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Flawless finish: Morikawa wins British Open for 2nd major

Flawless finish: Morikawa wins British Open for 2nd major

SANDWICH, England — Collin Morikawa was making one of the most satisfying walks in golf, down the 18th fairway as a soon-to-be British Open champion, when he looked up at the huge grandstand surrounding the green.It was filled with spectators, who firstly were applauding and soon giving a standing ovation to a 24-year-old American making a historic start to his major championship career.So different to 11 months ago, when Morikawa won his first major — the PGA Championship — at an empty venue.“I hope the thing is off the table,” Morikawa said, “that I can play with fans and I can play well on a Sunday.”Fans. No fans. Parkland. Now even links. Morikawa is the real deal, make no mistake.The mature-beyond-his-years Californian closed with a bogey-free, 4-under 66 at Royal St. George’s and won the British Open in his debut Sunday, becoming the first player to capture two different majors on the first attempt.And this time there was a crowd, at 32,000 the biggest since golf returned following the coronavirus outbreak.After tapping in for par to win by two shots over Jordan Spieth, he gave a fist pump before applauding the spectators.Before long, he was being handed the claret jug that so many go their entire career without winning. He gazed adoringly at it, then thrust it into the air and gave it a kiss.“Those are the moments, the few seconds that you embrace so much,” he said. “And you look around, every seat is packed. Everywhere is packed with people.”They were seeing a young player already halfway to the career Grand Slam after eight starts, the first since Bobby Jones in 1926 to win two majors in so few appearances. He follows Gene Sarazen, Jones, Jack Nicklaus, Seve Ballesteros, Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Spieth in winning multiple majors before turning 25.His total of 15-under 265 was a 72-hole record in 15 British Opens at Royal St. George’s. In 13 of them, the winning score has been 5 under or lower.“When you make history,” he said, “it’s hard to grasp, it’s hard to really take it in … At 24 years old, it’s so hard to look back at the two short years that I have been a pro and see what I’ve done because I want more.”He did it with style amid immaculate weather on the links off Sandwich Bay, flushing shots with his irons and getting up-and-down on the rare occasions he found trouble. He called his putting display one of the best of his short career, turning a statistical weakness into a strength.Starting the final round one shot behind Louis Oosthuizen, Morikawa was tied for the lead after four holes and then made three straight birdies on Nos. 7-9 to overtake the South African, who hadn’t trailed since the 12th hole of his second round.Morikawa made key par saves — pumping his fist both times — at Nos. 10 and 15, between which he rolled a birdie putt up and over a ridge and into the cup on the 14th to build a two-stroke lead he never lost. Spieth parred his final four holes and also shot 66.By making par at the last after another perfect drive, Morikawa played his final 31 holes without a bogey on a course that has confounded many great players because of its quirky bounces and undulating fairways.All the more remarkable was that this was his first major test on a seaside links. Morikawa had little experience with this style of golf before playing the Scottish Open last week at The Renaissance Club, which is not a traditional links but featured the kind of tight lies and rolling terrain that prepared him for it. He even had three new irons in his bag this week.He completed a feat achieved by Ben Curtis on the same course in 2003, winning golf’s oldest championship in his links debut.For Oosthuizen, who was seeking a wire-to-wire win and a second claret jug — he had a runaway victory at St. Andrews in 2010 — it was another near miss in a career full of them. He was runner-up this year at the PGA Championship and the U.S. Open, two of his six second-place finishes at majors.This time Oosthuizen tied for third with U.S. Open champion Jon Rahm (66) after closing with a 71 — his first round not in the 60s this week. He never recovered from losing his lead with an ugly bogey on the par-5 seventh hole. He caught way too much ball out of the greenside bunker with his third shot, which bounced onto the putting surface and landed in a bunker on the other side.Morikawa made a routine birdie on the hole to move two ahead of Oosthuizen. Spieth had made eagle at No. 7 a few minutes earlier.“Well I do know one thing, the fans at the Open are second (or third) to none,” Oosthuizen said on Twitter, having declined to talk to reporters. “Thank you for the incredible support this week, and congrats to Collin Morikawa who played with class and grit today.”Spieth had his closest call in a major since winning the British Open in 2017 at Royal Birkdale. Missing an 8-foot par putt at No. 4 and hitting his tee shot into a bunker at No. 6 led to dropped shots. He made up for those with his eagle and played the final 10 holes in 4 under.“I did everything I could in the past few hours to win this championship,” Spieth said.It was his bogey-bogey finish on Saturday — he missed a 2-foot par putt on the 18th — that Spieth mostly regretted.“Had I finished par-par, I’d have been in the final group,” he said. “And if you’re in the final group, you feel like you have control.”———Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80———More AP golf: https://apnews.com/hub/golf and https://twitter.com/AP—Sports

