SANDWICH, England — Well before COVID-19 intervened, the 149th Open figured to have its peculiarities and idiosyncrasies at a course known for its oddities.
Royal St. George’s is the closest venue to London and likely the furthest from the top of anyone’s Open list of courses. That’s not to say the links in the southeast part of England, which was supposed to host the event in 2020 before it was canceled because of the coronavirus, isn’t an excellent test.
But what it lacks in, say, the beauty of Turnberry, the history of St Andrews, the fairness of Muirfield, it makes up for with a quirkiness that is likely unmatched in major championship golf.
Throw in the circumstances surrounding the coronavirus pandemic and we are set for an interesting week, one that will undoubtedly include the off-course challenges for players.
“I’m [fully] vaccinated, but unfortunately I know going over there, it doesn’t matter if you’re vaccinated or not,” said Rickie Fowler, referring to some of the restrictions players will face this week. “There’s definitely some concerns. There’s multiple things that come up as far as if there happens to be a couple people on the plane that test positive when you get there, what happens with that?
“Obviously we’re all going into our own small bubbles, can’t be around other players. It seems like us as players, we’re jumping through some hurdles and dodging bullets and they’re having 32,000 fans a day at the tournament.”
Fowler wasn’t complaining, simply responding to a question about the protocols for The Open that — given what players have been accustomed to, especially lately on the PGA Tour — are relatively strict.
For the first time since World War II, The Open was not played last year. It was the only major championship to be called off. R&A chief Martin Slumbers disclosed that an insurance policy for such a cancellation was invoked rather than play the tournament without spectators and corporate hospitality and sustain the ensuing financial hit to the organization.
That pushed back a lot of plans, including the scheduled 150th playing of The Open this year at the home of golf, St Andrews. That has been delayed a year, too.
So here we are, a year later than expected, at Royal St. George’s, a place known for its odd bounces because of wild mounding — unusual even for a links course. Royal St. George’s will host The Open for the 15th time, ranking it fourth all-time and third among those courses still in the rotation. (St Andrews leads with 29. Prestwick has 24, though it last hosted The Open in 1925.) Royal St. George’s will be just one behind Muirfield.
For the players, the type of golf won’t be the only significant difference. While the United States and the PGA Tour have been lifting COVID-19-related restrictions, the protocols for The Open remain tight.
Although players were not required to quarantine after arriving in the United Kingdom — it was a minimum of five days with multiple COVID tests involved for others — those participating in The Open will not be allowed to visit restaurants, bars or grocery stores.
They are also required to stay in a four-person “bubble” that includes their caddie and two other support personnel, such as a coach, trainer or manager. Beyond that, they are not allowed to visit with other players for meals. Many have had their housing vetted by the R&A. If players elected to stay in a hotel, it must also be approved.
Then there’s contact tracing. As Fowler mentioned, a player who comes in close contact with a person who has contracted COVID-19 could be removed from the tournament. That happened recently to Scotland’s Robert MacIntyre, who was pulled from the Irish Open after it was determined he had been in close contact with someone who had the virus on a flight to Europe.
Two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson withdrew on Sunday because he had been in close contact and was unable to board the charter flight from the John Deere Classic. And Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama elected not to travel to England because he’d have been subject to COVID-19 testing upon arrival. Matsuyama, who tested positive on July 2 and under the PGA Tour’s guidelines would have been cleared to go on Tuesday, is likely to continue to test positive. Had that happened here, he’d have to endure a quarantine which would put his participation in the Olympics in peril.
Place all that against the backdrop of all the spectators who will be allowed on the golf course. Up to 32,000 fans per day will be permitted inside the gates, which is actually a reduction from the 40,000 capacity. Still, The Open will have the most spectators on site at any tournament since the start of the pandemic and the return to golf in June of 2020.
“I’ve been keen to get as many spectators in as possible because I do think that’s what creates atmosphere,” Slumbers said. “And I actually think that’s what makes the players play just a little bit better.”
The players undoubtedly are thrilled to have spectators back, especially after months of tournaments conducted among crickets and birds chirping. But Fowler’s question is a fair one. Thousands of spectators a day when players are being held to rules that have not been this strict since the earliest days of the pandemic?
Brian Harman, who played the John Deere Classic last week and was scheduled to travel on the tournament’s charter flight to England, said he considered skipping The Open due to the restrictions. Ultimately, he doesn’t want to miss an opportunity to win a major championship.
“It’s aggravating,” Harman said. “I’m vaccinated. I got vaccinated as quick as I could, so it’s been really nice to not have to test and not have to worry about it.
“Unfortunately, now that we’re used to the changing scenarios, we’ve gone from different states and we’ve had to deal with different local health officials. So it’s annoying. I think it’s a little silly to let in 32,000 fans but to treat the players differently. That’s the frustrating part. I know the R&A kind of has their hands tied, but we’ll go over there and we’ll make the best of it. But it’ll be nice to come home, too.”
While Fowler, Harman and their peers do not get an exemption if they prove they have been vaccinated, those spectators in Great Britain who show proof of vaccination do not have to take a COVID-19 test. Everyone else is required to have a test within 48 hours of entry, meaning someone who attends multiple days will have to endure multiple tests.
The PGA Tour has never required any testing for its fans.
“You can argue or complain as much as you want, it’s not going to change,” U.S. Open champion Jon Rahm said. “Just take what it is and that’s about it. I feel like a lot of the family restrictions, each player’s team restrictions, it’s a little too much.
“But I understand why they want us to stay at home and why they want to keep the players as safe as possible. It doesn’t change my mind that much. I usually go to a major championship, I’ll be in a house and go to the golf course and come back to the house. I’m not going out and sightseeing or anything else. In that sense, it hasn’t changed.”
Players are allowed to have just one family member attend, and that person is required to endure the quarantine, meaning they’d have to arrive at least five days prior to the start of competition.
That stipulation means many players simply are going with their team.
In the case of Xander Schauffele, who was married on June 26, it means there will be no Open Championship honeymoon.
“I am here by myself so it’s definitely not a honeymoon,” Schauffele said at last week’s Scottish Open. “No offense to anyone here, but I would not choose a place that rains so much to take my honeymoon.
“It’s different. It’s definitely a tight-knit bubble. But for the most part, I brought a few extra books to read, so I’ve been taking the downtime as a positive.”
The PGA Tour has gradually seen an increase in spectators since March. The PGA Championship at Kiawah Island in South Carolina had well more than the first-reported 10,000 spectators per day, which was the number in place for the U.S. Open.
Recent tournaments in Detroit and Connecticut also had good turnouts a year after being forced to play in silence.
“I think as we’ve all lived through this last 15 months, the important thing to me has been that every country has dealt with the situation in their own way,” Slumbers said. “I actually have been to America fairly recently for the Walker Cup [at Seminole in Florida], and it is more advanced in terms of opening up restrictions. It felt rather unusual after what we’ve been used to here.”
The players might say the same thing this week.