Americans could feel right at home at Portrush
July 17, 2019
By Sean Martin, PGATOUR.COM
Inside the PGA TOUR
Players to watch at The Open
PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland – The PGA TOUR schedule is sprinting to the finish. This week’s Open Championship is immediately followed by a World Golf Championship (FedEx St. Jude Invitational) and then one last opportunity, at the Wyndham Championship, to jockey for FedExCup position before the trio of Playoffs events.
For all the talk of this new schedule’s frenetic pace, at least we are past the days when majors overlapped, forcing players to declare their allegiances to one side of the Atlantic. That was the case in 1951, when The Open Championship last visited Royal Portrush. The first Open played outside England or Scotland started just a day after Sam Snead won his third PGA Championship. The Open’s qualifying rounds were taking place when Snead beat Walter Burkemo in the championship match.
Most of the top Americans joined Snead at Oakmont Country Club outside of Pittsburgh. The contingent that traveled to Northern Ireland was so small that an amateur, Frank Stranahan, was its leading man. This was a day when professional golf was still a hardscrabble existence. As an heir to the Champion spark plug fortune, Stranahan never felt pressure to play for a paycheck. He was still one of the world’s best players, finishing second in both the Masters and Open Championship in 1947. He won his second British Amateur the year before playing Royal Portrush.
Just four Americans qualified for the 1951 Open. One of them, Charles Rotar, didn’t need to make the lengthy trip. He was stationed in Frankfurt, Germany, as a sergeant in the U.S. Army. Stranahan was both low amateur and low American, finishing 12th in the championship.
This year’s Open includes an American amateur who earned his spot via qualifying, Brandon Wu, but a lot has changed in six decades. The PGA is now in May (and at stroke play) and trans-Atlantic travel is infinitely easier. Thus, there was no decision to make.
The American contingent over here this week is in the midst of a successful run in the Grand Slam events. Americans have won nine of the last 10 majors – Italian Francesco Molinari’s win at Carnoustie a year ago is the lone exception – and all three this year. Four of those last 10 have been won by Brooks Koepka, most recently at the PGA.
Koepka and his countrymen could find Royal Portrush to their liking as they look to extend the streak. Irish links are known for more dramatic elevation changes than their cousins in England and Scotland. That means many of the holes require an aerial approach. The run-offs surrounding the greens also make recovery more difficult, making it harder for players to scramble their way to a good score.
“I think more than typical Opens that I played, you've really got to ball strike it,” said the most recent American to win a major, U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland. “Not a lot of run-ups, you're going to have to fly it on the greens, which I think sets up pretty good for me.”
Royal Portrush received rain Wednesday, as well, which should allow players to fly shots closer to the hole. The course is playing softer than last year’s crispy test at Carnoustie.Dustin Johnson hits a tee shot during a practice round on Tuesday. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
The biggest decisions may come on the tee. At least seven holes have some degree of dogleg, requiring players to commit to a specific line and distance. Players can be aggressive and cut the corner or lay back with irons. They may pay a high penalty if their tee shot fails to carry onto the fairway, though.
The lusher conditions mean that the rough is thicker than the wispy grass that players saw last year, when Scotland was hit with a record heat wave. In some places, nothing more than a hack-out is possible.
“Depending on the wind, you're going to hit a lot of different clubs on every hole,” said Dustin Johnson. “You have options. You can kind of challenge it and get it down it there if you're driving it well or you can leave it back and play it a little longer hole.”
Rory McIlroy, who shot a course-record 61 at Royal Portrush when he was 16, advocates for a more conservative approach.
"I think the big key this week is just to keep it out of the fairway bunkers and keep it out of the rough, even if you're giving yourself a little longer second shots in," said McIlroy, who ranks third in the FedExCup. "You're able to play this golf course from the fairway. And with the way the rough has grown over the past couple of weeks, you're not going to be able to score hitting it off line."
Darren Clarke, the 2011 Open champion and a Royal Portrush member who will hit the opening shot Thursday as part of the first threesome on the course, said he will be an interested observer this week. He’s curious to watch players pick a strategy.
“You can try and take it on at your peril,” Clarke said about his home course.
Weather and wind will play a part in players’ decision-making. The conditions have an outsized impact on scoring on links courses, so calmer conditions could goad players into being aggressive. Earlier in the week, the weather was reminiscent of a pleasant mid-summer’s day in the Midwest. That changed Wednesday, and tougher conditions could continue when play gets underway. Wind gusts up to 25 mph are expected Thursday. So are showers and “short-lived bursts of heavy rain,” according to The Open’s official forecast.
“I think it's why this course is so well-designed,” noted Justin Thomas, a contributor to the Americans’ latest run, having won the 2017 PGA. “You really can do anything. I mean, even a hole like 1, do you want to hit driver and take it past every bunker or do you want hit 3-wood and kind of fit it in between them or do you want to hit a 4-iron and keep it short? You have the opportunity to do what you want.”
Decisions, decisions. At least players weren’t forced to pick which major to play.