- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 16, 2003

SANDWICH, England — Tiger Woods might have squashed the slump at the Western Open, but he’s unlikely to break his major drought on a quirky track like Sandwich’s.

It’s a widely held theory that it’s actually easier for an elite player to win a major than a regular PGA Tour event because more demanding venues tend to isolate those players capable of executing the most demanding shots. But what happens when a major layout goes beyond extremely challenging and steps into the realm of the arbitrary and absurd?

We might get the answer this week at St. George’s, where the reverse-canted fairways make keeping the ball in the short grass a competitive crapshoot.

“This is probably the most severe fairways we’re going to play as far as the bounces go,” Woods said yesterday. “Not too often [in majors] will you hit the ball down the middle and end up in a bunker or the rough because of the bounces. That’s just the way it is. You understand that even if you’re hitting good shots, you’re going to get bad bounces. And sometimes you hit marginal shots and get great bounces.

“It comes down to a guy getting a little bit of luck on this golf course. And I think everyone who has won here can attest to that.”

Now, nobody would claim this week’s championship will be founded completely on fortune. But when luck plays a larger role, skill necessarily plays a smaller one. And since Lady Luck rarely plays favorites, the most skilled players in the field (read: Tiger) are likely to have a more difficult time distinguishing themselves at Sandwich.

The last time a major was played at such a quirky course was four years ago at the British Open, when Carnoustie’s maniacal superintendent pinched in the fairways to an outrageous extent and grew a stand of U.S. Open-esque rough never intended for the world’s most difficult windswept links. What resulted was a lottery of sorts, leaving a pair of obscure Europeans, France’s Jean Van de Velde and Scotland’s Paul Lawrie, palming the prime tickets.

Among major champions of the last decade, none strikes as more of a shocking dark horse than Lawrie. He had won two lesser European Tour events before the Open (1996 Catalonia Open and 1999 Qatar Masters), and he’s won only one legitimate event since (2002 Welsh Open).

“Carnoustie, one of the best golf courses in the world, if not the best course in the world, the most difficult, and I think the winner says it all right there,” said Woods, taking a rare shot at a fellow player in Lawrie.

Nick Price agreed, saying, “Carnoustie was an absolute carnival, a complete theater of the absurd. But that was a setup issue. This is just a quirky layout. Sandwich pushes it right to the limit with the severity of its fairways, but the lighter rough makes it far more playable than Carnoustie was in 1999.”

Yet it’s certainly not as playable as St. Andrew’s was for Woods in 2000. Sandwich is the antithesis of a bomber’s course. The key to playing St. George’s is a perfect combination of experience and execution off the tee. You have to have played it enough to know exactly where the line is off the tee in any wind. And you have to have the skill to hit those lines unerringly.

“I’ve always thought Sandwich was the toughest of the lot for a player to win on the first time around,” said David Musgrove, the legendary English caddie who carried Seve Ballesteros to victory at Lytham in 1979 and Sandy Lyle to victory at Sandwich in 1985. “They didn’t move a speck of dirt out there; it’s a true links. … On these reverse-camber fairways, you have to know exactly how far to carry the ball and on what line so that you’ll catch just the perfect part of the right slope. Sometimes you’re aiming at the rough, trusting the kick. Sometimes, you’re shaping it against the camber. You have to have played it enough to know. Look at the last two winners here, [Greg] Norman and Sandy. They had both played the Open here before, so they had that crucial experience.”

They both had a wealth of experience that Woods simply won’t be able to simulate after three practice rounds at Sandwich. Not only had the 27-year-old Woods not seen the 7,106-yard, par-71 layout before this week, his first two practice rounds came in an unusual southerly breeze. The course normally plays into a northern gale that is supposed to arrive late this afternoon and take up residence through the weekend, turning the 80-something temperatures and mild playing conditions into a memory.

Even if that lack of experience doesn’t sabotage Tiger’s claret jug quest, his lack of accuracy with the driver might. Woods ranks a forgettable 124th on Tour in driving accuracy. He’s likely to lean heavily on his 3-wood and 2-iron off the tee because if centered drives are often treated harshly at Sandwich, wildly off-line ones are often sentenced to oblivion. Unlike at St. Andrews, where loose drives are often not penalized, wild drives at Sandwich are often not even recoverable.

So who is the punter’s pick this week at St. George’s? Who has the form, experience and precision to feast on this quirky turkey Sandwich?

Look no further than defending champion Ernie Els, the world No.2 who won by miles at last week’s Scottish Open and quietly finished tied for sixth in the 1993 British Open at St. George’s. For his part, Els is hoping the long-awaited showdown with Woods finally will materialize Sunday.

“I think [this might be the week],” Els said yesterday. “I think Tiger is playing really well. And I think with all the press he’s been getting for not winning a major in a year, which is ridiculous, I think he’s going to try to prove something. And I’m looking for a good week and playing well. So, hopefully, it happens. I really feel good about this week.”

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