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Tiger-proofing a big effect on British Open field

Auld Grey Toon has been made much longer
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

The Auld Grey Toon that has always prided itself on being the "home of golf" is now also the home of Starbucks and Subway franchises on Market Street, not far from the graveyard where many of the legendary players of the 19th century are buried.

Old Tom Morris and his son, Young Tom Morris, each of whom won four British Open titles from 1861 through 1872, and Allan Robertson, the first great Scottish golf professional and the first to break 80 on the Old Course at St. Andrews, were laid to rest there, less than a mile from the first tee of what may be golf's most famous course. Jack Nicklaus, who will play in his final British Open starting here on Thursday, and Tiger Woods, who will try to win his second Open title here, both have said St. Andrews is their favorite course in the world.

Still, in the wake of Woods's record 19-under-par 269 triumph at St. Andrews in 2000, the men who run the Royal and Ancient governing body felt it necessary to make several significant changes to the Old Course, most notably stretching it by 164 yards and adding five new tees. Three of them -- at No. 2, No. 13 and No. 14 -- are located on land once considered out of bounds.

"I don't understand why they would do it at St. Andrews," Woods said last week during his annual golf and fishing foray to Ireland before the Open. "It is so dependent on weather. If the wind blows and we get some bad weather coming in there, then guys will shoot high scores. We didn't have any wind in 2000 and everybody went low, but that's what St. Andrews is. It's not a very difficult golf course when the wind doesn't blow at all. But when it does blow, you're hoping to shoot even par and that will be a good score."

When Woods won five years ago, he never hit a golf ball into any of the 112 bunkers scattered around the grounds, simply sending his ball well past them off the tee with his prodigious drives. Despite the added distance, another five years of evolving equipment technology means he hardly will be alone in a field of big hitters who may be able to overpower the course if current conditions -- temperatures in the high 70s and no wind -- continue through the week.

The extra yardage ostensibly was designed to put a few more of those fearsome bunkers into play off the tee. The most visible change will occur at the 14th hole, now a 618-yard brute after the tee was moved back 37 yards. It will take a drive of 300 yards to clear the "Beardies" bunkers and hit the flattest fairway on the course, the so-called Elysian Fields. Another mighty blow will be necessary to clear the fairway "Hell" bunker, roughly the size of a tennis court, and avoid the aptly named "Grave" bunker.

In 1995, Nicklaus needed four swings to get out of the Hell bunker at No. 14 and made a 10 on the hole. And then there's the greenside bunker at St. Andrews's Road Hole on 17, an evil pit that often forces a player to play out sideways or backward toward the fairway. Tommy Nakajima, then very much in contention, needed five shots to get out of the Road bunker at the '78 Open and took an 11. It's been called "the Sands of Nakajima" ever since.

U.S. Open champion Michael Campbell recalled his own experience at the 17th in the '95 British Open here, when he finished third. "I got up and down [for par], but it was a complete fluke," he said. "I said to my caddie at the time, 'How the hell am I going to play this?' He said, 'I don't know.' I looked at him and said, 'I don't know, either.' So I just closed my eyes and hit it. I'm telling the truth. I closed my eyes."

Some players are not at all happy with the changes at St. Andrews, among them European Ryder Cup player Paul McGinley of Ireland.

"I'm very disappointed," he said recently. "They've changed the home of golf. They didn't need to lengthen it; they've just rewarded the big hitters because there are some bunkers there that are now in play for 80 percent of the field. But Tiger can just blow over them. I mean, that's not the future of golf, is it? The big picture about scoring there has to be the weather. And secondly, the pin positions could be tougher. I'd like to see that being the road we go down to toughen up courses, as opposed to just lengthening them all the time."

Phil Mickelson, among others, has given the course his seal of approval after playing several practice rounds last week.

"The course up by the greens is very wide left to right," he said. "The tricky part is all the hills and swales and hollows and you need the right angles to get to certain pins. But you really need to have a great touch into the greens, bump-and-run shots and putts. To me, that's the greatness of the course and that's the great challenge.

"Pin placements will be a factor, but if the wind doesn't blow there's a good chance we could see 14- or 15-under win. I'd like it to blow 25-30 miles an hour because to me that's the defense of the golf course and the width of the course, the wide alleys, are not so wide. They are very narrow with crosswinds, and that's when the course is challenging and playing at its best."

Still, one thing has never changed at St. Andrews, as Nick Faldo, who won here in 1990, wrote in a diary published by the Sunday Times two days ago. Faldo quoted a longtime friend and widely respected amateur, the late Gerald Micklem, on his advice for anyone venturing onto the Old Course.

"You must never get mad at St. Andrews," Micklem once wrote. "You must be willing to accept exactly what you get. Then you must never quit trying. Keep a clear mind at all times, for there are so many humps and hollows that it is easy to allow your mind to become tangled with frustration. Once you start seeking excuses, St. Andrews has got you beaten. The Old Course must be treated sympathetically. Don't try to fight it, try to understand it."

British Open Note: Bernhard Langer, Fredrik Jacobson and Brian Davis were added to the field after Jay Haas and David Howell dropped out because of injuries. Langer, who twice has tied for second and four times finished third in the Open, replaces Shingo Katayama, who also withdrew because of an injury.