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St. Andrews never goes out of style


© St. Petersburg Times, published July 19, 2000

St. ANDREWS, Scotland -- Down a cobblestone street from the University of St. Andrews, the elder among Scottish cathedrals of learning (christened in 1412), are wind-whacked seaside acres where in 1553 village bosses with an odd approach to spelling voted public access for "goff, futball, schuting, at all gamis with all uther, as ever thye pleis and ony time."

Old Course, indeed.

History's heartbeat revs anew at St. Andrews (pop. 14,900), with golf's worldly 21st century pilgrims flocking to town, from retiring king Jack Nicklaus to dominant prince Tiger Woods, all mesmerized by the British Open's antique charms.

St. Andrews is where Bobby Jones, in quest of his 1930 Grand Slam, ruled the British Amateur. Doug Sanders blew a 3-foot Old Course putt at the 72nd hole in 1970, costing the rainbow-hued rounder from the University of Florida a British Open championship.

Frozen forever in millions of sporting minds is the 1995 portrait of aging Arnold Palmer waving goodbye from Swilcan Burn Bridge in the 18th fairway. Nicklaus has won the Open here, the year Sanders muffed, one nugget among his astonishing 18 majors. Sam Snead took the 1946 Open on the old sod but then torched golf's cradle as "an abandoned sort of place."

Diverse droplets in an ocean of lore.

"Thank heaven for Arnold," said Gary Player, one of four to win all four professional majors. "His enormous popularity and unwavering faith in the British Open carried the tournament through some wobbly years in the '60s. Growth has been incredible since. At my 46th consecutive Open, global interest has reached an unimaginable high."

In a triumphant American parade over nearly a half-century, Palmer has stolen U.K. hearts, followed by the unfathomable excellence of Nicklaus, a touch of Lee Trevino, then Kansas City redhead Tom Watson winning five Opens.

Today, the marquee shouts "Tiger."

With a Masters, a PGA Championship and last month's U.S. Open in his Grand Slam portfolio at age 24, Tiger Woods can further ascend to greatness by winning this weekend's British Open, joining legendary sweepers of the majors Nicklaus, Player, Gene Sarazen and Ben Hogan.

St. Andrews is ready again.

A fresh assessment of the fabled Old Course landscape finds none of the overgrown contrivances of last year's Open just up Scotland's northeastern shore at Carnoustie.

Rough was grown unsensically long and made all but unplayable at Carnoustie. Lords of the Royal and Ancient, governing body of the sport in all countries but the United States and Mexico, had become overprotective of the course in an era of exotic golf technology.

Jean Van de Velde eventually fell on his French sword, stumbling physically and mentally at the concluding hole, making triple-bogey 7 to blow a three-shot Sunday lead.

Paul Lawrie, a Scot from Dundee, a working-class town between St. Andrews and Carnoustie, became a gleeful beneficiary, beating Van de Velde and Justin Leonard in a playoff to embrace the Claret Jug.

After 140 years, the Open still can learn lessons. You'll see no such tricky quirks at the Old Course, which sits in the shadow of the R&A's stately headquarters.

There are deep and testy bunkers, burns (creeks) and a road of note at St. Andrews but only a hint of rough. "Our protection against Tiger Woods, technology and terribly low scores will be pin positions and greens with snappy speed and subtle challenges," said Eddie Adams, greenskeeper at the world's best-known golf arena.

"Rough might well prohibit a bouncing, out-of-control shot from making a bunker. I want to see it in the sand, where skill, intelligence and not brute strength are the main requirements."

It will be an exam far different from U.S. Opens. More like Augusta National but far from a parallel. Fairways are as expansive as Scotland's golfing soul. Greens aren't just massive, they do double duty, with the same putting surface serving two holes. An errant approach can lead to a wrong-side landing and a 120-foot putt.

Of eight courses on the British Open rota, St. Andrews offers the least demands for driving accuracy and hitting greens in regulation. But no course, including Muirfield, Troon and Turnberry, has bunkers so tough and greens so challenging to putt.

"It can take awhile for Americans to fall in love with British golf, if they ever do," Watson said. "In the States, we grow up learning to fly shots a specific number of yards, aiming to rather quickly stop the ball on targets that can resemble helicopter landing pads.

"Golf is a feel deal in Britain, where we outsiders must learn when a 170-yard shot must fly maybe 145, then be allowed to bounce the rest of the way, which can mean aiming a dozen paces short of the putting surface. At times, I don't even want to know the yardage."

So old, yet modernizing.

"Even after all its centuries, the Old Course must grow," said Colin Montgomerie, a gifted Scot but never a major championship winner. "We moderns are far bigger and stronger players than were our St. Andrews ancestors, so it is necessary to protect the birthplace of golf with evolving toughness that fits in with the ancient theme."

It's longer than ever.

Carving deeper into sandhills and Fife bush, St. Andrews architects added 172 yards to the track John Daly ruled at the 1995 Open. Up to 7,115 yards, almost a half-mile longer than the Old Course of a century ago.

"Long hitters still have a chance to drive greens on par-4 holes, including the ninth and 12th," Montgomerie said. "But it will be the putting surfaces that decide Sunday's champion. It takes truly clever shots to die the ball close to holes, then a wealth of judgment and touch to get it into the cups. If you're not putting well, it's no use showing up for this Open."

So old, so treasured, yet with a feeling of adapting for a new century. Money has grown immensely at the British Open. Tony Lema won in 1964 at the Old Course and received 1,500 pounds (about $2,300 at the current exchange rate). This time, with the Jug and eternal glory, the victor gets a half-million pounds (about $750,000).

"Money is good, an essential to getting along well in life," Player said, "but that part of winning this Open will eventually fade. What remains is an amazing honor, something extraordinary that the champion will take to his grave. Even longer, really. In this neighborhood, they talk forever about Old Tom Morris, Tommy Armour, Palmer, Nicklaus and -- I hope -- a little bit about me."

For now, the buzz is Tiger.

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