Welcome to the British Open. What do you mean this isn't Great Britain? It's a linksland golf course right on the water. It's sandy, windy and wide open, so that when it gusts -- and we're talking 30 and 35 miles an hour -- you have to mark your ball with an anvil. It's raw and raining. The sky is a deep metal gray, the color of the end cut of microwaved roast beef. And the closest land mass is an ocean away.
Looks like another a perfect beach day at Carnoustie, so let's get the Coppertone out, gang, and hang around the moors for Cathy and Heathcliff to play through. This has to be Scotland, right? Because in America weather like this isn't for golf, it's for Michigan-Ohio State.
The U.S. Open?
Yes, open. Nobody promised you dry and calm.
Memo to Stu Miller: You think the wind at Candlestick was tough? Try hitting onto the green on the 447-yard ninth hole here at Shinnecock Hills. That baby surrendered just two birdies Thursday; 33 golfers managed par there and the rest of the field, 130 of them, got pounded. Playing long? "A lot of guys couldn't get their drives close enough to even sniff getting on the green," said Tom Watson. Then, grinning the grin of someone who has seen this movie before, Watson promised that "par is a very good score today -- on any hole."
Not much red on the leader board.
"Today's just kind of a survival day," said Bob Tway, who stayed out of trouble long enough to shoot par, 70, and lead the tournament.
Most of the finishing numbers were much larger. If this was football, you'd be looking at tight ends. Jack Nicklaus, of all people, took three double-bogeys on the back nine. "That's what killed me," the Golden Bear said after his 77. Seven of the first 12 who went the loop staggered in over 80. By dusk and the suspension of play, 42 golfers -- more than one-quarter of the field -- were 10 or more strokes over par. What do you send for these guys, a courtesy dump truck? Jack Renner, for example, was so pleased to be done with his 85 that he withdrew from the tournament. I came. I saw. I got hammered. I give up. I'm out of here. This is the same Jack Renner who said the other day that he was looking forward to playing Shinnecock Hills because it wasn't one of those cookie-cutter courses with the railroad-tie shoring and the greens in the middle of a lake. How does it look to you now, Jackie boy?
Speaking as a hopeless romantic, weather like this provides a pleasant alternative to rooting for one of those 10,000 baby blond belters who make the golf tour look like a casting call for some kind of papaya wine cooler. "In weather like this," Watson said, his eyes twinkling impishly, "the golf course isn't defenseless. There's lots of bogeys out there." Here's the choice then: You can root for history, tradition and elegance. Or you can root for the clones. Hunker down you hairy Shinnecock Hills.
"As you all know," Tway was saying in the press tent, "this is a miserable day."
How miserable? Well, let's do a little comparative shopping. At noon on this, the 12th day of June, a date that normally produces in these latitudes a craving for ice cream as profound as a primal scream, the Good Humor man stationed just off the 13th green was literally asleep in his truck. He couldn't give his stuff away. On the other hand, the line for hot coffee at the stand not 25 feet away looked like something out of the Great Depression.
You say you want to hear some apt names for Thursday's round? Here are a few that would have constituted the perfect foursome: Lee Chill (shot 86), David Frost (72), Cleve Coldwater (77) and Jodie Mudd (73). You want to know what grows in the rough on a links course? Kenny Knox, who shot 72, talked about "hitting it from the right hay" on 14. You think bowlers and crapshooters blow on their hands a lot? That could have been Andy Varipapa and Nathan Detroit out there. And how windy was it? If substantial guys like Craig Stadler were backing off putts because of the gusts, how on earth did the noodly Mike Reid keep from going airborne? What did he use for ballast, Andy Bean?
Although the rain occasionally poured down in angry, bullet bursts -- if you were shrewd enough to be under a tent you risked only deafness, not pneumonia -- and once forced a 14-minute stoppage of play to permit the animals to board the ark, it wasn't so much the rain as the wind that pushed the scores north. "The critical factor is how hard the wind blows," Watson said. For the first time since the golfers got here they came face to face with a north by northeast wind. For three days, they had practiced in southerly breezes and the difference was dramatic.
Take the 471-yard sixth hole as an example. With the wind in his chest the other day, chunky Roger Maltbie hit driver, 3-wood to the green. With the wind at his back Thursday, Maltbie hit driver, 9-iron. On the same hole, Watson went from a second-shot 1-iron to a second-shot wedge. "That's the real indication of how the golf course changed," Watson said, estimating that the wind caused holes to play "a good 100 yards different" from Wednesday to Thursday. Greg Norman is one of the longest hitters on the tour. But on the 409-yard 10th hole Thursday he threw a 4-iron at the flag, and the wind knocked it down 40 yards short of the green. The Shark short? On a clear day he can hit it to Connecticut. Norman said his 71 was the morale equivalent of a 67. Long before the whole field even teed off, he predicted, "Nobody will be under par today."
Just one stroke from the lead, the Australian Norman came off the course saying, "Beautiful. Just like England." Zimbabwean Denis Watson, two from the lead, came off saying, "It's really like being on a British Open course. I've never seen anything like this in America before." And Kansas City's own Tom Watson, who already has won five British Opens and finds himself two from the lead, as well, beamed and said, "The fun of this game is being able to negotiate the wind. This is what the U.S. Open ought to be like." So tell me, how are things in Gloccamorra?