Open conditions often negate length of golf's best players

SOUTHPORT, England -- Of golf's four majors, the Open has evolved into the one where length is not such an overriding key to prosperity. Sure, it helps. But in some cases, it is of no advantage and can even hurt.

For every big-hitting Champion Golfer of the Year such as Tiger Woods, Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson, there is a Ben Curtis, Todd Hamilton or Stewart Cink. The tournament seems to play no favorites when it comes to long or short hitters.

"Length isn't that important,'' said swing instructor Pete Cowen, who works with, among others, defending champion Henrik Stenson and played in two Opens himself at Royal Birkdale. "You can hit a stinger 2-iron that'll reach 240 [yards] and run to 300. If you can do that, why not put it 300 yards down the middle?''

Woods famously decided to hit only one driver during his 2006 Open win at Royal Liverpool. It was risky because he hit mostly irons off tees, attempting to avoid the cavernous fairway pot bunkers. His strategy worked because he was so proficient hitting his longer irons into greens.

There have been a few recent examples of players with modest length off the tee contending or winning. Tom Watson comes immediately to mind. At 59, he nearly won the 2009 Open at Turnberry. Zach Johnson was nowhere near as long as the playoff participants he beat at St. Andrews in 2015, Louis Oosthuizen and Marc Leishman.

Not everyone agrees on the length debate, though.

"I think length is always a factor,'' said Brendan Steele, a two-time PGA Tour winner. "If you're playing a short golf course and you hit it a long way, and you get to hit 4-iron off the tee instead of 3-wood, it still should be an advantage, right?

"But that is one of the things that has struck me about The Open. I've only played two. There are so many times when it's so firm and downwind that an iron is going 300 yards. ... It's more about being strategic. But guys who are long always seem to have an advantage.''

Undoubtedly there will be some tough decisions at Royal Birkdale, where the Open will be played for the 10th time this week, the first since Padraig Harrington's victory in 2008. That year, the weather was mostly rainy and chilly, with strong winds especially during the first two rounds.

The winning score on the par-70 course was 283, 3 over par.

Although not a particularly long course, Birkdale still has enough teeth to make the driver an important club, depending on wind conditions. Then again, Phil Mickelson played a practice round at Royal Birkdale without a driver, putting a 3-iron in his bag and experimenting with the idea of foregoing the longest club.

"You can play as safe as you want, but then your next shot is that much tougher to the green,'' said Bill Haas, whose tie for ninth last year at Royal Troon was his best Open finish. "Can you compete by hitting short irons off tees? Yes. But I remember Louis Oosthuizen when he won at St. Andrews [in 2010]. He hit driver everywhere. Just piped it. He hit sand wedge into every hole. No wonder he won.

"But if he was hitting driver crooked, you'd say why was he hitting the driver? He simply drove it well.''

When The Open returned to Royal Liverpool in 2014 eight years after Woods so effectively played without a driver, Rory McIlroy used his driver to perfection, overwhelming a course made softer by rain.

"Sometimes you can drive it up there on a par-4,'' said Rickie Fowler, who finished second to McIlroy at Royal Liverpool and won the 2015 Scottish Open at Gullane. "It is risk-reward. You take a chance hitting it in a bunker where you might not have an opportunity to get it out.

"At Troon, playing downwind, you had a chance to drive it over some of the burns or bunkers. But if you're in an awkward spot downwind, out of the rough, you don't have the spin to control the ball. I tend to play a little bit more conservative to stay out of bunkers. Those bunkers are very much more of a penalty than they are in the U.S. I don't mind that it potentially takes driver out of play. Is it the right play? Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't. You still have opportunities to use it.''

For the most part, Open venues are not particularly long. Augusta National played to 7,435 yards for the Masters this year. Erin Hills for the U.S. Open was 7,741 yards; and next month's PGA Championship at Quail Hollow will be 7,442 yards.

Meanwhile, the Old Course at St. Andrews played at 7,297 yards and a par-72 in 2015; Troon was 7,190 yards and par-71. Birkdale is 7,156 yards and a par-70. And next year at Carnoustie will be 7,421 yards, the longest of any Open venue -- and generally the toughest regardless of length.

"Those courses are built for the wind,'' Leishman said. "If the wind blows, it doesn't matter how long they are."

Whether it remains firm at Royal Birkdale is the big question at the moment. The forecast for at least the opening round is decidedly different than the balmy, sunny conditions of the early practice rounds.

Considerable rain and some wind is expected into Thursday, and while links courses by their very nature drain well, there will undoubtedly be some softness in the greens and perhaps a less fiery test.

But that is the nature of the links game. The conditions can change by the hour, and the approach to playing the course can vary.

"It's always going to be an advantage to hit it long, but the position you are in should be more important than length off the tee,'' 2006 U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy said. "The Open is just so naturally firm. Very often at the Open, the rough is the better option because you've got the angle.''

Haas, playing in his eighth Open, understands the very simple truth.

"It's one thing to have a game plan,'' he said. "But if you don't execute your game plan, it doesn't matter. If guys are playing well, they're confident and can pull it off. ... I don't know if there is one great answer. It's still about executing, and especially at The Open in those conditions.''