN” special that burrowed into the rough left of the fairway. Safe, barely.
- Tough start. The first hole for the final group brought more drama than any other point in the round. Lowry went from left rough to the greenside bunker, then left himself a testy 6-footer for par, while Fleetwood had inside 10 feet for birdie. We could have seen a two- or three-shot swing right off the bat. Instead, Fleetwood pushed his try right (which would become a theme on the day) and Lowry coolly slotted home for five (again, typical of his efforts on the day). The drama essentially ended at that point.
- Chippin’ and grinnin’. Lowry the Irishman aced this rain-soaked test. His ball barely rose above the crests of the dunes, darting from tee to fairway to green in a series of low, bullet fades and well-controlled hops and trundles. If you watched this tournament for any span of 15 minutes, you’ll have heard that Graeme McDowell lauded Lowry’s chipping as among the best he’s ever seen, and it’s true. But more than simply good, Lowry’s chipping is downright linksy. While other players attempt those Americanized two-hop-and-stop pitches that play so well on TPCs across the country, Lowry demonstrated an uncanny ability to judge the distance and roll out of Portrush’s undulating greens. He played everything from inside 50 yards like an aerial putt, imparting barely any backspin and trusting his touch and judgment to guide his approaches unerringly within five feet. It’s refreshing to watch, since most weekend hackers are unable to pull off those spin-skip-stop shots that we see every weekend. Lowry’s playing a game with which we’re familiar, yet doing it at an incredibly high level.
On Shane Lowry’s vanquished foes
- Bruce Cupcake. Brooks Koepka started bogey-bogey-bogey, and yet we still saw all of his shots on the fourth hole. Perhaps it’s a sign that he’s finally getting the kind of respect a four-time major champion deserves. Unfortunately, the spotlight illuminates mistakes just as brightly as triumphs.
- Brooks’s struggles show the truth in that most ancient of adages: “golf is hard.” Here’s a guy who has pointedly said that he lives for major championships, and only really tries when the sport’s four biggest (and most difficult) events come around. His scoring average in majors versus non-majors is ridiculous, as is his talent. It just shows how difficult it is to consistently outperform most of the field in these events.
- Of course, it can’t be easy to play world-class golf when your playing partner takes several minutes to hit a shot, only to send foul ball after foul ball into the gorse, hay, bush, ferns, and all manner of British hazards that certainly don’t exist in rural Kentucky. Hopefully, the rain and cooler temperatures are at least keeping JB’s legendary body odor at bay.
- Westwood Island. While Lowry made a mess of the first, Lee Westwood buried a chip for birdie at 3 after making birdie at the second, and it looked like the barrel-chested spokesman for the world’s brownest parcel carrying service might be inching towards his long-awaited first major. And according to some pundits, his day had arrived at last:
- OB Holmes. JB Holmes’s effort on the first tee was incredibly on brand. Koepka’s ball had come to rest in the rough, the starter announced Holmes’s name, and the camera cut to JB. Although the Kentuckian had had an entire day to decide on a club, Holmes remained at his bag, indecisive. Finally, he chose one, then commenced his pre-shot routine, replete with practice swings, visualizations, and more rehearsals than a Southern Baptist Christmas pageant. He took SIXTY TWO seconds to hit from the time he was introduced, then proceeded to duck-hook it off the planet. Holmes coasted to a stress-free 87.
- RIP Tommy Lee. If your last name ends in -wood, you can’t putt. That’s just a scientific fact.
Various Odds and Ends
- Rolling Portrush. Royal Portrush looks like so much fun to play. Many links courses present a wealth of options, but Portrush does so with the added bonus of devilish natural undulations, elevation changes, and dunes. Bunkers (pot and otherwise) play some role, but the topsy-turvy fairways and greenside mounding provides the main test, and allows for some crazy post-landing ball movement.
- Don’t bet on it. On Saturday night, I perused the leaderboard and made a few small wagers on players who I thought had a chance of putting up a good number and climbing inside the top five. I went for two elite ballstrikers – Henrik Stenson and Xander Schauffele. Each would only have needed to post a round of 1- or 2-under to give themselves a chance. What happened instead?
- Covering the coverage. Although we shouldn’t have to commend this sort of effort in the thick of a major championship Sunday, NBC’s broadcast of The Open has actually delivered: