No sooner than the Claret Jug will have been presented to the 150th champion golfer of the year than the clubhouse of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club will be turned into a building site. There was vocal opposition within the club to an extensive redevelopment that will cost £11m but modernisation ultimately won the day. Members must clear their lockers – spare slacks et al – by the time of the autumn meeting. The building will treble in size, primarily on account of underground works.
Fear relates to a potential demolition job on the Old Course itself. The R&A would object to claims it has procrastinated over matters of driving distance but the fact remains golf is yet to properly find a balance between enjoying the athletic prowess of Rory McIlroy and limiting the ease with which the world’s best can overpower historic venues. Many of them, indeed, are unfit for professional competition on the basis of being deemed too short.
St Andrews clings on but the coming days will demonstrate the trickery – largely relating to pin positions – required to keep scoring within the realms of the sensible. Gone are the days whereby rounds of 91 and 88 – see Tom Kidd, 1873 – would be sufficient for Open glory. Kidd claimed £11 for his efforts. Sunday’s champion will pocket $2.5m (£2.09m).
To traditionalists it would be utter sacrilege if rounds in the region of 60 are posted in this major. They will reach for the smelling salts. The forecast for only a gentle breeze has fuelled discussion around this very topic. Could the poor, defenceless Old Course be battered into submission? Good luck with that, insisted the R&A’s chief executive, Martin Slumbers, when asked about his level of fear that an Open competitor could shoot 59.
“We have spent three years getting this golf course to where we are today,” Slumbers said. “The one thing I’ve learned in the last seven years is you need two things to be happening in Open week. One is very skilled green-keeping staff and very hardworking staff. We’re privileged to have that team here.
“The second bit is luck and luck with Mother Nature. I think the golf course is exactly where we want it to be. If you go out there today, it’s a lot firmer than it was yesterday. We’ve been holding the greens back because we had very hot weather early part of this week. We wanted to make sure that the grass was good come Sunday.
“The fairways are firmer than the greens and they’re running really hard. Mother Nature at the moment is not destined to give us any rain and is probably not going to give us as much wind as we like. But we’ve got other ways of being able to set up the golf course. And my philosophy has always been I want to set up the golf course fair, challenging, and let these guys show us how good they are.
“Now, let me make a comment about 59. That is 13-under par around this course. There’s 7,300 yards. It’s got greens that are running at 101/2 to 11. It’s got fairways where the ball is bouncing 50 yards and more if it catches the downslope. Thirteen under par around that, I’ll tell you what, if someone shoots that, I will be the first person on the 18th green to shake their hand because they have played outstanding golf.”
Slumbers’ point is fair. The sight of players cracking drives to within 25 yards of the green at the iconic 17th is one thing but the potential for wild breaks from turf harder than a coffin nail is a live one.
McIlroy compared this tournament week to a game of chess. No player has managed to reach checkmate against the field with more aplomb than Tiger Woods. Yet this looks the latest test of how Woods’s ailing body can handle tournament play rather than a viable opportunity for victory. A third Woods Open success at St Andrews would be the most remarkable of all.
McIlroy’s underlying motivation is twofold. He missed a defence of the Claret Jug here in 2015 because of injury. There is also a desire to win a fifth major before the wait for such a feat – which would tie Seve Ballesteros – rumbles into a ninth year. It would be a preposterous scenario for one so talented. This week there has been a swagger in McIlroy’s step.
Albeit played at a time of year when the venue is more receptive, the Dunhill Links Championship offers some clues as to whom may prevail at St Andrews. Tyrrell Hatton, Danny Willett, Shane Lowry are worthy of respect in that context. Jon Rahm has limited experience on the Old Course but the fairytale of emulating Ballesteros, his compatriot, burns strongly in the heart of the man from northern Spain.
The American challenge will be supposedly spearheaded by Scottie Scheffler, the world No 1, who tied eighth in his Open debut of 12 months ago. Jordan Spieth, who should really have won at St Andrews in 2015, was second to Collin Morikawa at Royal St George’s. Morikawa’s defence of the Claret Jug is as low key as has been evident in recent times, a matter linked in no small part by the all-consuming noise attached to LIV Golf.
There would be stifled laughter should one of the LIV renegades – Dustin Johnson or Louis Oosthuizen seem the most likely – step forward to receive the Claret Jug on Sunday evening. The R&A would never say it, but this is an outcome they would rather avoid for all manner of reasons.
“This week is a celebration of the incredible history of golf’s original championship and the remarkable impact it has had on the sport we all love,” Slumbers said. Admirable in theory, of course, but the business and playing of golf are unrecognisable even from when Woods first prevailed in front of the old clubhouse in 2000. The scale with which modern method can trump historic nuance could send shivers down spines.