There are blue skies over Royal St George’s today. The sun is out, there’s a wee breeze but nothing to scare the world’s top golfers. The larks are chirping. A perfect day for golf.
It wasn’t that way 10 years ago on the southern edge of the Garden of England when the world's best began the third round, yet Rickie Fowler shot a Saturday score stands as one of the best rounds ever recorded at Royal St George's.
We’re used to low rounds in good weather in links golf. We’ve seen a few over the first 36 holes of the 149th Open Championship. Give the world’s best players ideal conditions and they’ll take any course apart, even a quirky, quintessential links like St George’s. Perhaps the measure of a player, however, is how he or she performs when the wind is coming in sideways, and lashing rain is testing the quality of even the most expensive rain wear.
That was the case this Saturday morning 10 years ago. The larks weren’t chirping. The only winged creatures was a flock of pterodactyls seen hovering over the English Channel.
The almighty might be smiling in heaven today. Not in 2011. The golfing god was in a foul mood. No way was any player in the 139th Open going to tear up the Sandwich links.
How difficult were the conditions?
“It was tough. …There was a moment when Bubba (Watson) and I looked at each other and started laughing,” said Jason Day, who returned a six-over-par 76.
“We were talking to fans and asking, ‘Why are y’all out here? Why aren’t you watching on TV?’ They love the sport that much they’re out here cheering us on.” said Watson, who shot 74.
Even links specialist Paul Lawrie couldn’t believe he had a gallery. The 1999 champion shot 81.
“There were 40 or 50 people walking with us, and I said to them: ‘You’re just mental.’ I don’t understand that at all," Lawrie said. "I’m getting paid. I’ve got to be here.”
Stewart Cink, champion golfer of the year in 2009, returned a 77. He could think of only one other day in his Open career with worst conditions.
“This week has been full of tough conditions, but today, I’ve only seen this one time in my life, a tougher day, and that was Muirfield in 2002.”
Of the 71 players who made the cut, 67 shot over par. Anthony Kim matched par, while Fowler, Dustin Johnson and Darren Clarke were the only players to break par. Clarke posted a 69, Fowler and Johnson shot 68s. Fowler’s was the better of the two by far. He teed off with Rory McIlroy at 12:36 in the worst of the conditions. Clarke went out at 3:05 pm, while Johnson started 50 minutes earlier. They got the best of the afternoon conditions, especially Clarke.
Fowler took inspiration from five-time champion Tom Watson. He teed off at 10:30 in the 10th group and returned a 72, about five strokes better than the average score for the early starters. Watson looked in his element.
“(This weather) can tear you up and spit you out," Watson said. "When conditions are bothersome you just try to keep grips dry, keep your wits about you, and go about your business to try and make par. Par is a great score out there.”
Fowler, playing in just his second Open, did just that with the round of the day, arguably the round of the tournament. Paying alongside Rory McIlroy, the 22-year-old matched par for the front nine, when the weather was most fearsome. He then managed three birdies and just one dropped shot on the back nine to leap from T19 overnight to joint fourth. And McIlroy? He just couldn’t keep pace. He shot 74.
“It was awesome out there,” Fowler said. “I felt very in control of my game. … Given the situation and the tournament, where I’m at in my career, that’s probably the worst conditions I’ve played in and the best I’ve played in those conditions.”
It seemed to mark Fowler out as “mucker” like Open specialist Watson. Ironically, Fowler finished second to McIlroy at Royal Liverpool in 2014, one of three top 10s in the only major that really matters. Only time will tell if he ever gets his hands on the auld claret jug, but he’ll remember the day when he scorched Royal St George’s for the rest of his life. It is one of the best rounds ever recorded in the 15 Opens held on the links of Sandwich.
#JustSaying: “Everything was wet. I had eight towels in my bag.” Ryan Moore, who shot 76