Things I learned

7 things I learned from players at the 2023 British Open

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HOYLAKE, England — Within the scorecard holder which sits in my back pocket every time I play golf is a piece of paper. On that piece of paper are 13 different numbers, one for each club in my bag. It’s been there since last year, after I went through a relatively painstaking process of hitting 20 shots with each club, on a launch monitor, and averaging out the distances for every club in my bag (minus my putter, of course).

I’ve come to depend on it. I’d probably surrender half the clubs in my bag before that piece of paper. Knowing my exact yardages with every club has legitimately helped me—until last week.

Sneaking in a few rounds in the neighboring links courses around Royal Liverpool with some fellow Golf Digest staffers (we call these "research rounds"), it immediately became clear how worthless that piece of paper was on those courses. For the first time since I jotted those numbers down, I played golf never bothering to consider it.

So much golf, from the PGA Tour and down through the ranks, is a game of execution. Picking a spot, and trying to hit it to that number. Like throwing a dart at the center of a dartboard, your success or failure starts and ends with you alone.

Links golf is different. A certain wind will send a driver across a fairway, rather than down it. Or float it high and away into nowhere. Links courses can turn a 9-iron into a 5-iron, and a 5-iron into the best sand wedge in your bag.

Mastering most golf courses means imposing your will as a golfer onto the layout. Links golf requires a meshing with what’s in front of you, in that current moment. Sometimes that means putting the driver away for good, as Tiger Woods did when he won at Royal Liverpool in 2006. Other times, it may mean calling upon a shot you may have never played before. Never does it require scribbling numbers onto a piece of paper.

“There are several different options to play each golf hole,” Brian Harman said of Royal Liverpool. “If you're into the wind you can hit way more club and send it up in the air to try to stop it, or you can try to finesse something lower. I enjoy the variety of shots you have to hit.”

There’s a famous quote from the legendary British golf writer, Bernard Darwin, that the elements at Hoylake make Royal Liverpool a “breeder of great champions.” The history certainly backs it up, from Walter Hagan to Bobby Jones, to Peter Thompson, Tiger Woods, and Rory McIlroy.

Brian Harman isn’t the name you’d expect to follow om that list. But standing in the rain as the 36 year-old hoisted the claret jug, Hoylake had done it again. Brian Harman was the man who forsook the formulas and mastered his feel instead. It’s the only way to conquer the elements of links golf. And in doing so Harman proved he is, undoubtedly, a great champion.

1. Good putting is boring putting

There was a lot of talk about putting at Royal Liverpool. Scottie Scheffler couldn’t make putts. Neither could Rory McIlroy, or Tommy Fleetwood. Brian Harman could, so he won.

Harman was, indeed, a tremendous putter at Royal Liverpool. But what, exactly, does that mean?

When most of us think about "good putting", we think of draining long putts, and walking in 20-footers for birdie. Harman’s stats tell a different story. He gained 11.57 strokes on the green last week, but the longest putt he dropped all week was just over 30 feet. Rory McIlroy dropped two putts longer than that over those same 72 holes. So did Scheffler, and 29 other players.

Harman’s elite putting performance instead was predicated on making the boring, extraordinary. He didn’t have a three putt. He missed just one putt inside 10 feet, and none inside of five feet. When you do that, no one else can stand a chance.

“I expect to make those putts,” he said.

The problem the rest of us have is that we expect to make the wrong putts. Sure, it’s fun to drop 15 and 20 footers, but missing those doesn't really matter, in the scheme of things. Making more of those putts five and 10 feet. Missing those are the killer of good rounds, and the key to avoiding bad ones.

Good putting doesn't mean dropping bombs. It means making lots of little ones.

2. Know how to ditch spin in a hurry

Every time a golfer hits a ball, it flies into the air with backspin. It’s backspin that keeps the ball in the air. Of course, that’s not what you want when the wind starts gusting, as it did early during Open Championship week.

Killing lots of spin in a hurry strikes me as a pretty essential skill, for all golfers. This week, most pros I talked to said they generally settle on a combination of taking more club, swinging softer, and teeing the ball slightly higher (the ball being propped up in the rough has the same effect).

“When you're trying to hit a low one, you are coming in quite steep. It's easier off a tee, so you're not catching the ground instantly at impact, which will create spin, which into the wind you don't want to do,” said Travis Smyth after his hole-in-one on the 17th hole. “I took an extra club and chipped it.”

Simple enough, and something to keep in mind the next time you find yourself facing a stiff breeze.

3. Distance varies way more than you think

Of course, reducing your spin only mitigates the effects of an into wind shot. Ultimately, if you’re into wind, the ball is going to go shorter. Same with if it’s raining. Watching the pros slog it out on Sunday made me realize that the rest of us have a woeful underappreciation for how much the rain, or wind, will affect our shots.

The reality is a player could be capable of hitting it 320 yards one day, but put that same player in certain elements, and they may struggle to crack 250 yards — as Rory McIlroy proved.

“If it's raining a little heavier, an iron could easily go 20 yards shorter,” Sepp Straka, who finished T-2.

Sure, into the wind, the rest of us will take an extra club. Maybe two. Really, there should be time when we take five extra clubs, or expect a 70-yard decrease on a given drive. It’s uncomfortable to think about, but it’s half the battle when playing in the elements. And it’s something pros don’t think twice about.

4. It’s the external factors that kill you

If you’ve noticed so far, a lot of the things I learned have to do with external factors. All the stuff that’s out there. There are lots of things out there, especially during Opens, and it’s easy to let them screw us up.

Even for pros.

