Sandwich ready to be main course
Daunting dunes, bottomless bunkers, withering winds, scorching sun, ramrod rain, vast views, clamouring crowds, 156 hopefuls...and one lucky man clutching a Claret Jug on Sunday.
The world of golf will descend on a small corner of Kent this week for the 140th Open Championship at Royal St George's.
The competition for European, if not world, golf's most cherished prize is never without drama, be it misfortune, triumph, weather woes, fallen heroes, shock winners or old favourites giving it a last charge.
The tale will have added spice in Sandwich as we wait to see how a new young superstar fares. Rory McIlroy is the new face of golf in the post-Tiger Woods era. For the 22-year-old Northern Irishman, the attention will be intense.
After McIlroy's dominant US Open win, people likened him to Woods. Some were already looking at Jack Nicklaus's record of 18 majors. A bit premature maybe, though Nicklaus himself says he doesn't see McIlroy as a one-hit wonder.
Statistics might count against him this week - the last player to claim consecutive US Open/Open triumphs before Woods in 2000 was Tom Watson in 1982. But McIlroy shattered a host of records at Congressional last month and is the talk of the tournament.
"McIlroy looks to have a very old head on his young shoulders," said BBC golf commentator Peter Alliss. "It will be interesting to see how he deals with it, but I think if he's in the top 10 he will have done very well, although obviously it wouldn't surprise me if he won it."
Royal St George's, just 80 miles from the centre of London, was opened in 1887 and was the first course outside Scotland to host the Open, in 1894.
Taking the scenic route through the Garden of England, it lays hidden at the end of winding Kentish lanes on flat stretch of the eastern coast. Unlike some other Open venues, there isn't the sweeping vista of the course laid out before as you approach. Instead, like the holes lurking among the undulating dunes, it remains hidden until you are upon it.
But the moment you see the green stands and famous yellow scoreboard above the 18th green that familiar feeling of the British sporting summer spreads over you.
The stand and scoreboard on the 18th green at Royal St George's. Photo: AFP
Entering the course, you pass a row of pictures bringing to life the late, great Seve Ballesteros' air-punching Open celebration in 1984.
Memories came flooding back as I recalled myself as a golf-mad youngster sprinting alongside the Spaniard's golf buggy to capture his autograph when the Open was here in 1985.
"I still get the same buzz when I sweep into an Open venue, there is always such a wonderful air around all the various courses it is played at," said the 80-year-old Alliss, who will be commentating on his 51st Open this week.
Royal St George's head professional Andrew Brooks added: "There's so much kit and acres of tentage and people from all over the world. The build-up has been going on since mid April and to see it come to fruition is just fabulous. To finally hear the sound of cheering and applause will be fantastic."
Notable for its male-only membership and alumni that includes James Bond author Ian Fleming, Royal St George's is quintessentially old English, but the winners down the years have a very international flavour.
Little-known American Ben Curtis took advantage of Dane Thomas Bjorn's late collapse to triumph in 2003. Australian icon Greg Norman hunted down Nick Faldo with a final-round 64 to win 10 years before.
Scotland's Sandy Lyle pipped the late American Payne Stewart to win his first major in 1985 and American Bill Rogers won in 1981. In fact, an Englishman hasn't won the Open at Sandwich since Reg Whitcombe in 1938. Nor, for that matter, has one won since Faldo at Muirfield in 1992.
But there are two Englishmen - Luke Donald and Lee Westwood - flying high at the top of the world rankings, both with very strong claims on a maiden major title this week. Donald reinforced his position as world number one with victory in the Scottish Open at Castle Stuart on Sunday. To a certain extent he has done McIlroy a favour by deflecting some of the heat, and is the first Englishman since Faldo in 1993 to go into the Open as world number one.
Second-ranked Westwood, meanwhile, has been hammering on the door for a few years, with five top threes in his last seven majors. The 38-year-old must be bored rigid of discussing when he might win a major. But Royal St George's might just play into his hands - nine of the 13 previous champions have been first-time Open winners, the most for any major venue hosting more than 10 majors.
"He just needs to play well and have good luck when he needs it," said Alliss.
Like all links courses, the wind and weather will be key this week, especially as many shots are hit blind over sandhills, mounds and towering bunkers. In 2003, a hot summer led to dry, bouncy conditions with balls shooting off the hog-back fairways into brutal rough. Woods lost his ball after catching the thick stuff on his very first hole.
Rory McIlroy is bidding to become the youngest Open champion since 1893. Photo: Getty
This year a number of fairways have been widened, while recent rain has softened the landing areas. But the 7,211 yard layout is playing 105 yards longer and has been reduced from a par 71 to a par 70. Eight years ago, only Curtis finished under par, which makes Norman's 64 even more remarkable.
"It is certainly not target golf," said Alliss. "If the wind blows they will have to use their imagination and conjure up shots they've never played before."
With eight of last nine major champions all capturing their first Grand Slam title, golf is edging into a new era. And it may be that the quirky nature of Royal St George's puts on hold McIlroy's coronation as the new king, or Donald's affirmation of his statistical supremacy.
"Certain factors have to come into the equation - play well, keep your nerve, control your feelings," said Alliss. "Sometimes these go unnoticed as the modern teaching pros say it's all down to technique and a swing that repeats under pressure. But this creates its own demons.
"It could be as simple as luck with starting times. Sometimes it's a blessing if you're off at 8am and the weather deteriorates later or vice versa.
"Anyone can win and anyone can lose. You could pick out 50 if it's their turn."
"Of course, England will be hoping it gets a new 007 this week."
Whatever the outcome, Royal St George's has been granted a license to thrill this week.