MUIRFIELD, SCOTLAND -- Golfers prepare for a British Open links course by getting in as many practice rounds as possible, to better cope with the natural hazards of these windswept, seaside courses: the gorse, the bunkers, the moguls, the idiosyncratic weather that gusts in off the water, howling like a jilted lover. And although the wind hasn't screeched here yet this week, the experienced golfers are respectful of its cataclysmic influence. "How often do we play here without the wind?" Jack Nicklaus, a veteran of 25 previous British Opens, asked. "Not very often, and not very long. In the end the golf course always wins."
The brighter the stars, the more dedicated the preparation. In anticipation of Thursday's start of the 116th British Open, four of golf's more luminous millionaires -- Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson and Greg Norman -- holders of 11 British Open championships among them, went jauntily around Muirfield together Wednesday (and how often are those guys a foursome unless one of the TV networks puts up skatey-eight millions to the winner?), jabbering and joking about beanball wars and sex scandals. But more about that later.
Covering the British Open requires some special preparation as well. Last week, for example, I played Lahinch on Ireland's west coast -- if you have a bad hook the next playable lie you'll have is on Cape Cod -- to gain a firsthand sense of the perils of a links course. (The spectacular Lahinch would undoubtedly be part of the British Open rotation had the British Empire not shrunk to the size of a tablecloth in the 20th century.) My playing partner was my dear friend, Mike Littwin, the trenchant sports columnist for the Baltimore Sun, known to his close friends as Slammin' Sammy. Littwin and I, to be fair, are not exactly scratch golfers -- unless you count the time I got poison ivy in the deep rough at a pitch-and-putt in the Pocono Mountains. I've never actually stayed in double figures for the full 18, and Littwin, who scorched the front nine in 81, was understandably rusty, not having picked up a club in this decade. On the other hand, golfers like us certainly get sufficient chances to hit a good shot.
As all terrible golfers know, the crucial shot is off the first tee, when the people playing behind you are watching and waiting. That's the only time you're really on enough display to provoke uncontrollable laughter from strangers. So you say The Terrible Golfer's Prayer: Please God, don't let me whiff, and if I have to hit a grounder, at least let it get past the women's tees. Amazingly, both of us got the ball in the air on No. 1, the golfing equivalent of Columbia winning the Orange Bowl.
We played the first eight holes in what the Irish dutifully dismiss as a mist, which is to say it didn't quite rain hard enough to kill the potato crop. Lahinch is famous for its goats that graze on the 10th hole. Legend has it that when the goats sense rain approaching they seek shelter near the clubhouse. I don't want to say it was raining hard, but I thought I saw the goats climbing into canoes. We pressed on, though, and from the ninth hole on the rain stopped, the clouds lifted a bit, and the panoramic views of emerald green farmland, rocky coastline and neat, white country cottages would beggar the eyes of a postcard photographer.
The views from the rough, however, were not quite so breathtaking. (We were in there tenaciously, calf-high and hacking away like Michael Douglas with the machete in "Romancing The Stone"; a typical hole for either of us in the gorse would go: driver, 3-iron, 3-iron, 3-iron, 3-iron, reach down pick up the ball and toss it into the fairway, 3-wood, 7-iron, sand wedge, sand wedge, putt, putt, putt for a routine 12.)
The smartest thing we did was hire caddies, local lads kind enough not to laugh out loud at us. (My caddy, John, occasionally told me I had hit a "grand" shot. I was ecstatic until learning the next day that the Irish use "grand" the way we Americans use "okay." Sean will say, "See you later," and Kevin will say, "Grand." It takes some of the luster off it.) Without the caddies we not only couldn't have found the balls, but with so many blind greens to shoot at, we couldn't even have found the holes. On the sixth hole, for example, we were told to "aim for the white stone" on a steep sand dune completely blocking the green. I didn't know whether to ask for a 5-iron or a cartographer. One other time I smoked a drive about 200 yards, preened at my caddy, waiting for him to confirm that I'd hit a fabulous shot, and he shook his head sorrowfully and said, "You're in The Mine." It turned out I'd found a blind bunker as deep and as wide as the San Fernando Valley. (By the way, Tip O'Neill was playing in the group ahead of us, riding in what may be the only motorized golf cart in Europe. He finished par-par-par and, more impressively, kept his cigar lit throughout the rain.)
But I digress. Anyway, Watson and Nicklaus are playing partners against Trevino and Norman. And Trevino, in Nicklaus' words, "hasn't shut up once," and they've already talked about Andre Dawson getting beaned and how somebody, somewhere is going to have to stop this throwing at home run hitters. They get to the 10th tee, and Nicklaus, who hasn't been driving that well, finally nails a solid wood, and Trevino cracks, "That's one of your Tammy Bakker shots right there."
Turning slowly and theatrically, Nicklaus says, "I'll be your straight man. What's a Tammy Bakker shot?"
Trevino is all smiles: "A healer."
And Watson, the Stanford grad, says, "Here that's a Jeffrey Archer shot," referring to the best-selling author who recently resigned as deputy chairman of Britain's Conservative Party because of a sex scandal with a prostitute. Then Watson tells this story: Last week he was playing Wentworth, near London, and he was on the green when a woman put a 3-wood up there beside him from 230 yards out. Embarrassed at her lack of etiquette, the woman quickly apologized to Watson: "Sorry." And he said, "Don't be sorry. That's a great shot. Are you a pro?" Whereupon she smiled and answered, "No. Are you Jeffrey Archer?"