This was not what Charles Howell had bargained for in rainy old England.
“I would rather the weather be really bad,” the Augusta native said. “You came here for a British Open, so it might as well be one.”
With a forecast that’s generally improving in the middle of the wettest season in the United Kingdom in 100 years, Howell is likely to be a bit disappointed. His best Open Championship finish in eight previous starts came a year ago in Southeast England with gale force winds and stinging rain pelting the field at Royal St. George’s.
It provided a nice chance for Howell to show off the links spirit he gleaned from a practice round with five-time Open champion Tom Watson on his last visit in 2009 on the eve of the 59-year-old’s historic threat at Turnberry.
“He always takes out of play a certain bunker or side on every hole,” Howell said of Watson’s links advice. “It was his course management and his attitude of it. He doesn’t get upset with a bad bounce or the goofy weather. He almost loved the bad bounces, which is weird to say. But it’s gonna happen to everyone. His whole attitude changed. That struck me about him.”
To that end, Howell has tried to embrace the British elements in an attempt to find his own inner Watson. And nothing winnows out the pretenders like foul weather.
“A lot of it is mind-set and knowing what you’re getting into when you come over here,” Howell said. “I think when you come over here you’re hopeful that the weather is going to be good as opposed to expecting and hoping for it to be bad. I almost have the mind-set where I’m disappointed if the sun does come out. I’d rather it be nasty and rainy and windy.”
For the better part of three practice days, Howell got his wish. Even Wednesday morning dawned cold and rainy and remained foul when he teed off at 8 a.m. By the time he finished for lunch, brilliant blue skies let the Brits almost remember that it’s summer.
No amount of sunshine, however, is going to diminish the test that awaits the field when the 141st Open Championship tees off Thursday morning. Lytham is a brute with 206 bunkers and rough so dense you could lose a dog in it, much less a golf ball.
Howell’s first trip to Lytham is unlike his previous Open experiences – even counting Carnoustie in 2007.
“This one is the most, say, normal links I’ve seen,” he said. “You don’t see the ocean at all. You have houses on three sides, which is a bit different for a links course. It’s a lot greener and softer.
“But the rough is really thick. That’s going to be the story this week, I think. It’s not dry and wispy as in years past. There’s going to be a lot more hacking out. In some spots it’s extremely thick. I know they’ve added a ton of bunkers here but it seems to me the rough is just as penal whereas in years past the bunkers were more penal than the rough.”
With those twin hazards at every turn on the course, Howell and everyone has to come up with a precise game plan off the tees.
“Where they put the bunkers you can’t take them all out of play,” he said. “You have to choose what to take out of play. I’ll play a bit more irons and fairway woods off the tee. It’s still bouncy enough where you don’t have to get the ball extremely close to the green and you can still get there with mid-irons into greens. But it’s about driving the ball this week. I think the guy who drives it the best is going to have a chance to win.”
Howell has only missed qualifying for two Opens since his links debut at St. George’s in 2003 (he didn’t play in 2006 at Hoylake or 2010 at St. Andrews). He’d missed four Open cuts in a row before his maturing links game brought his tie for 28th last year.
“I think I’m getting better at it,” he said. “I think in the past I’ve tried to play the golf courses too aggressively. The course this year almost forces you to play more conservative because of the rough and the bunkers. I’m curious to see how it unfolds.”
Unlike many players who try to get to the British Open early to get acclimated, Howell caught the player charter directly from last week’s Midwest PGA Tour stop and arrived early Monday morning.
“It feels like it’s almost a half day short,” he said of his preparation. “I still got here in time to play Monday afternoon. But it takes until Wednesday afternoon to start feeling kind of normal because of the time change. By Thursday I’m fine. I did it last year and I was OK. But it does take a couple days to get your feet underneath you.”
The PGA Tour has yet to adopt the concept of the Saturday finish before an overseas major, which was what the European Tour’s event in Sweden did last month to allow players to be shuttled early to California for the U.S. Open.
It’s a concept that would require a lot of compromise and cooperation from the tour, tournament sponsor and television partners to adopt, but Howell believes it would be embraced by the players.
“I think it would be a welcome thing,” Howell said. “One of the appealing things about the tournament is they’re nice enough to send a charter over. So for the guys who are borderline, I think it would attract a better field because you know you’re going to get here fairly on time and you’re not going to lose your luggage. That’s a big deal. Last thing you want to do is come over here with no luggage.”
The only thing worse, perhaps, is a arriving with a suitcase full of waterproofs and needing to go buy some short sleeve shirts.