[PHOTO: Andrew Redington]
News flash: links golf in the British Isles is different. Different from the norm on the PGA Tour that is. Where most events in the US involve shots that are played mostly through the air, across the pond the bounce and roll of the ball after it lands are typically also parts of the overall equation. So it is that this week’s Genesis Scottish Open at the Renaissance Club on the southern shore of the Firth of Forth is as good as it gets for those looking to combine competitive play with seaside practice before next week’s Open Championship at Royal Liverpool.
Still, within those parameters, many agendas exist. Not every player is arriving in East Lothian for the co-sanctioned PGA Tour/DP World Tour event with the same priorities. The lucky ones have made the trip on the back of some encouraging form. Others are struggling a little. Some haven’t played at all for a couple of weeks. The common factor, though, is that no one really knows with 100 percent certainty how things are going to go in golf’s most unpredictable format. Links golf is a multi-faceted affair, one that asks an often-dizzying array of questions all the way from driver to putter. That is why so many believe golf in the land where the game began is the ultimate test, both mentally and physically.
“Not to diminish the Scottish Open, which is great, but if any of us had to choose one to win in the next two weeks it’s going to be The Open,” says two-time PGA champion Justin Thomas. “So for sure my mind is looking ahead, at least when it comes to prepping for links golf. My best performances in The Open, which admittedly have not been that great, have come after I’ve played in the Scottish Open. So just being here is a good start for me.”
Thomas also noted the importance of simply getting acclimated to the UK overall. “The time-zone change is a big thing for me,” Thomas said. “I’ve been in London for a couple of days before coming here and that has helped. I don’t usually feel this fresh at 4pm on the Monday before the Scottish. Ideally, of course, I’d like to get myself in contention here. Playing under pressure will tell me more about where my game is than anything else.”
Thomas’ obvious uncertainty surely stems from a run of recent form that has been less than encouraging. But at least he has some idea of what to expect. Ryan Fox is one who can’t say the same. The burly New Zealander is here on the back of three weeks at home, dealing with a family bereavement.
“My aim is just to find some form,” Fox said. “I’ve played here a few times though, so I know how to get myself round. I just need to hit shots and get some confidence going. I’m normally pretty good at coming in cold. I went to the PGA [Championship] in May with little golf in my locker. This week will be much the same. On the range, I’ll be looking to control my flights and trajectories. You have to do that in links golf, although not quite as much here as it will be at Hoylake. The height and penetration on my shots will be key there, so I’ll be working on that this week.”
One who has already seen some success over the Tom Doak-designed Renaissance is Aaron Rai, who won the Scottish Open here in 2020. The Englishman, who has been busy establishing himself on the PGA Tour, where he sits 56th on the FedEx Cup points list, might be well aware of the challenges ahead, but he is also cognisant of the fact that absence can make the heart grow unfamiliar.
“I grew up playing a lot of links golf, but I haven’t seen much of that on the PGA Tour,” Rai said. “So this week I’ll be re-learning what I used to know so well. It is such a contrast, in almost every way. The fringes we chip off. The speed of the greens. The style of the greens. Everything is an adjustment.
“What you have here is a lot more choice,” he continues. “I’ve been working hard on my short game for that reason. I’ve hit a lot of shots in the 20 to 40-yard range with everything from a lob wedge to a 6-iron. And they’ve all been the right club at times. There’s a lot of thought required. You have to remain open to almost any possibility around the greens. Especially when the conditions get tough, it’s all about flight control and ‘creating’ the shot.”
Emphasis on less-than-full shots is also where former US Open champion Gary Woodland will be focusing over the coming days.
“It’s nice to get accustomed to the time change and, most importantly, ‘see’ some different shots,” Woodland says. “In America there aren’t many questions to answer. You hit the ball up in the air and it pretty much stops where it lands. That’s not the case here. You need more imagination. You need to get the ball on the ground early and use the slopes. I like to play the ball low. I grew up in the wind. But the short shots over here are different. I’ll be spending a lot of time on shots around the practice green here.”
Then there is the putting. The general consensus is that Old World greens are noticeably slower than those on the PGA Tour. So, yet again, adjustment is required.
“Long lag putts are always key here,” says Max Homa. “I don’t normally find myself putting from 100 feet or so, but I do over here. Everything is just not what I’m used to. Even the texture of the sand is different. So I’m here just because I want to feel more comfortable in a place where you can be hitting a 7-iron 100 yards one minute, then 220 the next. It’s just awkward, as there is always the possibility for bad bounces. I have a good caddie, though. He’s very good at knowing where the ball is likely to end up after it lands. I’ll lean on him a lot.”
Indeed, two themes are developing, both summed up neatly by Thomas.
“The biggest adjustment for me is always around the greens,” he said. “You can’t replicate that until you get here. There is nowhere I can go in Florida to rehearse the chip and pitch shots I’ll be asked to play in the next couple of weeks. Then on the longer shots I also like having the opportunity to use the ground more than I normally do. Which is why I hit a few more 2-irons that usual last week at home. At the end of the day though, it’s still golf.”
Indeed, it is. Only different.