The spirit of Old Tom Morris beckoned me to play a round of golf at his club, Prestwick, the other day. It promised to be one of the few ways a Yank hacker could fully fathom the British Open.

So true. It would have been nice if Old Tom had been able to help with some of the distances or joined in the search for the eight balls I lost. But that was impossible. Old Tom died in 1908.

That's the hook about golf here: history. Prestwick is where the first Open was played, in 1860, and also the next 11. Old Tom and his son, called Young Tom, won eight of them.

Prestwick is where you can hit the ball out of sight in lots of ways. You can sock it several hundred miles, if a slice off the first tee happens to land in one of the trains that pass by frequently.

More likely, a golfer can lose the ball in one of those seemingly endless patches of rough that obviously haven't been trimmed since the gutta percha ball went out of style. The highest single-hole score in the 115 Opens still is the 21 made during the inaugural tournament.

That's the second thing you learn about golf in this part of Scotland: mediocrity rarely is tolerated. Five yards off the fairway might as well be 500, for all the chance you have of reaching the green with the next shot.

Probably, the only reason courses got built at all was because the Scots couldn't figure any better use for the land. If that treeless stretch of scrub off the highway has some poles jiggling in the air, but no sheep, it's for golf. Excellence gets its due on British courses. The first recorded hole-in-one also was at Prestwick, in 1868. Young Tom aced the 145-yard No. 8 hole.

You maneuver around Prestwick and wonder how Old Tom did in the beginning, when it was a 12-holer. Until 1892, the British Open was a one-day affair, the players traipsing around the course three times.

Blind shots are a factor here, if not routine. Your tee shot stumbles into perfect position at the par-4 No. 17 and all that lies ahead is an emormous weedy hill.

So? "See that steeple?" said a buddy, Paul Attner, who had played the course before.

"Aim for it."

That landmark several miles away got me 15 yards from the cup. Old Tom would have known to putt a tad harder. I settled for par.

An old book says of Prestwick in Old Tom's time: "The holes were, for the most part, out of sight when one took the iron in hand for the approach.

" . . . You lofted over the intervening mountain of sand, and there was all the fascinating excitement, as you climbed to the top of it, of seeing how near to the hole your ball might have happened to roll."

Fascinating excitement?

Near the hole?

"Either I have a real misconception of what the game of golf is all about," said U.S. touring pro Roger Maltbie of Prestwick's neighbor, Turnberry, "or they do."

Maltbie actually made the cut in the wind and knee-high rough at Turnberry. I would have missed it at Prestwick. Maybe as gloriously as Guy McQuitty's 42 over in the Open.

The home hole at Prestwick is a teeny-tiny par-4 easily drivable on a calm day. Into what the assistant pro called "a gale," I was two club lengths off the fairway from the tee.

Two sand wedges and two pitching wedges later, I was on the green. The wrong one. The one not far from the pro shop used for practice putting. From there, I got up and down for eight -- and a fairly typical round in the conditions: 48-58.

I at least survived British links golf.

Craig Stadler didn't.

He injured his left wrist thrashing at the ball off Turnberry's 14th fairway during the first round and withdrew after finishing with an 82.

"You can injure yourself in the rough," said Payne Stewart. "Don't kid yourself. There are some spots you can hurt yourself.

"Par is awful good over here. Not like America, where you can drive it anyplace, whip it on the green and putt for birdie. No 25-unders here. You need an alternative mode.

"Some of the U.S. pros left the course dumbfounded, saying: 'You mean I came all the way over here to play this!' To me, that's a poor attitude."

Half-seriously, Greg Norman wondered if a golfer might sometime sue the lords of golf, here and in the United States, for injuries suffered while slashing from the rough during golf's two most important opens.

"The situation may come," he said. "The rough is getting deeper and deeper and we're swinging harder and harder. I don't agree with rough where you can't advance the ball.

"Someone could get badly hurt. He might then say: 'What caused this? And who made that happen? The establishment.' "

Norman doesn't stay too serious too long.

"Besides, everybody is suing everybody now, anyway. I read about a burglar breaking into a house in Los Angeles, falling down the steps and actually suing the owner for damages."

PGA Tour Commissioner Deane Beman was named in a suit that came after one of Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill's wild shots bopped a spectator.

"The charge," Beman said, "was that I allowed an obviously unqualified player to participate."

There are hazards on a golf course, and also hazardous conditions. There also is what happened to a man on a Welsh course on a date not recorded in the odd-facts book.

The fellow had played out of a bunker, jumped up to see the result and was hit on the head by a ball driven from another direction. His immediate feeling was only a slight smarting of the eyes; within a week, he was blind.

All most of us, from Old Tom on, ever lose on the course is our sanity. Non-golfers figure that got misplaced when we took up the game.