Oosthuizen leads after 3 rounds at the Open, Morikawa 1 back

Oosthuizen leads after 3 rounds at the Open, Morikawa 1 back

Louis Oosthuizen has a one-stroke lead at the British Open and another big shot to end his 11-year wait for a second major titleBy STEVE DOUGLAS AP Sports WriterJuly 17, 2021, 10:29 PM• 4 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this articleSANDWICH, England — Even with his swing getting loose over the final hour Saturday, Louis Oosthuizen walked off the 18th green with a one-stroke lead at the British Open and another shot at ending his 11-year wait for a second major title.A third round as undulating as the fairways at Royal St. George’s ended how it started, with Oosthuizen holding off Collin Morikawa and Jordan Spieth, and three shots separating them.Oosthuizen, a runner-up in the last two majors, overcame his first real wobble of the tournament on the back nine with a key par save on the 15th and an 8-foot birdie on the par-3 16th that led to a 1-under 69.That put him at 12-under 198 as the South African stayed on course to be the first wire-to-wire winner at golf’s oldest championship since Rory McIlroy in 2014.Morikawa slid a 15-foot birdie putt just past the hole on the 18th green, settling for a 68 as he bids for a second major to go with his win at last year’s PGA Championship. The American was four shots behind after 10 holes and made a strong push at about the time Oosthuizen showed signs of fading. He trimmed Oosthuizen’s lead to one shot.Spieth was tied for the lead until he bogeyed his last two holes — he missed a par putt from 2 feet at the 18th — to complete a disappointing back nine of lost chances. The three-time major champion had a 69 and was three shots back, just as he started the day.It had all looked so different with an hour left in the day, with the three players tied for the lead at 11 under with four holes to play on a day the pin positions — not the weather — proved to be the greatest defense at Royal St. George’s.The wind didn’t get above 10 mph and a cloudless sky with bright sunshine looked sure to bring another day of low scoring.However, pins were tucked away, sometimes near slopes, while the firmer fairways brought the deep rough and pot bunkers into play.It ensured some big names were unable to launch a challenge.Top-ranked Dustin Johnson started four shots off the lead but plunged out of contention by making five bogeys in his opening 11 holes. Two late birdies could give him only a 73, leaving him eight shots behind.Brooks Koepka, a four-time major champion, was a shot further back after managing only a round of 72.McIlroy started much further back but reached the turn at 4 under for the championship after making five birdies. The back nine was another story and McIlroy threw an iron to the ground — he called it a “little toss” — during a run of three bogeys in five holes on his way to shooting 69, his first round in the 60s at Royal St. George’s.It left him only on 1 under and with no chance of a second claret jug.Instead, Corey Conners (66) and Scottie Scheffler (69) moved into contention at 8 under while Jon Rahm — looking to add the British Open to his U.S. Open from last month — shot 68 and was 7 under alongside MacKenzie Hughes and Dylan Frittelli.Marcel Siem, who qualified from the second-tier Challenge Tour in Europe only last week, rebounded from an 8 after going out-of-bounds at the par-5 14th with two birdies in his final three holes. He was in a three-way tie for ninth place, six off the lead.All of them are chasing Oosthuizen, who won at St. Andrews in 2010 and has rung up a career Grand Slam of runner-up finishes since then. That includes the U.S. Open last month, where he was leading with two holes to play until Rahm’s birdie-birdie finish. He also was runner-up in the PGA Championship to Phil Mickelson.———More AP golf: https://apnews.com/hub/golf and https://twitter.com/AP—Sports———Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80

