A higher calibre quartet than that which took to the first tee at Royal St George’s at 11.10am on Wednesday morning would be hard to find.
The current top two in the world, Dustin Johnson and Jon Rahm, were joined by former Champion Golfer Phil Mickelson – who lifted the Claret Jug in 2013 – and 2020 US Open winner Bryson DeChambeau for a final tune up before the action gets underway.
Unsurprisingly, their progress was tracked by a large number of spectators and we followed the star-studded line-up down a windy front nine to see how they approached their closing preparations.
TO DRIVE OR NOT TO DRIVE?
DeChambeau spent a sizable portion of his media conference on Tuesday discussing whether his hard-hitting focus on length could lead to success on a links course and said he would “1,000 per cent” consider replicating Tiger Woods’ famed focus on irons off the tee.
The evidence from Wednesday’s practice round suggests he is keeping his options open and the first hole provided a reminder of the perils that could await.
The bunker 357 yards up the first fairway has probably not caught many drives in its time – when built, it was possibly more with a second shot in mind – but DeChambeau found it with a trademark monster drive.
The bonus of the practice round, of course, is another go off the tee and a hybrid landed the world no.6 safely on the fairway – but did see him sacrifice yardage on his illustrious rivals.
All four players opted for both woods and irons off the tee on several occasions as they weigh up their options, with both Rahm and Johnson’s drivers locating rough to the right of the 422-yard par four fifth.
But the bomb squad had earlier shown that brute force can still be profitable in a links environment, comfortably clearing the bunker known as ‘the Himalaya’ on the fourth to locate the ‘Elysian Fields’ beyond and set up approach shots.
Only Mickelson went left of the bunker but the 51-year-old was still able to find the green with a fine second shot – not that finding the green is in itself a guarantee of success…
MASTERING THE CONTOURS
Putting will be pivotal this week and Royal St George’s looks set to offer plenty of challenges in that regard. Indeed, for all the talk about the drive, the time this quartet spent practicing on the greens was notable.
DeChambeau was especially keen to test out various angles, with the player sometimes dubbed ‘the scientist’ making full use of technology – his trusted GCQuad – as part of his precise preparations.
Each player spent plenty of time on a particularly testing fourth green, which features a steep incline, while the distinctive undulations on the ninth were given a thorough going over by Rahm.
The Spaniard was also eager to grab the sand wedge where possible, with several Sandwich greens surrounded by threatening bunkers.
Rahm and Johnson both had several attempts playing out from the bunker at the back of the sixth, a hole aced by Tom Watson in 2011.
KNOWING YOUR ROUGH
On a course where finding rough at some stage appears inevitable, knowing the preferable parts could yet come in handy.
Rahm, in particular, gained an insight on Wednesday. A good lie in the thick stuff on the second allowed him to chip to within ten feet and land what would have been a birdie putt but such an outcome was trickier on the fifth when a wayward tee shot landed close to the spectator’s ropes.
It was a similar story on the seventh, one of two par fives, which features a dog leg left.
Rahm may be less keen to take it on after landing in almost unplayable rough on the left while those who found rough on the right, including Mickelson and Johnson, were able to play out more comfortably.
DeChambeau and Johnson headed in after the ninth and the former will be back out at 9.25am on Thursday to start his bid for the Claret Jug in an intriguing group also containing Jordan Spieth and Branden Grace – who has played with the eventual Champion Golfer in each of the last two Opens.
Johnson joins Will Zalatoris and Justin Rose from 10.20am while in between those two groups, Rahm sets off with two Champion Golfers, holder Shane Lowry and 2010 winner Louis Oosthuizen, at 9.58am.
Mickelson has to wait slightly longer to get his campaign underway, joining Tyrrell Hatton and Kevin Kisner from 2.48pm.