December 30, 2010
TURNBERRY, Scotland - It is a land of history and mystery, of kings and kilts, of whins - the tall grass - and whisky [cq, no "e'']. A land where remnants of 700-year-old abbeys stand against time and the words of poet Bobby Burns carry in the wind.
It is the land where golf began, on the sandy soil next to the sea called links, and the land where the game once more returns with the oldest of championships, the British Open, being played for the 138th time.
This is Turnberry, hard by the Firth of Clyde, some 40 miles south of Glasgow, a course twice, during World War I and World War II, was turned into a base for the Royal Air Force and now has again been turned into a test for the game's best players.
Along the road is Croy Brae, or The Electric Brae, where because of an optical illusion up looks down and down looks up. On the edge of a course is a lighthouse, built on the alleged birth site of Robert the Bruce, who led the Scots against the English in the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.
The River Doon flows in Ayr, the city some 18 miles north, and over it, near Burns' heritage museum, crosses the Bridge over the Doon, or Brig O'Doon.
The pros can cross that bridge when they come to it. Now the idea is to get past the bunkers, huge pits five, six-feet deep, and the long rough when play in the Open begins Thursday on Turnberry's Ailsa course..
"Just a fabulous golf course,'' said Tiger Woods. He is a three-time British Open winner, but like so many of the golfers in their early 30s, or younger, never had played even a practice round at Turnberry until this week.
Three Opens have been held here, 1977, won by Tom Watson; 1986, won by Greg Norman; and 1994, won by Nick Price. But 15 years is a long time. Fifteen years ago Tiger was 18 and one of his playing partners for the first two rounds, Ryo Ishikawa of Japan, was 2-years-old.
So, in a way, for many in the field Turnberry is unchartered territory, even though they will have noted every swale and sand trap during the previous few days.
"We haven't had the big winds yet,'' said Tiger of how difficult it is to create a playing strategy. "We'll see how the weather holds out.''
Off coast about 10 miles is Ailsa Craig, a huge rock, an extinct volcano, home to thousands of birds. The saying here is "If ye can't see Ailsa Craig it's raining; if ye can see it, it's going to rain.'' On Tuesday, you saw it, and then you saw storms smash in from the Firth.
Turnberry was renovated the past year, reopened only a month past. Tiger, in a sense, also went through his own renovation, surgery on the anterior cruciate ligament of his left knee in June 2008.
That kept him out of last year's Open, a fact to which the British media kept referring - hey, at least they didn't ask about Lindbergh flying the Atlantic - and out of any tournament until February.
Since his return, Tiger has won three times, which he conceded was not something anyone would have predicted, but none of those wins was in a major. He tied for sixth in both the Masters and U.S. Open.
The three who took championships at Turnberry, Watson, Norman and Price - and a fourth, Jack Nicklaus, whom Watson beat by a single shot in '77 - all are living members of the World Golf Hall of Fame. The connection was not lost on Tiger.
"You are looking at guys who were some of the best ball strikers,'' said Woods, who has been made the 7-to-4 favorite. "At this course you can understand why. You really have to hit your ball well here. And you have to drive the ball well, hit your irons well. You just can't fake it around this golf course.''
Experience helps on links courses, although because the weather is so changeable sometimes not that much. If you're hitting driver with the wind because the ball is certain to carry a bunker, what happens when the wind reverses? Do you use a 3-wood or 3-iron and play short?
Tiger won the Open three years ago at Royal Liverpool, Hoylake, and hadn't played the course until the week of the tournament. Back in 1964, Tony Lema, who had never even been on a links course, won at St. Andrews, advising "I don't build ‘em, I play ‘em.''
So does Tiger, and he said his introduction to links golf some 14 years ago when he was at Stanford, was a revelation.
""I just fell in love with being able to use the ground as a friend, as an ally,'' said Tiger of golf on the hard-packed fairways. "We don't get to do that in the states. Everything is up in the air.''
As at the moment so is the winner of the 2009 British Open. Tiger is the choice, but everyone except Robert the Bruce has a chance.