Woods faces clear-cut path

Over fast fairways of St. Andrews, he seeks elusive Slam

July 20, 2000|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland - Everywhere you look here, the history of golf is staring right back.

From the fairways of the Old Course that opened before the American Revolution to the cemetery at the edge of town where Old and Young Tom Morris are buried, the game's roots are as firm as the grasp Tiger Woods currently holds on his rating as the world's top player.

It is why there is always a special feel whenever the British Open returns to St. Andrews, as it will beginning today. And because of what Woods has done in a spectacular career that peaked with last month's 15-stroke victory in the U.S. Open, the 129th British Open might become of the most memorable.

Listen to Jack Nicklaus, whose record of 18 professional major championships and reputation as the game's greatest player Woods is chasing.

"As I grew up and used to go down to Augusta, Bobby Jones always talked a little about his golf and a little bit of different things," Nicklaus recalled earlier this week. "He always said that a great golfer's record is never complete until he wins at St. Andrews. I think he felt that about himself."

It is what pushed Nicklaus to win here in 1970 in a playoff over Doug Sanders after finishing second to Tony Lema six years before. It is what drove Nicklaus to win again eight years later after twice losing by a shot, first to Lee Trevino in 1972 in their famous showdown at Muirfield and later to Tom Watson in 1977 at Turnberry.

It is what brings Nicklaus, 60, back this year for perhaps the final British Open of his legendary career.

"My two favorite places in the game of golf are Augusta and St. Andrews," said Nicklaus, a three-time British Open champion and a record six-time Masters champion. "It [St. Andrews] is a place that has always been very special to me and special to a lot of people. It is most enjoyable to be back."

Nicklaus played here for the first time in 1964, finishing five shots behind Lema. He had been told by his father that the course was too rough.

"I didn't know what to expect when I came here," Nicklaus said. "My first time around the golf course, I said, `Dad, you're all wet. This is a great place to play the game of golf.' He wasn't a tournament golfer. He was the average guy who comes from the States looking for lush, green grass and big, tall trees. I don't think you find many of them out there."

Nicklaus won't find that this year, but he has already discovered the biggest change made since the Open was last played here, in 1995, when John Daly won in a playoff. It could prevent anyone, including Woods, from breaking the Open's 72-hole scoring record of 18-under-par 270 set here by Nick Faldo in 1990.

"The only change that makes a whole lot of difference are probably the bunkers," Nicklaus said. "How do I phrase this? They really outdid themselves on the bunkers. They're very, very difficult - the toughest I've ever seen."

All 112 bunkers have been redone, and according to Nicklaus, are deeper and more treacherous than before.

"They're meant to be real hazards," said Hugh Campbell, chairman of the championship committee for the Royal and Ancient Golf Club. "If you don't have the fear of putting it in the bunker at St. Andrews, it would take a lot of the teeth out of the course."

Though Campbell said they were not intentionally deepened, it reportedly took five men a month to renovate the infamous Hell Bunker on the par-5 14th hole. That's where Nicklaus took a 10 in 1995, half of those shots coming as he tried to extricate himself from the sand.

Considering how fast the fairways are playing, it could prove an even greater challenge to Woods' prodigious length off the tee than any of the other 155 players in the field.

"This is different than what we normally play for the British Opens I've played from '95 till now," Woods said. "It is so much faster. I am not the only one saying this, but it is weird to have the fairways faster than the greens. You go out there 40 yards away from the green, you hit a putt and it runs faster, then slows down on the green."

Woods said that it might affect where - and how far - he hits his tee shots.

"People say around the world that all you do at St. Andrews is aim left and hit it," Woods said. "That's not the case. With the fairways being as fast as they are, you need to position your ball off the tee because the ball will run. If you keep it on the left too much, there are pots [bunkers] on holes that you share the fairways with ... that you can run right into."

And if he does?

"Nobody is going to hit any ball out of ... a fairway bunker," Nicklaus said. "You're going to spend a lot of time in the bunkers if you get in one."

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