For Shane Lowry, the delay to the defence of his 2019 Open title at Royal St George’s has the best of upsides – he has been able to hang on to the Claret Jug for an extra 12 months. It is, of course, a responsible task in its own way, though maybe not as much of one as Paul Larsen, the head greenkeeper at Royal St George’s, has on his hands. He must hand over the same well-nigh perfect 18 holes that he had ready in July of last year.
COVID-19, which caused the Open Championship’s cancellation for only the fourth time in its 150-year history, is the most recent in a series of improbable happenings to have occurred at Royal St. George’s in an Open context. In 1934, for one of the most uncomfortable of tense situations, the late Sir Henry Cotton was 10 shots clear after three rounds, only to start falling apart and looking as if he might not even manage the 83 he needed to scrape home. However, after an outward 40 and three more dropped shots in as many holes coming home, he finally succeeded in getting his act together to hand in a 79. Cotton won by five.
For another extraordinary day in Open history, thousands of fans were in place to watch Tiger Woods teeing off at St George’s in 2003, with a multitude of ball-spotters perfectly positioned to see the world No. 1 safely on his way. The ball was never found.
R&A officialdom widened the first fairway for 2011 though, to me, nothing at Royal St George’s can ever have fooled people more than that charmingly thatched little starter’s box. It has the look of a cosy cottage and tells nothing of the disasters that can strike away the moment you leave behind that homely little scene.
Larsen, who started in his role as head greenkeeper in 2015, is understandably fascinated by his links, and not least in terms of how they have been affected by climate change. “It was like a desert down here in March and April of (2020),” he explains. To put it another way, they had had less rain in that little corner of Kent than in Marrakesh, Morocco.
As luck would have it, though, Royal St George’s owned a clay-based field opposite the club which they were able to transform into a reservoir. It has made a world of difference in terms of keeping the course well and inexpensively hydrated, whilst earning the club many points from Government’s SSSI (Sites of Special Scientific Interest) people. When Larsen came to the club in 2011, the club had never been given a “favourable” mention by that body. Today, in what was the quickest turnaround those environmental officials have ever known, the course was in recovery by 2015 and has since been accorded “favourable” status.
Larsen has welcomed the extra dimension to his job that goes with taking the environmentally friendly route. That he nowadays uses hardly anything in the way of fertiliser has had an amazing effect on the wildlife for a start. “If anyone says anything to you about golf courses not being good for the environment, send them to me,” he suggests.
The course is teeming with more asparagus than ever before. The way things are going, it would not surprise him if there were two crops next year, with the second crop coinciding with Open week. Wild orchids are everywhere, while a visiting ecologist could scarcely contain his excitement when he saw bed straw, bromeliads and yellow rattle thriving in the rough. Apparently, their appearance provides living proof that the club has been doing all the right things. (Yellow rattle was in marked decline in the UK in the 20th century as a result of changes in farming practices.)
Barn owls are now being sighted on a regular basis and, for another species to have been making recent headlines, what of the women professionals? Though the Sandwich links have hosted as renowned a women’s amateur match-play event as the Curtis Cup, they held what was their first women’s professional tournament earlier this year. The women could not have been more complimentary about what lay in wait. “It’s just so special to be the winner at a great and prestigious course,” said Scotland’s Emma Dryburgh, who finished one ahead of Charley Hull and Georgia Hall. “The links were immaculate.”
That event, which was part of the Justin Rose Series, took place in the week before what would have been the Open proper. As for the week of the Open itself, the club held an open of its own. When the Secretary, Tim Checketts, and Larsen first discussed the idea, they thought they might get 30 or 40 members playing at most. Instead, more than 200 signed on and the links were jam-packed on all four days. As in so many of the best of Opens, there were three glorious days followed by a horror.
“The tournaments we had were good prep for us,” said Larsen. “The course had to be as good for members as it would have been for Dustin Johnson and the rest because that’s how I always try to present it.”
Larsen and his men didn’t spend too much time fretting once they heard on 6th April that the Open was not going to happen as scheduled. “To be honest, it was out of most of our minds in the months that followed,” he said. “Our thoughts were focused on staying healthy and on keeping the course in good shape with the handful of men we had in the team at that point. We’d heard rumours that the Open might happen in September but that was never going to work. There wouldn’t have been enough daylight down here.”
There are a few areas of slightly patchy rough which Larsen wants to refine for this coming July, while he will also be freshening up the bases of a handful of bunkers. “There are 25 bunkers which were rebuilt just over four years ago with a view to having them 100 percent right for 2020,” Larsen said. “Now, about four of them are ever-so-slightly past their best but they’re looking good. They’ll be 100 percent after the freshening process.”
As for the greens, to borrow from the SSS1 rating terminology, they are not just “favourable,” but outstandingly so. Everyone has been drooling over them. For this, Larsen gives much of the credit to Dr Chris Healy, a former GP and the current chairman of greens.
You doubt whether any golfer can enjoy what he does more than a happy green keeper and Larsen can tell you why. “Not too many people want to work weekends and the long hours that we do,” he said, “but we know all that when we sign on. The reason we do the job is for the love of it.”
It shows at Royal St George’s – and the watching world should see it for themselves this coming July.
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