Ernie Els stuck to his task and won the Scottish Open at the spectacular but nondescript course at Loch Lomond. Not since Lee Trevino, over 30 years ago, has anyone won the Open Golf Championship after a victory the week before.
One also has to go back some 20 years to find that Tom Watson was the last back-to-back winner of the Open. Els is unlikely to know, far less be concerned about these facts. The Big Easy on this form does not look as if he is bothered about very much at all for no one on this side of the Atlantic, far less on the Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond, could even glimmer in the glare of his talent. But Tiger Woods is only just arrived on this side of the Atlantic.
Els is clearly up for Royal St George's although one might doubt the wisdom of preparing on a course that is about as different from a links as one can get without an especially thorough search somewhere west of Chicago. The Loch Lomond venue for an event that purports to be a 'Scottish Open' is offensive to practically every Scot apart from Colin Montgomerie and the MoneyMen. The game was born, bred and nurtured on the Scottish links lands. With a plethora of great links venues, it is near sinful and certainly irresponsible to stage a so called 'Scottish Open' on a course about as Scottish as apple pie. The fact that the European Tour persists in calling such events 'opens' when they are nothing of the sort is not only an abuse of language, but it is also deceit and the fair trading authorities should do something about it.
Not to detract in any way from Els' triumph, it is perhaps noteworthy that the field was distinguished only by the absence of the big names and made memorable only because of the record-breaking 11 players that withdrew after the close of the second day's play. Each will be required to supply a medical certificate attesting to their infirmity so it will be interesting to see how many of them tee up for final Open qualifying.
The most irritating thing about the Scottish events venue is that it consistently fails to flush out form for the Open. There is clearly an indication about driving and putting, but conjuring up the shot required after an unfortunate bounce, or finding the right sector of the green relative to the hole are not characteristics of the artefact of Loch Lomond parkland. For the pundit punter there is little to go on.
Els is clearly hitting the ball cleanly, hard and straight. Prior to his Scottish open win he was available with Skybet at 12-1, odds surely irresistible. Tiger Woods is top-priced at 3-1 and it is doubtful if he would have been any better even had he failed to win last week in Chicago. Money can be made, however, with each-way betting, particularly with the Tote, which is paying a quarter the odds a place on the first six. Mike Weir was available at 40-1 after his Masters win but since his third place finish in the US Open he has dropped to 25-1, still a good each-way bet. Jim Furyk is also at 25-1 and his Open record is excellent even although he failed to make the cut last year at Muirfield.
Garcia, Harrington and Clarke are also there and you can seek odds on them for top European finisher.
It is Justin Leonard who stands out at 33-1. His record would suggest that he relishes links play and he has been playing well, if not spectacularly of late. Justin Rose is also an Open specialist despite his youth and has to be a good punt at 50-1, as are Paul Casey and Luke Donald. These guys will all win one day and St George's may well be where it all begins. Certainly they are all good for an each-way bet.
The great course at Sandwich requires consideration as well as constraint. It is for this reason that it is hard to see past Woods and Els. Woods has failed to shine in the Open since St Andrews in 2000 but with the emphasis on long iron play at St George's, Woods will be hard to beat. If he brings the same putting touch that he enjoyed at St Andrews and which he demonstrated in the last round at Muirfield when all was lost, then he will surely walk it.
But it is neither the rough nor the deceptive slopes on the St George's greens that will determine the Open - it will be the weather, as it so often has been in the past. The wind at St George's can erode the spirit like nowhere else. When Greg Norman won here in 1993 conditions were as good as for any Open in living memory.
Significantly every big name was in contention on the last day that year and Norman was on the shortest odds with the bookmakers. Sandy Lyle had to contend with a minor zephyr in 1985 when Nicklaus missed the cut. Although not quite as damaging in '81 when Bill Rogers surprisingly won, Nicklaus nevertheless had an 83 in the opening round. 1983 saw what was arguably the worst conditions over three days of any Open when Roger Whitecombe won while the tented village of the day was blown across the Prince's course and much of it ended up in the sea.
We have, of course, heard in the past that Clarke, Harrington, Lawrie and Montgomerie are all at an advantage when the wind blows. This is a chestnut that should be consigned to the bin for the record book does not substantiate the contention. In the wind guile counts and those of us who saw the great Tony Lema follow Tip Anderson's directions playing the ball under the wind at St Andrews in '64 will never forget the lesson. The wind brings out the shotmakers and Tiger Woods is the doyen in that department.
So, what of the weather? The long term forecast is good and if it is a portent of what has happened in the past then Tiger did the right thing - for whatever reason - staying at home in Florida. He may well have climatised and taken time to locate his putting touch. Els, however, may have picked up some lucky white heather at Loch Lomond.
|| 15 - JULY 2003