- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 12, 2005

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — The British Open arrives at the Old Course with a nasty case of the yips.

After producing back-to-back bogeys also known as Ben Curtis and Todd Hamilton at Sandwich and Troon, golf’s oldest major championship has begun to resemble the Mystery Man Am.

Curtis was ranked 396th in the world when he collected his first, and still only, PGA Tour victory over a cast of more accomplished protagonists at Royal St. George’s. The 28-year-old has contended in just one event since and ranks 190th on tour in scoring (73.08).

And Hamilton, a career journeyman who spent a decade in Asia before earning his PGA Tour card on his eighth trip to Q-school, qualifies for similar C-list status after posting just one top-10 finish in 26 starts since he nipped Ernie Els in a playoff at Troon last year.

Perhaps some of Hamilton’s slump stems from bad karma. Recently, the 39-year-old Illinois native admitted he first sipped from the claret jug after last year’s triumph at a Hooters. Exposing golf’s holy grail to the neon orange polyester home of forgettable wings and buxom young things rates somewhere between poor form and absolute blasphemy.

“A bunch of my friends and I had been out playing at a nearby course, and we stopped by for a drink at a Hooters in McKinney, Texas,” Hamilton said. “Well, 5:30 p.m. turned into 8 p.m., which turned into 11 p.m. — the beers were flowing freely. And all of a sudden, it occurs to me that I’ve got the claret jug in the trunk, and I’ve never had a drink out of it. So I brought it in, and they actually had champagne on the menu. I think it was even Dom [Perignon]. The best part was I don’t think anybody in there knew what it was. They probably thought it was some kind of NASCAR trophy.”

Frankly, much of the golf world still finds itself wishing as much.

Thankfully, a trip to St. Andrews is likely the perfect remedy for the Open’s recent obsession with obscurity. The Old Course, the most sacred stretch of sod in golf, simply doesn’t do off-brand outbursts — just ask Doug Sanders (1970), Simon Owen (1978) or Costantino Rocca (1995).

Over the years, St. Andrews has given us champions like Taylor, Braid, Jones, Snead, Thomson, Locke, Lema, Nicklaus, Ballesteros, Faldo and Woods. Tony Lema (1964) was the last player without a major already on his resume to kiss the claret jug at St. Andrews. And only the golf illiterate would label Lema’s victory a fluke. Lema collected 10 major top-20s in just four promising seasons before he was felled in his prime in a plane crash.

Bobby Jones once famously claimed that all great players must win at St. Andrews. And with the notable exception of five-time Open champion Tom Watson, most have.

“This place is very special, simple as that,” said Nick Faldo, who collected the fourth of his six majors at St. Andrews in 1990. “It’s steeped in history, and words to describe it are probably not enough.”

For this week’s championship, the game’s most venerated layout has endured a steroids injection. Five new tees (Nos.2, 4, 12, 13 and 14) have added 184 yards of length to the par-72 course, stretching it to 7,279 yards. With no room available for expansion on the actual course, three of the new tees were built in out-of-bounds ground, and two more (Nos.13 and 14) were placed on the adjoining Eden Course.

“I’ve seen the changes they’ve made, and I don’t think they make much difference for me except two holes — Nos. 4 and 14,” said Jack Nicklaus, who collected two of his Open victories at St. Andrews (1970 and 1978) and will make his final competitive appearance at a major this week. “On four, I’ll have to take a left route. And No. 14 is now a very difficult hole for everybody.”

The 14th has grown from a 581-yard par 5 the field punished in 2000 to a healthy 618-yarder, with the new teebox bringing both the nasty landing-area pot bunkers known as the Beardies and the vast second-shot cross bunker known as Hell back into play. The new tees were supposed to give the Old Course increased protection against the onslaught of modern equipment, but at least one player thinks the added length only will strengthen St. Andrews’ reputation as a big-hitters’ paradise.

With the lone exception of Faldo, who was the game’s most precise player since Ben Hogan, champions at St. Andrews always have been among the longest hitters of their era. Apart from Faldo, the Old Course’s five most recent victors have been Nicklaus (twice), Seve Ballesteros (1984), John Daly (1995) and Tiger Woods (2000) — all prodigious hitters.

Woods effectively reduced the layout to a pitch-and-putt in 2000, mystifyingly avoiding all 112 of the course’s score-savaging bunkers for four straight rounds en route to a tournament-record 19-under total (269). And after playing with Woods in two practice rounds this week, Jim Furyk is convinced the new tees make the world’s No. 1 player even more of a favorite this week.

“Lengthening those tee boxes is not hurting the long hitter. It’s actually making it easier for him,” Furyk said before elaborating with Woods as his template. “On No. 14 yesterday I watched him fly those bunkers [the Beardies] 290 yards and into a little breeze. No. 4 is another key because it is about a 285-yard carry to get over that little mound with heather on it. … I can’t personally do that.”

As one of the few players in the 156-man field who can comfortably manage that feat, Woods has seen his odds improve from 4-1 to 7-2 with local bookmakers this week. And given his eight-stroke victory in 2000 and St. Andrews’ longtime love affair with length, don’t be surprised if those prohibitive odds move to 3-1 before Thursday’s first strike at the 134th British Open.

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