Oosthuizen sets 36-hole Open record, stellar cast behind him

Oosthuizen sets 36-hole Open record, stellar cast behind him

SANDWICH, England — Louis Oosthuizen set a 36-hole record at the British Open and is halfway to ending that run of near misses at the majors.Now all he has to do is hold off a cast of major champions on the weekend at Royal St. George’s.On a day of pleasant summer weather that took the fear out of the links off Sandwich Bay, Oosthuizen broke away from a three-way tie with a birdie-birdie-eagle run from the 12th hole. He shrugged off his first bogey of the week for a 5-under 65 and a two-stroke lead on Friday.Former PGA champion Collin Morikawa had a 64 in the morning and was two shots behind. Another shot back was Jordan Spieth (67), going after his fourth major.Lurking was two-time major champion Dustin Johnson, the No. 1 player in the world who shot 65 and was tied for fourth, four strokes behind Oosthuizen.“The game is good, but I know it’s a really good leaderboard,” Oosthuizen said. “I’ll have to play good golf this weekend if I want to come out first.”Oosthuizen, looking as calm as the conditions, was at 11-under 129, breaking the 36-hole Open record first set by Nick Faldo in 1992 at Muirfield and matched by Brandt Snedeker in 2012 at Royal Lytham & St. Annes.This will be the fifth time in the last nine rounds at a major that Oosthuizen, the 2010 Open champion at St. Andrews, has had at least a share of the lead. He was runner-up at the last two majors, to Phil Mickelson at the the PGA Championship in May and to Jon Rahm the U.S. Open last month.“I’m not really going to think about the second spots,” said Oosthuizen, when asked what he’ll do differently this time. “I know my game is in a good place.”He’ll also be aware of the quality of player behind him, though.Morikawa, making quite a debut in links golf, made seven birdies in his first 14 holes as part of a clinic in iron play. He missed a 5-foot par putt on No. 15 — ending a 27-hole stretch without a bogey — and had a 10-foot birdie putt on the final hole catch the lip.Spieth, four shots behind Morikawa when he teed off, was tied for the lead after 12 holes and then played the last six holes in 1 over, a stretch he described as “frustrating.” He had plenty of looks at birdie, but the putts didn’t drop like they did on Thursday.“I don’t know, I think I need to bring more food on the golf course tomorrow,” said Spieth, who has already lifted the claret jug before at Royal Birkdale in 2017. “I got really just in a weird head space, like fatigued there on like the 13th green as we were waiting and hitting putts.”Then there was Johnson, a runner-up at Royal St. George’s in 2011, who stuck his approach at the last to 3 feet for a birdie and a round of 65, which left him at 7 under with Dylan Frittelli of South Africa (67) and Scottie Scheffler (66).The weather is expected to stay benign over the weekend, potentially favoring Johnson if the fairways firm up and the ball runs longer and faster.“I feel like I’m in a good position heading into the weekend,” he said.One shot behind an eclectic mix of players at 6 under — including two more South Africans in Justin Harding and Daniel Van Tonder as well as Germany’s Marcel Siem, who qualified from a second-tier Challenge Tour event last week — were Rahm (64) and Brooks Koepka.Koepka, a four-time major winner and seemingly always in contention at golf’s biggest events, made four birdies in his last five holes for a 66, then continued his petty feud with Bryson DeChambeau with perhaps the best shot of his round.During a television interview, Koepka said he was driving it great, adding: “I love my driver” — a clear nod at DeChambeau, who complained on Thursday that his driver “sucks.”DeChambeau doesn’t look like being a factor this weekend at Royal St. George’s but he’s sticking around after shooting a 70, which saw him make the cut on the number at 1 over.Rory McIlroy will be, too, needing a birdie on the final hole for another 70. He was 11 shots behind and set to stay on four majors until 2022.“That’s sort of been the way for the last couple months,” McIlroy said. “It’s felt close, but it just hasn’t quite been close enough.”Other big names weren’t so lucky: No. 7 Patrick Cantlay, No. 9 Patrick Reed and former Open champions Francesco Molinari and Henrik Stenson were among those headed home.A sign of the favorable weather that has confronted the world’s best players this week — there was barely a drop of wind at times on Friday — is the fact the cut was at 1-over 141. The previous lowest cut at Royal St. George’s was 143.———More AP golf: https://apnews.com/hub/golf and https://twitter.com/AP—Sports———Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80

