Tigermania arrives at Scotland's Old Course

Tiger Woods plays the 129th British Open at venerable St. Andrews. A win on the legendary course would seal the wunderkind's legend.

The greatest golfer playing the game today, arguably, is bidding this weekend to conquer the windswept course at St. Andrews, regarded as the sport's historic home.

Historic is the operative word here.

Six centuries ago, the first Scotsmen hacked a path through the heather and bushes at St. Andrews to create their "Old Course."

At first, according to the historians at the Royal and Ancient Golf Club at St. Andrews, King James II was not amused by this practice. In 1457, the Scottish Parliament issued an act forbidding loyal subjects to play golf. It wasn't until 1502, when King James IV himself bought his first set of clubs, that the ban was lifted.

This Sunday, many golfing fans hope history - and another coronation - will take place on these hallowed greens. If Tiger Woods wins the 129th British Open, at 24, he would be the youngest player ever to win golfing's grand slam - four of the major open tournaments. It's a feat only five other players have ever achieved, and the company is impressive: Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, and Jack Nicklaus.

But the wily custodians of St. Andrews have worked hard to make victory as hard to get as possible.

When he arrived at the picturesque town, Woods discovered that workers had spent the winter "improving" - i.e. making much, much tougher - several already notoriously difficult holes on the Old Course.

Peter Dawson, secretary of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, was heard talking about "Tiger-proofing" the 14th hole and the 7th by deepening bunkers and tilting up their faces to 80 degrees so that the only way to get out of them is to play backward.

There was little sign, however, that the man who last month won the US Open at Pebble Beach by a staggering 15 strokes was fazed by these attempts to frustrate him.

On Thursday, Woods finished the first round with a sizzling five under par. He stayed clear of the pot-hole bunkers. "I think this is some of the most ultimate golf," said Woods afterward. "If you put it on the green easy, you know you're going to get a good score. You got to know where to put it, and I think I've played enough rounds here to know where to put it."

Such play is already generating what the British papers are calling "Tigermania." The tournament always attracts large crowds of spectators, but organizers this year are having to cope with record numbers. Many local inhabitants have cashed in on the Woods hysteria by quitting their cramped granite houses and renting them out to visitors willing to pay 1,000 ($1,500) for the privilege.

On Tuesday, a round of golf (at a future date) with Woods and Mark O'Meara was auctioned off to raise money for charity. The winner paid $2 million to play 18 holes with the young legend.

Woods himself acknowledges that St. Andrews is "special." He told reporters: "To have an opportunity to complete the career grand slam at the golf course where it all started is very symbolic. Every player who has played the game has wanted to win the British Open at St. Andrews."

Other performers also acknowledge that the British Open at St. Andrews is unique among the world's major golf tournaments by being, among other things, highly international in the line-up of players. This year's field includes contenders from as far away as Burma, Zimbabwe, New Zealand, Taiwan, and Fiji, as well as from the United States, Japan, Australia, and France.

British golf writer John Hopkins says the "wide geographical spread" of qualifiers gives the British Open a "different flavor." And the course itself poses four main problems for golfers, says Mr. Hopkins: the wind, the speed of the greens, the positioning of flags, and the bunkers. And the bunkers are the "worst" of the four.

There are 112 of them in all, including one known as Hell, a 600 sq. yard chasm. "It is fair to say that the winner will be the man who does not get into a bunker or, if he does, then makes sure it is one from which he can get out," Hopkins says.

"No matter how much Woods says he feels at home, this is not his natural territory."

Perhaps. But it's becoming hard to believe that any course, even the Old Course, isn't natural territory to Tiger.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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