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Wind whips Birkdale, players huff and puff

Photo: Glyn Kirk/AFP/Getty Images

A fan struggled with his umbrella in the wind at Royal Birkdale on Wednesday.

SOUTHPORT, England — Small Dog Warning, an obscure American band named for a cheeky weather forecaster, should play the official soundtrack for the 137th British Open at Royal Birkdale. Steady at 20 mph but gusting up to 25, this is the kind of wind that turns one's thoughts to the bichon frize and its utility as a kite.

How low can a golf ball be hit before it's topped horribly or missed completely? That was the question as players hit into the teeth of a gale on the driving range on Wednesday.

"Everybody's improvising," said Aaron Baddeley. "We don't play in wind like this. It's supposed to blow even harder tomorrow."

Lob wedge shots ballooned into the air and seemingly came back to the players before landing, and subsequently were hit only during warm-up. The sawed-off 3-wood, Tiger's signature shot (how ironic), was the specialty of the day.

Mark O'Meara's drives flew "probably only about 200 yards." Paul Casey topped a shot as he tried to find a way to keep his ball beneath the wind. Lee Westwood hit three balls off the turf with his driver, but all hooked badly.

"You might need anything out here to keep the ball along the ground and out of the wind," said England's Westwood, a trendy pre-tournament favorite who finished third at the U.S. Open last month, a shot out of the playoff. "Normally the guy with the best short game is the best wind player."

Thursday's forecast is for more of the same weather. But it could be even worse: cloudy with periodic light rain; winds of 15-20 with gusts 25 mph. Gusts could hit 30 mph Friday before the wind calms down for the weekend.

"The media tent is about to blow away," Trevor Immelman said at his Wednesday press conference as the enormous, white structure creaked and groaned like an old sailboat.

Phil Mickelson, among others, will be adjusting his arsenal of clubs accordingly. First on the agenda for the notorious equipment junkie will be to replace his hybrid club with a 2-iron to achieve a more penetrating ball flight. He'll hope to replicate the feat of Tom Watson, whose 213-yard 2-iron on 18 set up a two-putt for his fifth Open win in 1983.

"My caddie said, 'Quit hooking,'" Watson said earlier this week, "and I said, 'The wind will bring it back.'"

It did, of course, because Watson was a quick study at links golf, at the top of his class in low-altitude flight school.

Justin Leonard, who won the Open in 1997 and lost a playoff in 1999, is just such a player. He won the Stanford St. Jude earlier this summer. He's little. He's gritty.

When looking for a good wind player, of course, you start with Texans, like Leonard. Former Oklahoma Sooner Anthony Kim played nearby, and his two victories in his last five starts also make him an obvious favorite.

Paul Lawrie, who beat Leonard at Carnoustie in '99, is showing a bit of form. So is Todd Hamilton, who has largely disappeared since he won the 2004 Open at Troon.

All have thrived in wind, as has two-time Open champion Ernie Els, also showing flashes of his old self.

"The thing about this golf course is that it doesn't run north and come back south or east and come back west," John Daly said. "It's all over the place. The holes go in so many different directions, so it's going to be very difficult to judge the wind. ... The three-quarter shot is just going to have to work."

The wind is one reason why Birkdale is already being rated more difficult than Carnoustie last year. Another reason is that the course features no par-5s until the 15th hole, which is unreachable in two shots.

"You wait all day for a par-5," Geoff Ogilvy said, "and then you get 15 playing into a 50 mph wind or a 20 mph wind or whatever."

"It's tough for a professional golfer not to get thrown a par-5 every now and then," Immelman added. "Because that's kind of where we make our living."

Throw in Birkdale's numerous partially blind tee shots, its relative lack of intermediate rough, and the ever-present crosswinds, and you can appreciate why Immelman calls this Southport links, "The toughest course I have played on the Open rota."

His press conference ended without incident; the media tent did not blow away. But it was still creaking. Back on the range, Baddeley said he had failed to reach the 436-yard, par-4 11th hole with a driver and a 5-wood. "And I hit a really good driver," he added, shaking his head.

Can it really get worse? Might one of the 156 players in the field fail to break 90? Will Westwood hit driver off the deck in competition? With the wind whipping up white caps on the Irish Sea, anything seems possible, even a flying Chihuahua.

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