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LORAN SMITH COLUMN: Royal St. George's is a course like none other

Photo by John Millikan

Photo by John Millikan

SANDWICH, England -- Golf's oldest championship had its patented weather validated in the last practice round Wednesday. Players donned sweaters -- a few wore stocking caps -- and kept a wary eye on low, circulating clouds, which confirmed that the Channel Coast of England, when it comes to weather, can rival that of Scotland during the annual competition in July.

The only thing missing was rain, but weekend forecasts call for precipitation for the playing of the 140th Open Championship. For the purists, the conditions are welcomed, and the players had better be prepared. Unfavorable elements will not cause doting British fans to fret -- their greatest objective being that the competition meets expectations.

Weather is but one of the many distinguishing features that identify this championship's uniqueness. No other majors are held in towns of 6,800, which is the population of Sandwich, a village that still bears the scars of World War II, the only time this island nation was not preoccupied with the game of golf.

There are only four roads leading into Sandwich, but come Sunday, there likely will be as many as 10,000 cars crowding into the fields and grounds adjoining the Royal St. George's Golf Club, which first hosted the championship in 1894, five years after Adolph Hitler was born.

Weather always influences total attendance, but the Royal & Ancient Golf Club, which runs the Open each year, generally targets a goal of 150,000 in attendance for the week. This means that, conditions permitting, there likely will be 45,000 hearty and passionate golfing aficionados packing themselves into the Sandwich/St. George's confines.

Sandwich is located 15 miles from the White Cliffs of Dover in an area known as the "Garden of England."

There are fields and farms, where those following the snaking roads of the countryside must often give way to tractors, harvesting machines and lorries -- a contrast to the hills, locks and glens of Scotland. An artist is not as likely to dig his heels in here as he would up north, but you won't find greater hospitality anywhere than in the county of Kent.

Interestingly, the oddsmakers -- and there are many who wager on the outcome (including the media, who, like everyone else, can legally put down a bet at the Open) -- seem to be saying that this has to be the year of Lee Westwood, a reminder that there was a time when sentiment often labeled Colin Montgomerie as the "can't-miss" favorite. This native-born Scot never won the championship of his homeland and is fading into the sunset, never having won a major.

Television documentaries on the eve of the Open reflected a mixed history of those whose success is linked with exalted championship achievement -- Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson, Tiger Woods and Nick Faldo -- against the solemn backdrop of those who had a tragic story, such as Seve Ballesteros, whose greatness is now but a memory.

For three decades, the Open was absent from Sandwich, which returned to the rota in 1981. After hoisting the Claret Jug, Bill Rogers traveled the world at the behest of Mark McCormack of International Management Group, suffered burnout, and made an early departure from the tour. Sandy Lyle, homegrown, won here in 1985, although he seemed inclined to give the trophy away, floundering around in a sand trap on the last hole on Sunday.

When Greg Norman won here in 1993, he played flawlessly and complimented himself at the press conference.

"I was in awe of myself today," he said.

Never has a sweeter swing visited the winner's circle as infrequently as Norman's. You would have thought that he would have won a dozen majors.

Ben Curtis came here in 2003 for golf and sightseeing with his fiancee but wound up winning the tournament. "One and done" may be the storyline of his majors career. Royal St. George's, lately, has not been inclined to anoint favorites, and for those it smiles on, fleeting careers seem to follow.