Tuesday, July 15, 2003

Behold this beautiful Open links golf course

The Associated Press

SANDWICH, England - At any other major championship, a golf course that looked crusty, brown and neglected would be considered an eyesore. At the British Open, they call it paradise.

Royal & Ancient secretary Peter Dawson looked across the links at Royal St. George's, smiled and took a satisfied breath of warm air Monday.

"We've got the course exactly the way we want it," he said. "Nice and brown."

No one ever said golf had to be played on plush, green grass. They don't call this the TPC at Sandwich.

"Americans watching from home would take one look at this and say we should not be playing a major on this," Northern Kentuckian Steve Flesch said. "But this is exactly what I was expecting - firm and fast. I like it like this."

How firm are the fairways?

David Duval tried to hit a 3-iron on the 17th and couldn't keep it in the fairway because of massive mounds that fall off in every direction. His final choice was a driver over the humps, a shot that traveled some 390 yards.

How brittle is the ground?

Tiger Woods played 18 holes and used 18 tees, each one shattered upon impact.

"Somebody could make a huge concession selling tees," Flesch said after seeing dozens of broken pegs on the eighth tee, then struggling to stick one in the turf.

The greenskeepers at Royal St. George's installed an irrigation three years ago. Rumor has it they still haven't hooked it up to a water line.

"It's pretty dry out there," Brad Faxon said. "It looks like it's about to catch on fire."

Complaints? No, these are compliments.

"Spectacular," Phil Mickelson said.

David Duval won the British Open two years ago at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, which also played firm and fast. The links are different - quirky, some might say - at Royal St. George's, but Duval's affection runs just as high.

"This is a golf tournament unlike any other we play," Duval said. "They're not concerned with the score. They don't set this up so that 2 under wins. It's not about hitting it high and far, it's about working it around the course, moving it along the ground.

"Just being here, you know what it's all about."

This isn't a beauty contest.

Golf's oldest championship presents a test like no other, with humps and bumps along the fairways, bunkers so deep they come with wooden stairs and grass that grows only as the weather allows - lush when it rains, brown when it doesn't.

"The challenge of a links course can change by the hour because of the bounce," said Sandy Lyle, who won in 1985 at Royal St. George's.

Luck is an ally. Patience is a must. "You can hit it in the middle of the fairway and finish in the rough," U.S. Open champion Jim Furyk said. "Patience is required by the USGA because of how they set up the course. You know there's going to be tough pins. Here, this is more about the golf course."

The Open was last played at Royal St. George's in 1993, when Greg Norman took advantage of soft conditions by attacking pins and closing with a 64 to win at 13-under 267, a record.

Still, Royal St. George's is as funky as links golf gets.

The first time Woods set foot on the seventh tee, he wasn't sure where to go. Flesch faced the same problem when he got to No. 12, a 381-yard hole that seems simple enough except for a series of mounds that divide the fairway, a pot bunker on one side and knee-high rye grass on the other.

Flesch decided on a Rescue club. That was the easy part.

He stood over the ball, then backed off and studied the fairway. After doing that twice, he turned to a dozen people behind him and said, "What's the line?"

One man in the gallery suggested a grassy hump. "Which grassy hump?" Flesch replied. "There's about 50 of them."

The dry, brown conditions are similar to three years ago at St. Andrews, where Woods never found a bunker and won by eight shots at 19-under 269.

The 132nd British Open

When: Thursday-Sunday

Course: Royal St. George's, England; par: 71

Defending champion: Ernie Els

TV: Thursday and Friday, 7 a.m.-7 p.m., TNT

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