SOUTHPORT, England — Last month’s U.S. Open wasn’t too easy. It wasn’t played on a terrible course. It wasn’t devoid of drama. No, none of those issues were at the root of what was wrong with the year’s second major championship. The problem is that the identity of the event, one which annually ensures that competitors never feel comfortable, was needlessly compromised. By eschewing that tendency, it felt like so many other events. It never felt like a true U.S. Open.
This notion is relevant once again, here at The Open Championship, for quite the opposite reason. That’s because what we’ve seen so far through two rounds on Royal Birkdale epitomizes the identity of this tournament.
Wind gusting to 40 mph, then completely receding without warning? Check. Rain pelting sideways, then subsiding and starting again? Check. Hardened links allowing players to be creative with their shots by using the terrain? Check.
This is the tournament where you want to be curled up under a blanket on the couch, watching the world’s best golfers appear absolutely miserable.
You want to see them in revolving layers of jackets, each failing miserably at repelling the moisture. You want to see caddies scurrying for umbrellas while juggling a half-dozen towels and an entire golf bag. You want to see all of this through a camera lens that remains eternally specked by fresh raindrops.
More than anything, you want to see a challenging test of golf, hosted on a venerable venue, influenced by ever-changing conditions.
In other words, this is everything we could ever want in The Open.
“What people enjoy about the British Open,” Matt Kuchar explained, “is watching the hard wind, the rain, the guys just trying to survive out there.”
“I knew it was a matter of survival,” echoed Adam Scott, who shot a second-round 3-over 74 to make the cut, “and I survived.”
The tournament started Thursday, when Mark O’Meara promptly hit a 60-yard slice out of bounds at 6:30 in the morning. On Friday, Justin Thomas took a few swipes at his ball on the sixth hole, only to declare a lost ball and eventually make quintuple-bogey. Rory McIlroy used a 5-iron at the 162-yard 12th — and came up short.
That doesn’t mean the entire tournament has been one schadenfreudistic display after another. Poor shots have been obviously punished, but great shots are similarly rewarded. There are nine players under par entering the weekend, led by Jordan Spieth, who’s 6-under and leads by 2.
As if to only reinforce the idea that it wasn’t all carnage, Spieth went on a midround tear. He chipped in for par, holed a 35-foot birdie putt, nearly carded an ace and banged in an eagle — and that was just in a six-hole span.
“When the conditions went a little bit down, we could take advantage,” he explained. “And then I got up and down when necessary or saved myself out of pot bunkers, and wherever else I was when the conditions were tough.”
Spieth posted a 1-under 69, one of just a handful of sub-70 second rounds, in the worst of the weather. Unlike most other tournaments — the Masters excluded — there really is no early and late draw at The Open. Instead, there exists a 10-hour procession of groups marching off the first tee, never knowing which kind of luck the golf gods and Mother Nature will conspire to bring.
The reality is, there isn’t just a lack of good draws and bad draws. There’s hardly even a good hour and bad hour. Weather patterns here can be measured in a matter of minutes — and as any Open competitor understands, the weather here always dictates the scoring conditions.
“The conditions last two days, they’re ever-changing around here,” noted O’Meara, who posted an even-par 70 in likely his last Open round.
He then told a story of the conditions for his group on just the 18th hole.
“All of a sudden the temperature dropped probably 10 or 12 degrees minimum, and then the wind kind of switched,” he said. “It was unreal. It went from kind of into the wind off to the right on 18 to all of a sudden downwind, kind of straight downwind on your second shot. So that’s a big change in 10 minutes, but that’s what can happen around here.”
Like any good Open, this week’s tournament has forced players to adapt to these evolving conditions. And like any good Open competitor, these players are trying to find a way to make that adaptation.
“It’s tough to pick a club and commit to it,” McIlroy said.
“You just try and mentally piece your way around,” Ian Poulter explained.
“The difficult part,” Bubba Watson insisted, “is just trusting and believing that you’ve got all the right numbers and the right wind directions.”
That’s what The Open is all about. That’s this tournament’s identity.
So far this week, everything about the festivities at Royal Birkdale have epitomized that ideal.