The sky is the color of motor oil, the wind is blowing hard and there’s enough mud around here to make a swamp jealous.
It must be time to play the British Open, the oldest major title in golf that is being played for the 126th time beginning today at Royal Troon on the shore of the Firth of Clyde on the western Scottish coast.
There is no clear tournament favorite, which fits because there has been no clear sky since the players showed up at this 118-year-old course to prepare for the year’s third major championship.
But as a group, the players held in the highest regard look about as shiny as the gloss on the silver Claret Jug trophy. Masters champion Tiger Woods may lead the class, but the roll call is long and includes Nick Faldo, U.S. Open champion Ernie Els, Colin Montgomerie, Greg Norman, Tom Lehman and Nick Price.
The leading money winner on the PGA Tour with four victories in only 13 tournaments this year, the 21-year-old Woods may be visiting Europe at the best time.
At the very least, Mark O’Meara said it wouldn’t be too smart to overlook Woods.
“I mean, in his short history, he’s always backed up what he does,” O’Meara said. “When he plays well, he always comes back and wins again. He’s not one of those guys who drops off after he wins.”
Els should consider whether such a remark pertains to him as well. The 27-year-old South African won the U.S. Open at Congressional and then won again at the Buick Classic the next week.
But we know that Troon has a strange way of treating U.S. Open champions. In 1962, 22-year-old Jack Nicklaus was the U.S. Open champion and intent on supplanting Arnold Palmer as the world’s top golfer when he showed up at Troon for the Open.
Nicklaus opened with an 80, closed with a 79 and finished 29 shots behind the victorious Palmer.
That was a long time ago, though, and conditions were far, far away from what this Royal Troon has become. For one thing, a sophisticated watering system has created more rough, although recent rain has removed the need for anything other than a natural watering system.
But with taller rough combined with smaller greens, narrow fairways and a back nine usually played into the wind, Troon isn’t exactly a gentle little stroll.
Jose Maria Olazabal said Troon can be a daunting experience, depending on the wind’s direction.
“You’d better get the score going on the front nine,” he said. “Otherwise you are going to struggle.”
And that’s not all. You’d better hit it straight or you are liable to rip your pants on the needle-like plants that wait to gobble golf balls that roll astray.
The stuff is called gorse, and of course it’s a poor place to hit your ball. “I haven’t seen many worse,” Lehman said. “You can’t play out of it. That ball is gone once you hit it in there.”
However misery-inducing it may be, gorse is not alone in the field of rough. It is joined by such bad things as whin, fescue and heather, which can be found only on the right side of the outgoing nine as it runs along the water.
The best plan is to avoid this vegetation entirely and keep the ball in the fairway. Because the course is so damp, it’s going to play longer than normal. If that condition is combined with wind blowing in their faces, there is a high probability of a very difficult four days for the golfers.
Two holes at Troon will probably get a lot of attention. The first is the 126-yard No. 8, known as “Postage Stamp.” The other is No. 11, “The Railway,” that has been shortened from 481 yards to 463 yards and gone from a par 5 to a par 4.
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