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BRITISH OPEN

This Year Might Be Different Variety of a Breeze for Woods

July 19, 2001|THOMAS BONK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England — This just in . . . bad weather. What's a British Open without it? When the 130th Open Championship begins today at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, there is every indication that the wind will be blowing, it will rain on and off and it will be cool enough to chill the cream in your tea.

If that happens, it's not going to make this classic British Open course play any easier, and Lytham is a decent enough test without the added elements. It's tight, there are 196 bunkers, there is out of bounds everywhere you look and the rough is tall and springy because it has rained so much.

Players tend to think about these matters when they're out there on the tee, their pant legs flapping in the breeze.

"The fairways get narrower and narrower with this kind of wind," Sergio Garcia said.

Wind gusts of 40 mph whipped over Royal Lytham on Wednesday, which was as good a reason as any to stay indoors, Colin Montgomerie said.

"Two days of this wind can ruin your swing," he said.

Meanwhile, defending champion Tiger Woods, says he has gotten his swing together. That would seem to be good timing for Woods, because he hasn't been in the top 10 in his last three tournaments. When Woods showed up at Lytham for his mass interview session this week, he said he's up to par at last.

"I am hitting the ball better, definitely," Woods said. "It was something very small in my swing, and once I fixed that, everything came back. I am starting to hit the ball the way I know how."

Woods has had problems controlling the distance on his approaches, which could have been comforting to everyone trying to run him down from behind.

As usual, Woods is the favorite to win at Lytham, the 6,905-yard, par-71 layout that includes such features as a railway line jutting up against some of the outbound holes and another hole, the ninth, where a row of red brick Victorian houses appears so close to the green that you could drop a ball out of a window and into the cup.

Butch Harmon, Woods' coach, says his client is in "a different league" than his challengers and could win "even if you put a blindfold on him."

It was hyperbole, of course, but nonetheless effective. Thomas Bjorn played a practice round Tuesday with Woods, Mark O'Meara and Adam Scott, observed Tiger's game close-up and came away impressed.

"He looks very confident," Bjorn said. "He looks very relaxed. When he is like he is right now, he is very difficult to compete with. He is capable of doing things that no other man on this planet can do with a golf club."

Bjorn should know what he says about Woods. He tied for second, eight shots behind Woods, last year at St. Andrews, then beat him at Dubai and played the first two rounds of the U.S. Open with Woods at Southern Hills.

There has been speculation that Lytham is similar to Southern Hills, principally because of its narrow fairways, and as a result, Woods is at a disadvantage. But Woods is not fazed by such talk.

"If you're playing well, you're going to score well," he said.

There are a number of players who are expected to score well at Lytham, with Retief Goosen being the most prominent among them. Goosen, who won the U.S. Open last month, won the Scottish Open last week at Loch Lomond. Goosen tied for 41st last year at St. Andrews, but he has two top 10s in his three British Open appearances before that.

Everyone keeps waiting for Montgomerie to win a major and the same goes for Phil Mickelson and David Duval, plus Garcia, for that matter. Montgomerie, 38, was 28th at the Scottish Open and dropped to No. 12 in the Official World Ranking, but he won the Irish Open two weeks before that, so that has to be encouraging.

At the British Open, Montgomerie has missed the cut five times in 11 years and made the top 10 once.

"My Open record is pretty poor, which is being polite," Montgomerie said.

Mickelson, 31, is playing his 37th major and still trying to win his first. He has won two regular tour events this year and 19 times in a career that would seem a lot richer if he could come through in a major. Even when he won at Hartford the first weekend of July, Mickelson knew he had not shut up his critics.

"I don't think it's really squelched talk," he said. "I think it's postponed it for a week or two."

Time's up. It may also be running out for Darren Clarke, 32, who had a shot at the 1997 British Open at Troon. Clarke had a four-shot lead midway through the third round, but shot 39 on the back and wound up tied for second the next day, three shots behind Justin Leonard.

"Maybe I was a bit overawed by the position I was in," Clarke said. "Obviously I am a lot more experienced now than I was then."

And so is Woods, who marks British Open week as the No. 1 ranked player for the 100th consecutive week. When he played Lytham in 1996, he was a 20-year-old amateur. He tied for 22nd and shot a 66 in the second round.

Despite his three-tournament wobble, Woods has won 21 of his last 44 official tournaments worldwide.

Even he is not immune to talk of the bad weather forecast.

"If it stays like this, it will be a pretty good test," Woods said.

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