Oosthuizen, Spieth lead way as normalcy returns to Open

Oosthuizen, Spieth lead way as normalcy returns to Open

SANDWICH, England — Jordan Spieth rolled in putts like it was 2017. Louis Oosthuizen put those runner-up finishes in the last two majors out of mind and soared to the top of the leaderboard. They gave the British Open a familiar feel on Thursday.Normalcy returned to the wind-swept links at Royal St. George’s in other ways, too.The roars and cheers of the biggest golf crowd since the pandemic rumbled around this quirky course off Sandwich Bay, just like pre-COVID times.For Spieth, that was as welcome as being an Open contender once again.“It feels inside the ropes, from the first tee forward, the most normal of any tournament we have played thus far relative to that same tournament in previous years,” Spieth said.His 5-under 65 certainly turned back time to four years ago when he lifted the claret jug at Royal Birkdale — the last English venue to host the British Open — when he was hitting the ball better than he ever has.Spieth was a shot off the lead held by Oosthuizen, who saved par from a fairway bunker on No. 18 for a 6-under 64. That tied the lowest opening round at Royal St. George’s, previously set by Christy O’Connor Jr. in 1981.That didn’t look as though it would be the case after the South African opened with seven straight pars. He followed with six birdies in his next nine holes.“I’ve learnt over the years playing major championships that patience is the key thing,” said Oosthuizen, who hasn’t won one of them since the British Open at St. Andrews in 2010. There have been six runner-up finishes in the majors since then, including in the last two.Oosthuizen and Spieth were among the morning starters who enjoyed the best of the conditions, notably soft bounces on the most undulating fairways and greens on the Open rotation.Yet many of the world’s best couldn’t take advantage.Patience already might be wearing thin for U.S. Open champion Jon Rahm, who slapped his thigh in frustration after making a double-bogey at No. 9, where he took two shots to get out of a pot bunker in the fairway. He shot 71, like Bryson DeChambeau, who spent much of his first round up to his knees in deep grass — and cursing his driver, saying it “sucks” — after being unable to use his power to overwhelm Royal St. George’s.Shane Lowry, the Open winner in 2019, also shot 71 in front of a crowd that has a daily capacity of 32,000 this week. Not since Royal Portrush, where Lowry won, has any golf tournament seen so many spectators through the gates.With last year’s event canceled because of the pandemic, Lowry could finally be announced at an Open as the reigning champion golfer.“It was a very special day for me,” he said.Not so for the majority of the afternoon starters, who encountered more prolonged gusts off the English Channel and slightly drier conditions.Rory McIlroy birdied the last to salvage a 70 in his bid for his first major title in seven years. Justin Thomas shot 72. Phil Mickelson shot 80, his highest start ever in the British Open, that left him tied for last place.Benjamin Hebert and Webb Simpson, with rounds of 66 that tied them for fourth place with three others, had the best scores from the afternoon. Former PGA champion Collin Morikawa, in his first links test, and English favorite Tommy Fleetwood were at 67.Fleetwood would like nothing more than to become the first Englishman with his name on that silver jug since Nick Faldo in 1992.“It’s been a long time since an Englishman has won the Open, and I would love to be the next one. So we’ll see,” Fleetwood said.Brian Harman was tied for second with Spieth after making five birdies in his first eight holes and finishing with a 65. Top-ranked Dustin Johnson hit 14 greens in regulation and said he was pleased with his round of 68 that had him in a tie for 19th.Spieth had not won since Birkdale until he ended his slump at the Texas Open in April. He looked the happiest of anyone Thursday, saying he liked where his game was at after matching his lowest score at an Open. He also had a 65 on the first day at Birkdale.And he made reference to that victory while running off four straight birdies starting at No. 5, telling former caddie John Wood — part of the U.S. broadcast team — that it was just like 2017 the way he was making putts and Wood was watching him. Wood was caddying in the final round at Birkdale for Matt Kuchar, who was second.“Here I feel for the first time since then I’m at least coming in with a bit of form, a bit of confidence, and really my start lines off the tee,” Spieth said.It was only Oosthuizen ahead of him. And that was no real shock, considering the South African was tied for the lead in the first and third rounds at last month’s U.S. Open and in the second round at the PGA Championship in May.The return of the spectators made it feel like a proper Open, especially on the hill overlooking the par-3 6th hole that attracted some of the biggest galleries of a day that started with a blue, cloudless sky.Just before midday, the group containing Stewart Cink, Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer all hit tee shots inside 6 feet of the pin. As they walked onto the green, one spectator shouted: “You three should be professionals.”To which Kaymer’s caddie, Craig Connolly, replied back across the green: “You should be a comedian.”“I feel like the fans here are very knowledgeable about the sport,” Spieth said, “and they’re also having a great time.”———More AP golf: https://apnews.com/hub/golf and https://twitter.com/AP—Sports———Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80

