Tour Confidential: British Open Preview edition

Thursday August 5th, 2010
The 18th hole at St. Andrews provides some of the most striking views in all of golf.
Bob Martin/SI

Every week of the 2010 PGA Tour season, the editorial staff of the SI Golf Group will conduct an e-mail roundtable. Check in on Mondays for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors and join the conversation in the comments section below.

\nTHE FIRST COURSE
Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Is the Old Course at St. Andrews the coolest course ever or, as Scott Hoch once suggested, is it simply the "worst piece of mess"?

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: Well, it's certainly quirky. You either love it or hate it. I've played it four or five times and like it more and more. If you're a pro who's used to plodding around a soft American-style course, I can see where the Old Course would drive you crazy.

John Garrity, contributing writer, Sports Illustrated: It's hardly the greatest course ever, but I think it might be the greatest venue. You're playing a major championship on the oldest course in the world, and it doubles as the town green for a medieval city. That's an unbeatable combination.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: I just came from a Tiger Woods press conference during which he said it's his favorite course in the world. Therefore it must be true. Tiger said he loved the Old Course the first time he played it, which is unusual. I think any of us would get swept up in playing it the first time, though.

Anonymous Pro: Tiger should love it — the Old Course is a true ball striker's course. It's not like Royal St. George's, next year's site, where a donkey in a polo shirt has a better chance of hitting a fairway than a top 10 golfer. At the Old Course you have to avoid the bunkers. You don't scrape it around there and post four good scores. The Old Course identifies major champions better than any other course in the world.

Damon Hack, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: St. Andrews is the reason I'm a golf writer. In 2000 I was covering the NBA and went to St. Andrews to watch history after Tiger won [the U.S. Open] at Pebble. It was a given that he was going to win at St. Andrews. I stayed in a university dorm, brought my clubs, walked around and soaked the whole thing in. It's the history of the place. It's Rusack's and the Dunvegan and the who's-who roster of Open champions. There's simply a vibe to the place. It's the home of golf.

Anonymous Pro: St. Andrews is fantastic. I'm glad they started putting the Open there every five years. Every third year would be even better.

Bamberger: I agree with all of that. Unlike Pebble, the Old Course is really 18 distinctive moments. It proves that nature can do more as an architect than Tom Fazio ever can.

Shipnuck: The town's setting is magical, with the beach framing the course. You can walk from the course to a pub on a winding street. Everything about the experience is great.

Hack: It's one of the handful of places you say you made a pilgrimage to. I went as a fan. I remember the flight, the train ride, the people I met. I walked a few holes with Dennis Paulson's mom. I remember some people from Minnesota rooting on Tom Lehman. It was a magical experience.

Shipnuck: Just to clarify, Damon: Did you spend your own money to go?

Hack: I did. I kept a journal of my experience that week. Patrick Ewing was about to be traded to the SuperSonics, and after getting my butt kicked on that story by Mike Lupica and some other reporters, I needed a vacation.

THE HOLE TRUTH
Van Sickle: What about the individual holes at the Old Course? Do you have a favorite? Nobody ever talks about the 1st hole, other than Ian Baker-Finch's infamous out-of-bounds play. The 1st is underrated. I've seen pros and tourists alike block it out of play on the right due to 1st-tee jitters.

Shipnuck: The ball runs so far, and you're so jacked up to be there, you can actually drive it too far and into the burn. I did that once.

Van Sickle: Also, you're probably still seeing spots from the flash camera after the mandatory photo op on the tee, which sits in front of the clubhouse.

Bamberger: At our level you can hit your first shot, your second shot and even your third into the burn. A lot of things can go wrong there. Unlike some other celebrated courses, doing so is not a day ruiner.

Shipnuck: No one likes to see the course tinkered with, but I think the changes they made at the 17th, adding 35 yards to the Road Hole, will put a little fear back in that hole. Padraig Harrington said that the hole had turned into a five-wood, eight-iron play. The hole was hard when it was driver, five-iron to a tiny target with nowhere to miss. When players started hitting nine-irons and wedges into the green, it took that fearsome bunker somewhat out of play.

Van Sickle: The 60- and 64-degree wedge took out some of the fear of that greenside bunker too.

Shipnuck: Didn't David Duval have an episode in there? [At the 2005 Open, Duval dropped from contention after taking four shots to escape the Road Hole Bunker.]

Van Sickle: That's not to say you can't still find yourself in jail there.

Hack: If they hadn't lengthened the hole, no one would hit into that bunker. At least now it should be more in play.

Van Sickle: At the 1989 Dunhill Cup pro-am, my pro was a total unknown from Argentina, Eduardo Romero. He was playing the Old Course for the first time and shot an easy 66 because he listened to his caddie. Romero was actually on the road at the Road Hole behind the green, and his caddie told him to use his putter. Romero holed it, one of the most amazing shots I've ever seen.

