Are you interested in golf?" the man on my right at Carnoustie's 18th green asks me.
It seems a strange question under the circumstances.
I'm lost in a crowd of over 30,000 spectators on one of the worlds' most ancient (seaside) golf courses. Some of the most renowned legends of the game are battling it out at the 128th British Open Championship, golf's oldest major championship.
But here on Scotland's East coast, this is as much a battle against the elements and a controversially tough course, as player against player.
At Carnoustie, wind is part of the legend. You don't just play the course - you also must possess a mariner's sense of when and where the 30 m.p.h. ocean gusts will hit. Each time a ball enters Scottish airspace, its trajectory becomes subject to the forces of nature. (In spite of it, however, golfers have been playing here since the 16th century).
But there are other challenges upsetting the players here today, prompting a fair amount of complaint. Some have been finding the rough altogether too rough. Some criticize the fairways for being too narrow. These factors, with the wind, conspire against target golf, the players argue, and introduce too much luck into the game.
It is the way the course (which for a number of years had fallen on bad times and has not been the setting for the Open since 1975), has been "set up" for the Open that is the problem. Even veteran Tom Watson, a frequent winner of past Opens (including Carnoustie in '75), has called it "unfair." Others have been more outspoken. They snarl that the course should be called "Carnastie."
The Royal & Ancient Golf Club, responsible for the Open, has defended itself sturdily, partly blaming wet and warm weather for making the rough grow unexpectedly fast. (A spokesman by the fourth day denied that the organizers had been stung by criticism into mowing or flattening the rough. "It hasn't been touched," he said.)
But plainly this is a course that separates the boys from the men (and some of the men as well). The 19-year-old Spanish sensation Sergio Garcia found it all too much and by the end of the second day was 30 over par and last in the field of 156 players. Ten days earlier he had finished second, shooting a spectacular 62 at Loch Lomond, a modern course.
The battle at and with Carnoustie reignites debate over old-style courses - that follow the contours of the natural landscape - versus modern courses. Most new courses are sculpted and carefully manicured. The fairways are relatively wide and the contours, trees, water hazards, and sweeping bunkers are man-made or strategically planted. At Carnoustie, there are few trees. The topography is original and unforgiving.
Of course, top golfers do not want to be made to look inept. (When was the last time you saw Australian Greg Norman swing and miss the ball?) They want to shine, as any entertainers do.
Yet spectators have found the golf compelling even if some players have been reduced to disgruntlement.
At this writing, yesterday, the wind had eased. Frenchman Jean van de Velde, was somewhat unexpectedly the leader, on par at the end of the third round. He has tackled Carnoustie with lan. He takes the rough with the smooth, weaving his way from tee to rough or bunker only to persistently extricate himself from such long-shot disasters with a beguiling and inspired efficiency.
As others came floundering home on Day 2, I watched Mr. Van de Velde avoid the homecoming hazards of Johnny Miller's Bunkers and the notorious Barry Burn (a fast-running stream that like a snake snares some of the finest), to slide with controlled assurance into the 18th hole at par 68 for the day.
The man next to me at the 18th and I are far from alone as we clap appreciatively.
"Am I interested in golf?" I echo his question. "No. Not Really. What about you?"
"There's nothing else," he says emphatically.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society