Late entry Sullivan not wasting any time at British Open

Late entry Sullivan not wasting any time at British Open

SANDWICH, England — Andy Sullivan was among the last to make the field at the British Open and part of the first group out when play began Thursday.He’s not wasting any time at Royal St. George’s. Neither are some of his countrymen.Part of a strong early showing by English golfers on home soil, Sullivan rolled in a 30-foot birdie putt at No. 1 after teeing off at 6:35 a.m. local time and closed with a birdie for a 3-under 67.Justin Rose and Danny Willett were also on that number, three strokes off the lead held by Louis Oosthuizen and fronting the English charge to be the nation’s first Open champion since Nick Faldo at Muirfield in 1992.Not since Tony Jacklin in 1969 has an English player won the Open in England.“Right now,” Rose said, “I think it’s probably as strong a chance as we’ve had. Maybe even ever.”Sullivan, ranked No. 85, found out he would be in the field only on Friday, while he was playing at the Scottish Open. He replaced Matthew Wolff, the 54-hole leader at the U.S. Open last year at Winged Foot, who chose not to play.Sullivan had been way down the reserve list but, one by one, there were withdrawals for various reasons, some of them related to COVID-19.“I didn’t know I was even close to being a reserve,” he said.Then he was placed in the opening group of the first round alongside two more Englishmen in Marcus Armitage and Richard Bland, who had the honor of hitting the first shot.The stand surrounding the first tee was almost full and the gallery to the right of the tee was three rows deep as Bland, clearly nervous and taking more time than normal, got the Open under way with a drive that landed on the fairway and dribbled off to the left.“It was very special, very nerve-wracking,” said Bland, who shot 70 and is coming off a season where he finally won a title on the European Tour in the 478th tournament of his professional career.“I was OK when I got onto the tee. A little bit nervous because you’re just about to start a major championship. But then once the announcer said, ‘Right, it’s 30 seconds guys,’ you’re like, this is it. This is what it’s all about.”Sullivan enjoyed being up before everyone else.“It’s probably the one event of the year where you actually don’t mind getting up early,” Sullivan said. “For other events, you sort of drag yourself out of bed. … Today actually wasn’t too bad.“You’ve always got a buzz to come and play the Open.”Holing a double-breaker for birdie on No. 1 was the highlight of Rose’s round that was played in the company of top-ranked Dustin Johnson. Rose was bogey-free, with which he was impressed around what he described as a “gnarly course” where he has previously missed the cut (2003) and tied for 44th (2011).”We’ve all grown up playing lots of links golf, to be honest with you, and it should be a style of golf that we all relish,” Rose said of the English contingent, of whom the highest ranked is No. 10 Tyrrell Hatton. “Hopefully, Royal St. George’s with the St. George’s cross is kind of a lucky omen this week.”Paul Casey was another Englishman starting well, signing for a 68 that also didn’t include a dropped shot. In majors in 2021, he has tied for seventh at the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines last month and tied for fourth at the PGA Championship in May.Casey made 15 straight pars after making a 4-foot putt for birdie at No. 3.“The desire is still there,” he said. “I haven’t won one. I desperately want to, but I don’t feel like that’s adding pressure. I just feel excitement every time. It’s like an opportunity.”———More AP golf: https://apnews.com/hub/golf and https://twitter.com/AP—Sports———Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80

