British Open ready for 'emotional' return in front of 32,000 fans
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Sandwich (United Kingdom) (AFP) –
The British Open makes an eagerly-anticipated return on Thursday after a two-year hiatus caused by the coronavirus pandemic with Englishman Richard Bland set to fire the first tee shot at Royal St. George's in Sandwich, Kent.
It is the 149th edition of golf's oldest major championship which was cancelled last year for the first time since 1945.
Twelve months on and there will be up to 32,000 fans a day on the course, but there remains a cloud cast by Covid-19 restrictions over the tournament.
Players have to operate in bubbles limited to four people with their team and cannot go to bars, restaurants or supermarkets during the week of the event.
Chief executive of tournament organisers the R&A, Martin Slumbers, admitted on Wednesday it is "probably inevitable" that such strict protocols will result in issues with players at risk of disqualification for breaching the rules.
A total of 13 players withdrew from the Open before the start of play as reigning Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama and 2015 Open champion Zach Johnson tested positive for coronavirus, while two-time major champion Bubba Watson was identified as a close contact of a positive case.
Tiger Woods is another noticeable absentee as he recovers from the multiple leg fractures he suffered in a high-speed car crash in February.
However, a stellar cast of the game's great and good will be present for the final major of the year.
"After such a difficult time in the last year or so for the whole world, I have to admit we are relieved, thrilled, and a little bit emotional in being able to get to stage the Open once again," said Slumbers.
"It has been quite a challenge being able to get to this point and we're under no illusions of the complexity of the problems that are caused by the pandemic, specifically when you're trying to stage a global sporting event with players from 27 different countries and bringing them all into the country."
The Masters, US PGA Championship and US Open overcame the difficulties caused by the pandemic by moving from their traditional places in the golfing calendar to later in 2020.
That option was ruled out for the British Open based on a lack of daylight later in the year, while Slumbers also highlighted that it would have placed unreasonable demands on the emergency services and local authorities at a time of a health crisis.
- Another St. George's surprise? -
Bland described the "honour" of hitting the first shot of the championship as "something I'll remember for the rest of my life."
The 48-year-old was a shock leader of the US Open at the halfway stage last month, but is making just his third appearance at the British Open, where he made his debut in 1998.
Spaniard Jon Rahm is the favourite after claiming his first major at the US Open, but history suggests form is of little guide for Opens at Royal St. George's.
Ben Curtis was a 500/1 outsider when he lifted the Claret Jug in 2003, while Darren Clarke was 111th in the world rankings before winning his only major the last time the biggest event in British golf came to Sandwich 10 years ago.
"All I wanted to do growing up was to get my name on the Claret Jug and I did that here, so it will always be very special to me," said Clarke.
"This is almost as tough a golf course as we play on The Open rota. I was going round the course this week thinking 'how did I ever win here' with the breeze. But I did, so it will always be one of my favourite golf courses."
Staying on the fairway will be the key to success with heavy rain in recent weeks bulking up the thick rough.
But the weather is set fair for the four days of competition.
© 2021 AFP