50 Players Break Par
British Open 2021: Royal St. George's gave up several good scores early and fewer later, a familiar pattern at the seaside
SANDWICH, England — It wasn’t quite the classic “game of two halves,” the phrase that doubles as one of the hoariest clichés in soccer. And it certainly wasn’t the equivalent of the 2010 Open’s second day, when, after a relatively calm morning, those playing in the afternoon were all but blown away. But, with a few noteworthy exceptions led by the afternoon 66s shot by former U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson and Benjamin Hebert, there can be no doubt that a morning tee-time in this 149th Open Championship at Royal St. George’s brought with it a significant advantage.
By close of play, just under 50 of the 156-man field had broken the par of 70, the average score for the day a fraction less than 71. The easiest hole relative to par was the 547-yard par-5 14th, which played downwind and averaged just over 4.5. The most difficult hole was the 496-yard 15th, where the average score was just under 4.5.
Of those players in red figures, 34 hit drives off the first tee before noon. As is normally the case with U.K. courses located within touching distance of an ocean—and when the wind is blowing—the fairways and greens are prone to firming up as the day progresses. Generally speaking, this makes scoring—or at least scoring well—more difficult.
As the numbers indicate, that was indeed the case on day one of the game’s oldest major. Those asked to rise from their beds earlier than they might have ideally wished benefitted from the inconvenience.
“I would say if anything just a little bit of softness,” said Jordan Spieth of the course in the immediate aftermath of taking 65 shots to get round, the first of which was hit at 9:25 a.m. “I kind of got away with a couple tee shots in the first cut that maybe if it was firmer may have worked their way just into the fescue. It's a course where you have so much undulation in the fairways that if it gets firmer it gets very bounce dependent.
“Yes, the wind is up, and the pins are on knobs and crowns,” he continued. “But they put a few pins in some really fun spots for us today. You could get at them in some bowls. If you hit some wedges you could feed it in. But that's only a few of the holes. The rest of them, the pins are in some of the more difficult locations.”
Sergio Garcia, who shot 68 after teeing off at 10:31 a.m., was another beneficiary. Which is not to say he felt the course was playing anywhere close to easy.
“I'm actually quite impressed how good the scoring has been,” said the Spaniard. “Obviously the course, it's a little bit softer because of the rain that we had, but it was quite windy out there. There were a lot of tough holes. There were a lot of holes that you needed to hit very good drives and good long irons into the greens. The guys are obviously playing great.”
Ah, but how did things compare with past Opens here at Royal St. George’s? Averages for each round in 1985 are unavailable, but the mean score for the week was 74.29. Eight years later, the average score on day four was 70.54. The week’s average was 71.56.
In 2003, the opening day saw that average soar to 76.50. The second round was just over a shot easier at 75.15, the third easier again at 72.57, before the final day saw an average of 72.88. Average for the week was an eye-watering 74.82.
In the most recent Open here, the first-round average of 72.03, almost a shot higher than today. Day 2 was harder, 72.97. Day 3 was the most difficult at 74.69. And the final-round average was 73.60. For the week, the average was almost exactly 73.
Looking at the last four Opens, the figures hint at what we can expect over the coming days. At Royal Troon in 2016, 50 players broke par in the opening round. That number went down quickly though, to 20, 13 and 21 at the conclusion of subsequent rounds.
In 2017 at Royal Birkdale, 39 men broke par on Day 1; only eight men did the same 24 hours later.
Carnoustie in 2018 saw a different pattern emerge. Thirty-one players shot under par on Day 1; 38 did likewise on Day 2; then 43 did the same on Day 3. Clearly fed up with that nonsense, the R&A stiffened things up for the final round. That day, only 14 players broke par.
The bottom line? Don’t be fooled by anything we’ve seen today. Given the weather forecast, Royal St. George’s is going to get firmer and faster. And, likely as not, more difficult.