2019 British Open Preview: How the Players Are Prepping for Royal Portrush
Thomas J. Russo, USA Today Sports.
- The 2019 Open Championship takes place at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland.
- This is the first time the British Open will be played at the course in 61 years.
- Jason Sobel spoke with a few of the biggest names headed to the Open and asked how they are preparing for a new course.
It’s been 68 long years since the last – and only other – time Royal Portrush hosted The Open Championship. Max Faulkner bested Antonio Cerda by two strokes that week, names that would undoubtedly stump almost every competitor in this year’s field.
No, the potential Claret Jug contenders aren’t poring over any old video footage to get a sense of the course and how it might play. The truth is, most of them will show up a day or two earlier than other majors, but the prep for a new venue won’t be much more laborious than for any other one.
“I’ve never been to Ireland,” said four-time major champion Brooks Koepka, a surprising admission considering he’s competed in events all over the world. “It doesn’t matter. Spend all your time Monday trying to figure out sightlines. Tuesday, I’m just worried about where the pin location is going to be, where I want to hit from. Wednesday is just kind of a fun thing, see where we’re at. Kind of a mini-test. I only play nine holes every day.”
Koepka’s ability to shrug off any trepidation for the unknown remains on-brand, but it’s also rooted in the fact that, unlike traveling to the country of Ireland, he’s been there, done that.
On each of the last two occasions that major championships were held on courses that haven’t been part of a regular rotation, Koepka has been the winner – in last year’s PGA Championship at Bellerive and the previous year’s U.S. Open at Erin Hills.
Others might not consciously be following his nonchalant blueprint, but they are taking the same approach to playing a new place.
“I’m going to go early and spend a couple of extra days there,” Tony Finau explained. “Mostly to get accustomed to the time difference, but I’m also going to the course. I’ll go out there Saturday and Sunday before. You don’t want to be playing catch-up during the event. You don’t want to be hitting into spots where you’re like, ‘Oh wow, I didn’t realize that was there.’ So, I’m going to catch up on my homework by spending a couple more days there than I would at any other event.”
Jason Day concurred with that approach, adding, “I’ll get there Friday, then practice Saturday and Sunday. A lot of the Open Championship courses, I haven’t played in the past. Now I’m starting to get into a rotation with them, but this one is new for me.”
He does believe he owns a secret weapon of sorts, though, in the form of the man who will be working his fourth tournament for him as caddie.
“I’ve got Steve [Williams] on the bag, and he’s gone there with Tiger [Woods] before the British in some years, so he definitely knows that course,” Day said. “He says it’s short. If it doesn’t blow, the guys will probably play well there. If it does blow, then it makes things very, very difficult. I’m going to go over there and try to work on a few things.”
Experience, though, doesn’t necessarily equate to knowledge.
Keegan Bradley played Royal Portrush back in 2012 at the Irish Open, but his memory remains a bit foggy – for good reason.
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“The weather was so bad,” he recalled. “I have a hard time even remembering the course, because the umbrella was sideways, it was pouring rain, howling wind. But a lot of times when I get there, it kind of comes back to me. I remember it being awesome, but the weather was so violent that I can’t remember specifics. It was probably the worst weather I’ve ever played in.”
Even so, Bradley said getting acquainted – or at least reacquainted — with a venue he doesn’t know too well is a matter of personal preference, and he doesn’t believe extra time will help.
“I’m going to fly Saturday, get in Sunday and Sunday is just like a survive-day,” he continued. “I’m done with the whole getting to majors way-early thing. I always play worse when I do that.”
Again, not everyone feels the same way – and there’s no right or wrong answer.
Six years ago, Phil Mickelson was The Open champion at Muirfield, a course he’d only played in competition once previous time, finishing in a share of 66th place in 2002.
As a player who’s witnessed the extreme highs and lows of success and frustration on links courses, he understands that an extra few days of prep still probably won’t be enough.
“You have to go in early, I think, to see the course and play it in a lot of different winds, because it can play so different,” Mickelson said. “But it’s not easy with links golf because of all the nuances, you really need to have some time on the course.”
A winner on the last two major venues that the current generation of players hadn’t seen before, Koepka knows he won’t need to overwork himself in the days leading up to the first round.
He does, though, have another set of eyes with him which has seen every nook and cranny of this course. His caddie, Ricky Elliott, grew up at Portrush, working at the course and playing it nearly every day during his formative years.
That might be an advantage, as if he needs another one at the big events.
“It will be a little more special, but no added pressure,” Koepka insisted. “I put enough pressure on myself for those events.”