The Open 2021: Four holes that could prove decisive on Sunday at Royal St. George’s

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SANDWICH, England — Strictly speaking, each of the 260-odd shots the Open champion hits this week count the same. A three-footer for par on Thursday holds just as much importance as a 350-yard drive on Sunday. There are, however, certain holes in each major championship that seem to take on added importance. Perhaps they produce a round-shifting birdie or bogey (or worse), or maybe they provide a glimpse into a player’s confidence level.

Here’s our educated guess as to which holes might prove decisive on Sunday at Royal St. George’s.

A good, not-right start off 1

First-tee nerves are common to all golfers. Even Tiger Woods is a sufferer. His record of opening tee shots around the world is a catalogue of disasters. And this hole —where Woods famously lost his ball on the first day in 2003—has lived up to its billing as one of the more testing openers in major championship golf. Yes, 56 birdies were made in rounds 1-3. But they were easily outnumbered by the 82 bogeys.

So what’s going on? Well, the presence of maybe half-dozen ball-spotters at driving distance up the right side tells its own story. The rough is amongst the thickest and deepest on the course. Hit it over there and the strong likelihood is that the next shot is going to be played at something not far removed from 90-degrees to the parallel fairway. Never mind the green, finding any kind of short grass has been the primary target for the many unfortunates prone to the “right and going right” tee-shot.

The quality of the lie has determined the level of ambition on those second shots. And third. And even fourth. The really unlucky individuals have attempted the “heave-ho” back to safety only to move the usually almost invisible ball a wee few yards. It’s no coincidence that, even in benign conditions, the heat in this kitchen has led to the field averaging over par on each of the first three days.

An early, exacting test at the fifth

The par-4 fifth is a masterclass in design. Hug the left side of the fairway, flirting with a bunker known as “Sahara,” and you’re rewarded with a flat lie on a plateau with the green in sight. Bill Campbell did this en route to winning all four of his matches at the 1967 Walker Cup, and that narrow sliver of turf is now affectionately known as “Campbell’s Table.” Bail out right, however, and the approach will be considerably longer—and completely blind. Competitors will not, however, have to play their ball out of a shattered beer bottle, as Irishman Harry Bradshaw did in the second round of the 1949 Open. (He didn’t know the rule, and there was no official around; he wound up with a double-bogey 6 and lost an eventual playoff with Bobby Locke.)

This exacting tee shot will serve as an early indicator of whether a player is truly in control of his golf ball. Collin Morikawa made birdie on Friday but has sandwiched it with two bogeys. Louis Oosthuizen has parred it all three days, and Spieth has one bogey, one birdie and a par. It’s played as the second-hardest this week, trailing only the 15th.

It may seem perverse to highlight the par-5 14th, which has been the easiest hole on the course relative to par on each of the first three days. More than 200 birdies have been made, as well as eight eagles. But other things can happen here. Bad, out-of-bounds things (see Marcel Siem on Saturday and Dustin Johnson in the final round a decade ago), as well as good. The course boundary that runs all the way up the right side is one thing. But left is no bargain either, the rough gnarly and thick, as a clearly irritated Rory McIlroy discovered in the third round this week.

The pressure starts on the tee. Clearly, anything leaking right is going to mean a re-load. And missing left brings the ditch that runs across the fairway (hence the hole’s moniker) into play for the hack-out second shot. Lay-up short and suddenly the third shot has to be struck from outside 200 yards from the green. And still the OB lingers in the mind.

Then again, if you are Bryson DeChambeau, it is possible to take advantage of any following wind, go for the 335-yard carry over the ditch and reduce the hole to a drive and a flick. Don’t think even he wasn’t nervous on the tee though.

Just ask Thomas Bjorn about the potential catastrophes possible on the shortest hole on the course. In 2003, the Dane held a three-shot lead with four holes to play in pursuit of his first major championship. After a bogey at the difficult 15th, Bjorn vowed to play safely left of the devilish pin, which sat just above a swale on the right side of the green that sends balls into a bunker.

As soon as he made impact, caddie Billy Foster feared the worst. “I’m screaming no when it’s 50 yards off the tee, you know what’s coming,” he told GOLFTV. “You’ve walked up to the green, and he’s made the cardinal error.” Bjorn left two in the bunker, made double, and lost to Ben Curtis by one.

The R&A have returned to that precarious pin placement for Sunday’s final round. It’s cut seven paces off the right side of the green but in reality, any shot that crosses the flagstick will tumble into Bjorn’s bunker. That tee shot—stay left—with the claret jug in sight, could well serve as the champion’s last, sternest test of nerves.

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