British Open is back, along with the quirks of links golf

British Open is back, along with the quirks of links golf

SANDWICH, England — Danny Willett shrugged his shoulders, grabbed his tee, and returned to his caddie beside the fourth tee at Royal St. George’s.He’d just hit what he thought was the ideal drive during his final practice round at the British Open, only for one of the bumps on the course’s lunar-like landscape to throw it offline and into the rough.“Kicked left,” Willett said, before smiling. “Never asked for it!”Expect the unexpected will be the motto for the world’s best golfers this week as they get a crack at links golf for the first time in two years in this picturesque corner of southeast England.In some respects, this British Open will feel as though golf has returned to normal. There will be some 30,000 fans roaming the Sandwich links daily from Thursday, the biggest golf crowd at a major since the pandemic. One man was wearing a dragon onesie next to the ropes on the sixth hole Wednesday, having been cruelly fooled by a group of friends into wearing a costume.Those ooohs and aaahs and rumbling roars from a distance are all part of Open lore, and they’ll return. How golf missed them last year, when its oldest championship was canceled for the first time since 1945 because of the coronavirus outbreak.“Big-time sporting events need big-time crowds,” R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers said.Then again, this week couldn’t be more different. Players are being kept in a strict bubble to comply with COVID-19 restrictions devised by the R&A and are at risk of disqualification for breaching rules.“It’s probably inevitable that we will have some problems,” said Slumbers, who has already seen Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama and Zach Johnson, the 2015 British Open champion, withdraw after testing positive for the virus and Bubba Watson forced to pull out for being a close contact of a positive case.During a practice round on Monday, Phil Mickelson appeared concerned he was getting too close to spectators. “He was like, ‘Can you just give me some space, I don’t know who you are,’” said English qualifier Nick Poppleton, who played alongside Mickelson.On Wednesday, a spectator threw a ball to Mickelson for him to sign. The PGA champion immediately threw it back, without signing it, and wiped his hands with a towel.And then there’s the course at Royal St. George’s, disrespected by some and unloved by many more for being unfair. Balls can be propelled almost sideways by the undulations on the fairways, some of which can be unhittable especially in dry and fast conditions.The fairways on the first and 17th holes promise to be particularly tough, not to mention the one on the fourth, as Willett can attest.“It’s not my favorite of the (Open) rotation,” Brooks Koepka said of a course once described to American golfer Charles Howell III as “the world’s largest pinball machine.”Helping the players this week is the rain that has lashed down on the course — the southernmost of the 10 on the rotation — which has made it green and soft. On the 17th hole Wednesday, a drive by Garrick Higgo plopped up upon landing on a side-slope, taking the pace out of the ball as it dribbled toward the semi rough. Some fairways also have been widened.Against that, the rough is knee high in places and is thick and lush rather than wispy.“There’s certain lies out there it’s going to be a pitch back to the fairway,” big-hitting Bryson DeChambeau said of rough he described Tuesday as “diabolical.”“And that’s including for everybody.”Lee Westwood said he’d been informed by Slumbers that the fairways would be watered later in the week to stop them from drying up and maintain their softness, given the thickness of the rough.Royal St. George’s, it seems, will give and take this week. But if the wind picks up like it did on Wednesday, it will be a mighty challenge.Connor Worsdall, a 23-year-old Englishman playing in his first Open, had the privilege of being joined for the final two holes of his practice round Wednesday by No. 1 Dustin Johnson and DeChambeau.Clearly thrilled, he said at the back of the 18th green that it was the best surprise he could have received before his opening round and that Johnson and DeChambeau briefly spoke to him before leaving the course.“They just gave me some advice,” Worsdall said, “to just treat it like a normal 18 holes as much as you can.”At Royal St. George’s that might just be impossible.———More AP golf: https://apnews.com/hub/golf and https://twitter.com/AP—Sports———Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80

