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The Open: Fans flock to Royal St George's as Richard Bland gets 149th Open under way in Sandwich

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Better late than never. Under calm blue skies with a bright sun rising in the distance, the 149th Open started at Royal St George’s in Sandwich a little after half past six this morning.

England’s Richard Bland had the honour of starting proceedings, driving to a warm ripple of applause from the early risers surrounding the first tee.

England's Richard Bland tees off on the first hole at Royal St George’s in the 149th Open. Picture: The R&A
England's Richard Bland tees off on the first hole at Royal St George’s in the 149th Open. Picture: The R&A

Not quite the amphitheatre of the 18th green, where temporary stands shaped in a horse shoe will provide perfect views of the action over the next four days.

But there were enough seats for those keen to make up for lost time as The Open returned to Sandwich for the first time since 2011, twelve months later than originally scheduled due to Coronavirus.

There was the odd mask on display, but enough space to social distance if one desired although many would have enjoyed being close to others again in the outdoors, particularly given the fresh sea breeze.

It’s all about timing, golf. Many were up while it was still dark to ensure they had their seat.

“It’s a one-off,” chirped one young punter, when his bleary-eyed mate queried the need for a half-four alarm clock once he was nestled into position. “How many times can you say you were there for the first tee shot at The Open?” he continued. He does have a valid point.

And that’s the good thing about golf. You have time. Time to walk, time to talk. People like to talk, especially after what’s happened in the past year. You’ll be hard pushed to find an event where more stewards greet you with a warm smile and welcome, admittedly the sunshine does help the mood.

Then there’s the spotter. Sent out on the course by the television directors, they give an early heads up on which golfers to focus on next - who’s in the rough, anyone in with a chance of a birdie? Like golfers, they are always planning one step ahead.

“I’ve been doing it for 12 years,” says one to me as we stand beside the third green, it’s barely half seven in the morning. “You must enjoy it,” I replied. “Well, I’d rather be a marshal now, I’m too fat and old to be chasing up the course!”

And with that, he’s off on his way, his place will be replaced by another warm soul at another hole within minutes. They say golf is a great social game to play, the same can be said for spectating

The view from the first tee at the 149th Open at Royal St George's, 25 minutes before play got under way.
The view from the first tee at the 149th Open at Royal St George's, 25 minutes before play got under way.

As the clock ticked by, and the opening groups went through the front nine and turned for home, the sun was warming the ever-increasing crowd as much as the golf.

Much of the talk among the galleries early on was about the lack of length on Richard Mansell’s shin-tight trousers. “He wouldn’t be allowed to wear them round our club,” quipped one gentleman once the Englishman came into view at the seventh green.

No sooner had that group arrived than they were through, followed by Danny Willett and before long - with galleries swelling - Paul Casey and Ian Poulter.

“Bryson dropped a shot at the first,” said another talker in the crowd. “I must see him drive from at least one tee this week” replied his mate. I will certainly join them.

There was no time to dwell, Brooks Koepka was next through the ninth hole, where I’d taken up position (well, rested the legs in the grandstand). A birdie courtesy of a perfectly-judged putt was greeted warmly by those following his group, and off they trod in search of the 10th.

There was time to catch up with Mansell and co again before the end of their round, young Richard finishing two over par. And there will be time to check out his attire again tomorrow. Because that’s the great thing about golf - there’s always time.

We had to wait for it to arrive, around 30,000 fans a day are going to make up for lost time, and every one of the 156 starters will have time to think about a stunning links course that will provide challenges for all of them at some stage in the next few days. Some don’t start until four o’clock in the afternoon, but they’re all hoping that their time will come, especially if they enter the cauldron of the 18th green on Sunday evening with a three-shot lead! There’s time to dream, of course.

Read more: All the latest sports news in Kent

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