St. Andrews atmosphere is relaxed as players bask in Old Course

Ryo Ishikawa and Sergio Garcia (clad in a Spanish soccer jersey) shared a laugh during Tuesday's practice round.
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ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — Ryo Ishikawa had just teed off on the par-4 15th hole at the Old Course when he walked over and began to sign autographs for fans on the other side of a metal barricade. As more fans circled, the 18-year-old kept signing and smiling, and finally had to run to catch up to his threesome.

David Duval joked about not being long enough to aim over the "Road Hole Hotel" sign on the lengthened par-4 17th hole. K.J. Choi stopped on 18 to get his picture taken atop the famous Swilcan Bridge, as did British Open first-timer Rickie Fowler.

There was a decidedly relaxed atmosphere at St. Andrews on Tuesday as players prepared to tee off at the 150th British Open. The tension that usually goes viral in the few days before a major was largely absent as golfers, perhaps disarmed by playing through a virtual museum, seemed to be transported back to a time when the game was actually fun.

"It's quiet," Adam Scott said from the practice putting green, where he was preparing to go out for a late round with caddie Tony Navarro beginning around 4:40 p.m. "It's less intense than it usually is. Guys are enjoying being here."

It's been a bumpy road of late for the game, thanks largely to the crack-up of Tiger Woods and his subsequent poor play, which has left several unanswered questions. Will he ever be the same? If so, when? If not, then who takes over at the top?

Can Woods bust his slump and win a third British Open at St. Andrews after having already won the 2000 and '05 Opens by a combined 13 strokes here? No one has ever won three Opens at the Old Course, but no one has ever seen Woods play this bad.

Will Phil Mickelson win even one British Open?

"This is an incredible place," he said Tuesday. "It's a spiritual place as well as a wonderful course, and [Jack] Nicklaus has said it, that a career just doesn't feel complete unless you've won here at St. Andrews. I think all the players feel the same way."

At this point Mickelson's fans would take an Open victory on any course in the rotation. His third at the 2004 Open at Troon remains his only top-10 in 16 starts.

Absent its usual narrative of Tiger dominance, golf has been on the brink of an identity crisis in 2010. Depending on the week, the season has been defined as the rise of the 20-somethings (Dustin Johnson, Justin Rose, Jason Day, Rory McIlroy), the revenge of the 40-year-olds (Jim Furyk and Ernie Els, two wins apiece), and the PGA Tour morphing into the GB&I Tour (Rory McIlroy, Ian Poulter, Rose, Lee Westwood).

Not to be forgotten: Mickelson's daring and emotional Masters triumph, his third.

But mostly what's defined 2010 is that it's been so indefinable.

At the home of golf, where sheep helped form the 112 bunkers and humps and bumps in the fairways centuries ago, none of that mattered Tuesday. Enjoying the day seemed to take on added importance in light of the forecast, which calls for torrential rain on Wednesday continuing on-and-off into Thursday's first round.

"Hey, you, out of the way," David Duval yelped at Kenny Perry, who was putting on the 16th green. That green now sits almost directly in front of the new 17th tee, and 2001 Open champion Duval was ready to rip his tee shot into the formidable headwind.

"You're supposed to hit it over that sign," Perry said, pointing to the giant Old Course Hotel lettering that faces 17 tee, "not me!"

Replied Duval: "We're not long enough to hit it over that sign!" (Duval and the rest of his foursome proceeded to aim left, into the second fairway.)

Merriment was everywhere you looked at the Old Course as the spirit of play for the most part trumped the urgency of updating yardage books on Tuesday.

Stewart Cink and Tom Watson, whom Cink bloodlessly put down in a playoff at the near-fantastical Open at Turnberry last year, enjoyed a practice round together. (They were joined by Matt Kuchar and Cameron Percy.)

Ian Poulter, Europe's most passionate Ryder Cup mainstay, played with onetime U.S. Ryder Cup star Duval and possible future U.S. stars Fowler and Bubba Watson.

Wives, girlfriends, agents, friends and swing coaches walked inside the ropes. As even Woods himself said in his press conference, "This is as good as it gets."

Among the joys of the Old Course is its quirkiness. A Scottish moonscape, it redirects golf balls in unforeseen and humorous ways, with crazy bounces and practically never-ending roll-outs.

Ishikawa, enjoying Tuesday's practice round with two other members of the Japan PGA Tour, hit two pitches that climbed up the swale at the front of the 14th green, lost momentum and reversed course, rolling back to his feet. He missed the cut in his only other Open start, at Turnberry last year (68-78), and like many others here he is trying to negotiate a steep learning curve.

Several players were curious about the 495-yard, par-4 17th hole, where the tee has been moved back 40 yards to bring back the long-iron or fairway-wood approach.

"The lines are the same, it's just longer," Scott said. "I played it five times last week and never did it play into the wind like this. So it was no big deal. The most I hit in was a 3-iron. But even into the wind I think they'll use the new tee, since they built it."

It could have been an awkward moment when Duval's foursome reached the infamous Road Hole bunker on 17, which torpedoed Duval's chances when he took three to get out in 2000, especially since Watson chirped, "Hey, this bunker ain't that bad!"

Replied an amused Duval, "Why don't you get in there for a little while!"

Duval gave a loud, quick laugh, and he, Poulter and Watson took turns climbing into the deep, vertically faced hazard and checking out the view, just boys in the sand.

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