British Open back in a bubble after COVID-19 cancellation

As tradition goes at the British Open, it might feel as though nothing has changed.

Shane Lowry, a popular champion on Irish soil at Royal Portrush, returns the silver claret upon his arrival Monday at Royal St. George’s in England for a ceremonial start to the 149th edition of golf’s oldest championship. It’s like clockwork, with one exception:

The British Open is one year behind.

Strange as it was for the Masters to be played amid autumn hues of November, and for the U.S. Open to be played in September for the first time in nearly a century, the biggest fallout in golf last year from the COVID-19 pandemic was the British Open not being played at all.

Now it’s back, though not quite to normal.

It might look that way with the British Open allowing 32,000 spectators a day to roam the expansive links off Sandwich Bay, just up the coast from the English Channel. Major championship golf hasn’t seen a crowd that large since Portrush two summers ago.

“I’m keen to get as many spectators in as possible because I do think that’s what creates the atmosphere,” said Martin Slumbers, chief executive of the R&A. “And I think actually it’s what makes the players play just a little bit better.”

Off the course? That might be a different story for them.

The players will be confined to a strict bubble, which for PGA Tour regulars will feel like a step back in time.

Under R&A protocols, players are allowed a core group of only four people. That includes the player and caddie. The other two chosen have to be a coach, a trainer or other physical support staff, a family member or a translator. Family members, such as a spouse, are not exempt from U.K. quarantine laws. The others are.

That means Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth can’t share a house as they often do. It means no trips to restaurants or grocery stores, much less a pub. Players are to avoid mixing with the general public, except for those 32,000 fans behind the ropes.

“I feel like a lot of the family restrictions, each player’s team restrictions, it’s a little too much,” U.S. Open champion Jon Rahm said. “But I understand why they want us to stay at home and why they want to keep the players as safe as possible.

“It’s the rules they put up, and we just have to deal with it and follow them.”

It’s a big change for the top players who have spent most of their time in America. COVID-19 testing on the PGA Tour is no longer required for fully vaccinated players, and testing at tournaments will end by the time they get home.

“It seems like us as players, we’re jumping through some hurdles and dodging bullets and they’re having 32,000 fans a day at the tournament, so I don’t know,” Rickie Fowler said. “I can’t really answer questions clearly with all that going on.”

Kevin Na withdrew because of international travel requirements. Three players from Asian countries have withdrawn to concentrate on the Olympics at the end of the month.

“Look, it’s one week,” PGA champion Phil Mickelson said. “It’s a major championship and let’s just do what it takes to be able to compete.”

There also is plenty uncertainty when it comes to Royal St. George’s, starting with a question that never has a reliable answer: Where exactly is the ball going to bounce?

The fairways have so many humps that shots landing in the middle can bounce left or right. That’s what led Greg Norman to say ahead of the 1993 British Open, “I’d swear the Royal Air Force used a couple of the fairways for bombing runs.”

And then he shot all rounds in the 60s to win and changed his tune, describing a British Open at Royal St. George’s as the “world championship of imagination.”

Royal St. George’s was the first course in England to host the British Open in 1894, and this will be the 15th time it has the Open, fourth on the list behind St. Andrews (29), Prestwick (24) and Muirfield (16), all of those links in Scotland.

The terrain is so lumpy that Justin Rose once referred to it as “almost playing on the surface of the moon.” It can get aggravating, and it’s like that for everyone.

“You just pack your patience and understand that it’s the same for everyone, and the good and the bad bounces should all level out over 72 holes,” Rory McIlroy said.

At least it’s being played, and even Lowry is eager for that, even if it means giving back the jug. He kept it for two years, the longest of any British Open champion since Richard Burton. He won in 1939, and then World War II canceled the Open until 1946.

Lowry said the jug traveled well, poured well and even picked up a few dings he had repaired.

And now it’s up for grabs again. Darren Clarke won the last time at Royal St. George’s in 2011 at age 42 having not contended in a major in 10 years. Ben Curtis won the time before that in 2003 having never played in a major.

Rahm will try to become only the seventh player to win the U.S. Open and British Open in the same year, and the first since Tiger Woods in 2000. Louis Oosthuizen will try to avoid joining Ernie Els as the first player since then to be runner-up in three straight majors.

No matter how many restrictions are in place for the players, someone will be holding the claret jug on Sunday. It probably will be presented to him by someone wearing gloves.

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