Delivery driver brings perspective to his 1st British Open

Delivery driver brings perspective to his 1st British Open

SANDWICH, England — Any other week, Nick Poppleton would be working as a supermarket delivery driver to supplement his modest income as a player on the third tier of European golf.Maybe even fitting windows with a good friend, just for a bit of extra cash.Not this week.Instead, the 27-year-old Englishman is walking the rolling fairways of Royal St. George’s in his first appearance at the British Open. Indeed he already has been lucky enough to play his first practice round in Sandwich in the company of Phil Mickelson and Bryson DeChambeau.“I wasn’t really interested in their golf game or how they were playing, because it was all a bit too much for me,” said Poppleton, taking a break from the practice green to talk about his first time on golf’s biggest stage. “It was just nice to watch them go about their business.”Indeed, for Poppleton, it’s just nice to be on a golf course.The pandemic didn’t just result in his nascent golf career, and therefore his earning potential, grinding to a halt in 2020. It also gave him some perspective.His partner, Amber, is a radiographer at a children’s hospital. As the coronavirus raged through Britain in April 2020, she offered to work in one of the hastily constructed emergency hospitals — called the “Nightingales” — set up for COVID-19 patients.Her working hours were long. The stress was huge. Golf, suddenly, took a back seat for Poppleton.“My role wasn’t a golfer,” he said, “it became a support for her. That’s what it had to be.“I was there if she needed someone to talk to, to get anything off her chest. It’s not a great job already — one day you are dealing with a kid who is in remission or having a cancer scan, the next you are dealing with someone who is fighting for their life.”It’s why Poppleton is giving short shrift to any player at this week’s British Open grumbling about operating under strict COVID-19 restrictions implemented by the R&A.“You hear players complaining about the bubble malarkey,” he said, “but it’s a piece of cake in comparison.”In the darkest days of the pandemic, Poppleton resorted to going to fields near his home in Sheffield, England, to hit some golf balls. The EuroPro Tour — a level below the Challenge Tour, which is the secondary tier to the European Tour — shut down for 2020 but did at least manage to put on some localized events Poppleton refers to as “mini tours.”He played them but also had to take on work as a delivery driver, which he still does mostly on Saturdays.“I’m lucky,” he said, “I’ve got this week off.”That’s because he won a local qualifying event at West Lancashire by three shots to get to Royal St. George’s and the biggest week of his golfing life. He said there are “probably about five people” watching an average round on the EuroPro Tour — at this British Open, there will be about 32,000 per day, marking the biggest crowds since golf returned after the coronavirus outbreak.He got a feel for what it will be like by going round Monday with Mickelson and DeChambeau, by far the biggest names he has ever played alongside. They knew who he was, and how he got to the British Open, when they introduced themselves on the first tee. That impressed Poppleton.“They were just on it straightaway. Professional. Proper dialed in,” he recalled.“I knew what I was getting into by playing with Bryson. It’s going to be forwards and it’s going to go far. But it’s very impressive.”Even if Poppleton finishes last of the 156 entrants, he will earn $5,350, which is almost as much as he has made on tour this year.He’ll be playing in the final group in the first round on Thursday and taking a relaxed approach, born out of his experiences during the pandemic.“It’s going to be a bit different, but you’re still hitting a ball around a field into some long rough and finding it,” Poppleton said. “It’s the same gig, just the course is a lot harder.”———More AP golf: https://apnews.com/hub/golf and https://twitter.com/AP—Sports———Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80

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