Anonymous Pro: I don't want to sound negative, but I agree with what Rich Beem said in '05: There are 17 great holes at the Old Course, and the Road Hole. That hole is too quirky. Does making the hole longer really make it better? I don't think so. But if you want to see some 8s and 9s, it's the place to go.

Shipnuck: There are some great holes. The par-5 14th is fantastic. The drive on 18 is one of golf's coolest shots. It's not difficult, you just rip it, but you have the old buildings, the road, the R&A clubhouse and usually a hundred stray people standing around in the background on any given day.

Bamberger: I'll see your tee shot on 18 and raise you the approach shot on 18. On that shot you have to flirt with the Valley of Sin. And we all know what Costantino Rocca did there in 1995. And Nicklaus. And Doug Sanders. I think that shot is one of the most magical moments in golf.

Anonymous Pro: Absolutely, the 18th is pretty cool. On top of all that, you can drive the green. You don't see many guys really screw up on the 18th, other than Sanders missing that short putt. It's not the hole itself, it's the theater that surrounds the 18th that makes it cool.

Hack: My favorite hole is the 11th, the par-3. It gives the players fits. Monty [Colin Montgomerie] made bogey there every day in the '05 Open. I watched David Sutherland play it, which I remember because he had Sacramento Kings headcovers.

Bamberger: I remember Bob Jones struggling with that hole.

Garrity: I just talked to him. He said to say hello.

Shipnuck: The 11th is my least favorite hole in golf. It's impossible. It's always straight downwind and the green is so small your shot always goes over the back. I guess I don't put enough Tour sauce on my ball. That hole killed me.

Garrity: That's exactly what Jones said.

Shipnuck: That hole is a lot better coming from the other direction because you can skirt around it and use the green contours to your advantage. I learned that when I played the Old Course in reverse, one of the coolest stories I ever did.

Bamberger: Do they still play that backward round?

Shipnuck: Every year on April 1. I'm not joking, it's an even better course backward.

Bamberger: Time and technology have not ruined this course. It is true genius even after several hundred years.

FACTORING IN PHIL
Van Sickle: Should we be upbeat or downbeat about Phil Mickelson, who faltered at Pebble Beach?

Bamberger: Way upbeat.

Shipnuck: He's going to contend for sure.

Bamberger: You can't bring the guy down. His family has been dealt some difficult things in the past year, yet he was one of six guys who could've or should've won the U.S. Open. He ties for fourth at Pebble and cracks the best line of the week: "At least I didn't finish second."

Anonymous Pro: It's the same old thing with Phil — he's always going to hit it well enough, but is he going to make any putts? You can't play super aggressively around St. Andrews because of the bunkering. If Phil is going to win an Open, I agree, this is the venue for him if he can manage his tee ball. But I'm not convinced he has the putting down. The putting is his wild card. It always is. He either runs the table or misses some short ones. He missed some short ones at Pebble, although everyone did. It was like a cobblestone road out there.

Garrity: I didn't view Phil's U.S. Open performance as enigmatic. He had his brilliant round, he stayed in contention to the end, he had another high finish. Pebble was simply punishing. You needed a few breaks to win.

Shipnuck: Phil's British Open record is very weak, other than just missing that playoff with Ernie Els and Todd Hamilton [2004]. Phil said everyone thinks he can't play in the wind because of his high ball flight, but it's actually been the greens. You can't replicate those greens in any kind of preparation — the grain, the slopes, the slowness.

Anonymous Pro: Right. The Old Course greens are different. It's different grass. The slowness makes you hit the ball a little more than you're used to. You have to put a little more pop in it, and that's not Phil's stroke.

Shipnuck: Phil said he is going to commute from Loch Lomond to the Old Course on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday before the Scottish Open and do some work.

Van Sickle: Phil is as long as anybody in the game. He may simply overpower the course the way Tiger Woods and John Daly did, run out a bunch of drives past 350 and wedge the field to death. At 40 he's longer than ever. You have to give him credit.

Hack: Good point about his length. He was hitting wedges 160 yards at Pebble. And his driver was ridiculous.

Bamberger: If Gary is right that the best golfer in the game wins at St. Andrews, Phil should win. He is the best golfer in the game right now.

Shipnuck: I agree. Except we said that about him at Pebble Beach too.

THE NEW BIG MAC
Van Sickle: Thoughts on U.S. Open champ Graeme McDowell? Is he going to win more majors or be a one-hit wonder?

Shipnuck: He has more experience winning internationally than a Shaun Micheel or a Lucas Glover. McDowell has gone low a few times at the Old Course, in fact. He shot 62 at the '04 Dunhill Cup.

Van Sickle: McDowell was in contention at the '05 Open until he made an 8 at the Road Hole in the third round but bounced back with a final-round 65 and finished 11th.

Hack: I called him a rabbit in the early going at Pebble. He shut me up.