For Emiliano Grillo, it was the wind on the driving range. It was blowing left-to-right most days. Perfect to counteract his draw. Then he stands up on the second hole, and for the first time, finds the wind blowing right-to-left toward out of bounds. That baby draw which was flying straight on the range is about to turn into a hook.

“It's such a bitch. It's so hard to make the switch,” he said. “Standing on the second hole, I bailed out right both days. I probably hit my ball 100 yards right.”

For Max Homa, it was the hassle of moving everything around in the rain.

“The umbrella to the glove to the yardage book to the umbrella, it just gets tiring holding the dang thing and shuffling it around,” he said after I asked him the most difficult part of playing in the rain. “You just feel very out of sorts. It takes a few holes to get going.”

Yet both those players had their best Open Championship finish ever. As did Ben An, who says it was always unlucky bounces that would often send his rounds into a mental, downhill spiral. He said things only started to change recently, when he accepted those will happen and there’s nothing he’ll be able to do about it. The central skill in golf isn’t avoiding them altogether, but sucking them up and moving on when they do happen.

“I realized I usually get beaten by the golf course, not by other players,” he says. “I still have to work very hard on it, but I don’t lose my mind as much as I did before…It’s not perfect, but you have to learn to let it go, like what are you going to do next.”

5. Go short or long of trouble, but never around

Before the week I featured the third hole in a course management video. It’s a quirky layout where an old racetrack used to be. A wall signifying out of bounds cuts in from the right at about 250 yards. During the previous two Opens at Royal Liverpool, players would hit a no-brainer iron miles short of it. This year, for the first time, players had introduced a third strategy: Sending a driver over the out of bounds, over the fairway, into the rough. Amateur Christo Lamprecht, who won the silver medal for low amateur after leading through 18 hole, opted for that strategy on day one. He birdied the hole.

“It makes sense,” Bryson DeChambeau says. “You can take the OB out of play every time that way.”

While some players opted for ‘over it’ strategy the first two days, they abandoned it once the weekend rain came. But this was an interesting insight how they think about avoiding absolute, no-go areas like out of bounds: When trying to avoid a hazard, you need to either hit something short that has no chance of going into the hazard long, or something so long that it has no chance of catching the hazard shot. Don’t flirt with it, and don’t try going around it.

On a slightly separate note, many proponents of a golf ball rollback would point to something like this as evidence the golf ball does need to get rolled back. I’m not unconvinced by that argument, but in this case, I’m just not sure that would tell the entire story.

Being able to go over everything does give this hole different shot options, which is the guiding principle for so much of the rollback debate. And because that ‘go for it’ option only requires a carry of about 260 yards, it’s a feat most long hitters could accomplish even with a persimmon driver—especially with the right wind.

Rather, this strategy exists now and not before because golfers in 2023 understand the statistical value of being in the rough, if it means being closer to the hole.

“There is typically something bad in play, constantly, so you might as well get it as close to the hole as you can,” says Scott Fawcett, the founder of DECADE Golf. “Especially in major championship golf.”

Intentionally trying to hit your ball in the rough is simply not an idea which made sense until we had data that proved why it can. Wherever you may land on the rollback debate, that genie isn’t going going back in the bottle.

6. Fully commit to a feeling that works

As often happens with these articles, I’m quickly approaching my word limit, so a quick note on how much I love that Adrian Otegui put this rehearsal practice backswing move into play because he liked the feeling of it in a practice round. He noticed his backswing getting too short. This helped him commit to the feeling of a full turn, in the final seconds it was time to swing.

A good reminder, that it doesn’t matter how something looks if it helps your swing feels.

7. Trust the process

I find it increasingly weird how, whenever Rory McIlroy gets into major contention and doesn’t win, pundits immediately reach for some mental platitude. It’s always some variation of Rory not being able to handle the pressure, or wanting it too much, or not wanting it enough, or lacking the killer instinct.

But what, exactly, does that mean?

Rory isn’t standing over a golf ball, thinking about how much making this putt would mean to him. None of these guys are, and they shouldn’t be, either. They may feel nervous, but that’s natural and normal. Even when they feel the nerves, they’re not trying to do anything different. “Process” was the word Rory McIlroy kept returning to during his Hoylake victory in 2014. It’s the same process he’s focusing on in 2023.

The truth is, the whole ‘he can’t handle the heat’ mental stuff is just a thing that people say who don’t want to look at the real reasons, so they make up catchy ones instead.

As far as I can see it, in Rory’s case, he’s a very, very good player (obviously). The key reason McIlroy is so good is because of his golf swing. He’s not the biggest guy, but he can hit his ball enormous distances because of how dynamic his golf swing is. But that dynamism also leads to occasional streaky ball-striking patches, especially off the tee. That’s what we saw during the early part of this season. That’s why to some outsiders, Rory can run hot and cold from round to round. It’s worth the trade.

Other times, he’ll struggle with consistent contact on his putting—that’s what happened on Saturday. Every player has different tendencies which pop up from time to time. This is Rory’s.

Occasionally Rory also has a tendency, I think, to play too safe at certain times. Some variation of all of the above can explain most of McIlroy’s recent major near-misses.

The only way to win majors in the modern era is to fire on all cylinders. The fields are just too deep not to, as Brian Harman proved this week. Rory is one of the few exceptions: A player good enough to get himself into contention, even when he’s not firing on all cylinders. Just as Jack Nicklaus did, whose record doesn’t just include 18 major wins, but 19 other major top threes.

It’s not a bad thing, so save the mental game platitudes about Rory. Any minute now things will align, and Rory will get his major. Then many more after that.