SANDWICH, England — Danny Willett shrugged his shoulders, grabbed his tee and returned to his caddie in the teeing area for the fourth hole at Royal St. George's Golf Club.
The 2016 Masters champion had just hit what he thought was the ideal drive during his final practice round Wednesday ahead of 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 starting Thursday 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 during the event, the biggest golf crowd at a major championship tournament since the coronavirus pandemic began. 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 British Open lore, and they'll return. Golf missed them dearly last year, when coronavirus concerns meant its oldest major was canceled for the first time since 1945.
"Big-time sporting events need big-time crowds," R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers said.
Then again, this week couldn't be more different. Golfers 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," Slumbers said.
Already this week, reigning Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama and 2015 British Open winner Zach Johnson withdrew after testing positive for the virus and Bubba Watson was forced to pull out for being a close contact of a positive case.
During a practice round 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, who won the PGA Championship in May for his sixth major title.
On Wednesday, a spectator threw a ball to Mickelson for him to sign. Mickelson immediately threw it back without signing it, then wiped his hands with a towel.
And then there's the course itself, 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, and Willett can attest to the challenges of the fourth.
Royal St. George's, which joined the rotation of British Open venues in 1894, is hosting for the first time in a decade.
"It's not my favorite of the rotation," Brooks Koepka said of a course once described to fellow 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 currently in the rotation — which has made it green and soft. On the 17th hole Wednesday, a drive by Garrick Higgo plopped up after 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," DeChambeau said.
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. So it seems that Royal St. George's will give and take this week — but if the wind picks up like it did Wednesday, it will be a mighty challenge.
Connor Worsdall, a 23-year-old Englishman and first-time entrant, had the privilege of being joined for the final two holes of his practice round Wednesday by DeChambeau and top-ranked Dustin Johnson, who shared the runner-up honor with Mickelson when Darren Clarke won the 2011 British Open at Royal St. George's.
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 DeChambeau and Johnson 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.