Bamberger: I'm worried that McDowell could go the way of another supremely talented quote machine, '06 Open winner Geoff Ogilvy. He swings it beautifully, has a great game, he's great in the tent, but what's he done for us lately except provide us with great quotes? I hope we see Geoff again, but it was so refreshing to hear McDowell speak with candor about Rory McIlroy and playing the Open and the Frenchman, Gregory Havret. McDowell was a breath of fresh air.

Shipnuck: He's legit. McDowell's a fun-loving character too. My babysitter is 22. She was in Carmel on Sunday at some Irish pub around midnight, and McDowell was there posing for pictures, signing autographs and enjoying adult beverages. He's going to get a huge boost from the crowd at St. Andrews. I wouldn't be surprised to see him make a run at the Open.

Van Sickle: I agree with Alan. And we all agree that we'd like to hear more about this 22-year-old babysitter.

Anonymous Pro: At the U.S. Open, -McDowell was the last man standing, the way a lot of guys win Opens. If an Irishman can play college golf at Alabama-Birmingham and live on an urban campus, he can handle anything.

ONE ROUND, ONE COURSE
Van Sickle: You're allowed to play one round of golf within 30 miles of St. Andrews, not including the Old Course. Where would it be and why?

Anonymous Pro: Sorry, rules are made to be broken. If I'm near St. Andrews, I'm playing the Old Course, end of story. It's that special.

Bamberger: I'll give a shout-out to Golf Club House Elie. Gary and I were there with Mike Donald in '05. I think Gary was four under through 12 or 13 holes, and Donald says, "You've got a lot of stick." Gary says, "Yeah, maybe enough to finish DFL on the senior tour." Mike says, "Hey, don't get carried away."

Van Sickle: Elie is a good call. You have to love a course with a periscope at the starter shack to see whether the 1st fairway is clear. It's classic-fire torpedo number one!

Shipnuck: My favorite Scottish course is Cruden Bay, but that's definitely farther than 30 miles. It's wild.

Hack: I love Crail. The last couple of holes are tucked behind the clubhouse on a little spit of land by the ocean. It's beautiful.

Garrity: I, too, am partial to Crail. It's an unpretentious track that has the ambience of a town course but all the merits of an ancient seaside links. Plus it has that great clubhouse and grillroom looking down on the ocean holes. The best proof of its mystique is that many people believe, falsely, that Michael Murphy used it as the model for Burning Bush Links in Golf in the Kingdom.

Van Sickle: I played Kingsbarns last time I was in Scotland, and it was fantastic. I'm not sure it isn't the best course in St. Andrews, pardon the heresy.

Bamberger: Ew! Gary, 20-plus years of admiration down the drain in one sentence.

Garrity: Aren't you going to mention Kinghorn?

Van Sickle: We have a winner. Kinghorn is the most fun par-65 course anywhere in the world that's in the middle of town and has ocean views. It's a riotous course with a wall across one fairway, a 199-yard par-4, crisscrossing fairways and a tee at the bottom of a crater. Even more fun than the front eight — yes, eight — at Girvan.

Shipnuck: It sounds as if we have our itinerary set for Open week.

Garrity: Wonderful. Just don't put that in the story so the boss sees it.

AND THE WINNER IS...
Bamberger: Tiger Woods. Because of 2000 and '05. He's on a roll, historically speaking. My dark horse pick is Dustin Johnson, infamous Pebble Beach third-round leader.

Shipnuck: It should be noted that Bamberger has been picking Dustin for months now. He saw the Dustin train coming before we did. We just won't talk about how the Dustin train was derailed. I'll take Johnson as my dark horse too. He's one of those guys who can let go of what happened at Pebble. I'll pick Phil Mickelson as the winner. He needs to win a British Open. Talk about a guy in Seve's mold. He has a lot of confidence, and I think he's going to do it.

Hack: I hate to be boring, but I'm picking Tiger too. Why? Same reason as Michael, plus that Saturday at Pebble. Ian Poulter is my dark horse and clotheshorse.

Van Sickle: Phil excels at being unpredictable. This is the only course where I'd pick him to win an Open. Since Dustin Johnson has already been taken as a long shot, I'll go with two other potential John Dalys of 2010, guys who can overpower the course: J.B. Holmes on the American side and Alvaro Quiros of Spain.

Garrity: If he isn't injured or physically impaired, the winner is Tiger. He'll be ready for a treeless, wide-open Old Course. He won't go 72 holes without finding a bunker this time. He won't win big. He'll just win. Unless, of course, Robert Karlsson crushes the field as I've long suspected.

Anonymous Pro: I'm sticking with Luke Donald as my dark horse pick. I'm riding him hard, but man, the guy is playing well. I've been picking Lee Westwood to win majors, but now I'm not convinced he can close the deal. He was basically handed the Memphis tournament. It's time for a European with flair to step up and win an Open, and it's going to be Ian Poulter. Can you imagine the outfits he'll be throwing out at St. Andrews? He'll look great in HD.

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