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BRITISH OPEN NOTES : It Looks as if Royal Birkdale Results Might Be Written in Wind

July 17, 1991|MIKE DOWNEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SOUTHPORT, England — A 40-m.p.h. gale that whistled through this northern England seaport had golfers concerned about eagles and birdies being blown away in the 120th British Open, which begins Thursday.

"If the wind stays like this, then over-par is going to win," said Seve Ballesteros, who considers Royal Birkdale the best course of the Open's rotation.

Birkdale is carrying a par of 70, with two par fives, the 13th and 18th holes, having been reduced to fours for the tournament. That won't make breaking par any easier.

Five-time champion Tom Watson said: "It is almost incomprehensible to people who watch it on TV and don't get the real feel of the wind. You have to experience it."

None of the rain that tormented Wimbledon has yet made its way up here, north of Liverpool. To some of the players, rain might be preferable to what they have endured in practice.

As of now, Birkdale's greens are soft, and a little more water would keep them that way. These high, dry winds, though, could turn the greens hard by Thursday.

One of the favorites, Ian Woosnam, said: "If the wind stays like this, there are going to be some very high scores. If it ever calms down, the course is going to be playing reasonably easy."

Woosnam believes that the 15th hole, a 543-yard whopper that plays directly into the wind as it generally blows in from the Irish Sea, will be the hole that makes or breaks the leaders.

The 15th also has needle-threading bunkers that discourage the use of fairway woods for the sake of accuracy. Greg Norman played it two-iron, three-iron, two-iron Tuesday.

"That hole is a game of chess," Norman said.

There's also that unusually long finishing hole, the 472-yard 18th, that for golf's greatest players has been pared from a par five to a par four. Ballesteros believes that round-ending bogey is going to hurt some players' overnight confidence.

But defending champion Nick Faldo, thinking it irrelevant, said: "Changing fives to fours, it's just a mind game."

Nothing much matters but that wind.

Fred Couples, according to playing partner Norman, hit a two-iron 150 yards in their practice round, then at the next hole hit the same club 295 yards.

"In conditions like this, you just throw the yardage book out the window," Norman said. "You're talking about a 150-yard spread in one shot!"

Tom Watson refused to be drawn into a controversy over comments made about him in Gary Player's new biography, dating to an eight-year-old implication by Watson that he had caught Player cheating.

Watson, who eight years ago won the British Open the last time it was played at Birkdale, said it would not serve "the best interests of this tournament" to dredge up an old subject and get into "a debate with the little man."

In "To Be the Best," written by British journalist Michael McDonnell, Player rehashes an incident from the 1983 Skins Game in which Watson accused Player of having removed some grass from behind his ball to improve his lie.

Player said: "I think that what he did to me that day will haunt him for the rest of his life."

Watson was startled when a fire truck screeched to a halt outside the Southport restaurant where he was eating fish and chips.

The fireman who came rushing into the restaurant had spotted Watson. He asked for an autograph.

Explanations were still being demanded as to why five Americans were no-shows for British Open qualifying.

Open officials were teed off because tee times had been established Sunday for Andy Bean, Billy Ray Brown, Ken Green, Jim Hallet and Mark McCumber, none of whom answered when their names were called. Qualifying rounds were played Sunday and Monday for one final opening in the Open field.

Only two standby substitute players were available, many others having been turned away previously because the qualifying field was full.

"That's the really annoying part," said George Wilson, deputy secretary of Britain's golfing authority, the Royal and Ancient. "There are young hopefuls willing and ready to travel the length of the country to try to get into the Open."

Wilson said he would contact the five Americans and insist upon an explanation. Four of them, all but Bean, played in last week's New England tournament on the PGA Tour.

"It may be that there is a genuine communication that has not come to our attention, but in these days of telexes and telephones, that is hard to believe," Wilson said.

McCumber, for one, contacted the R&A Tuesday to say that he had instructed a representative of his management company to report that he was withdrawing from the qualifying event because of an injured back.

Meanwhile, the fight for that final spot turned into a golfing marathon before going to Yago Beamonte, 25, of Spain.

The sudden-death playoff lasted \o7 16 holes\f7 .

Several golfers were involved at the start. It came down to a head-to-head battle between Beamonte and Ireland's Jimmy Heggarty over eight holes, the last two of which weren't contested until Tuesday morning.

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