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|| SportsShooter.com: News Item: Posted 2001-07-27

A British Education
By H. Darr Beiser, USA TODAY

Photo by H. Darr Beiser/USA TODAY

Photo by H. Darr Beiser/USA TODAY
I guess you could call my recent assignment to cover the British Open "Darr's Golf Education." I have covered plenty of golf in my long and tarnished career, and I know a little about the game, but you could not mistake me for a serious student of the game. I had to have a crash course.

First of all, even though we call it the "British Open," over in the United Kingdom it is simply The Open. I've always been curious why we call it the British Open, when it is closely associated with Scotland.

In fact, when I was given the assignment I was told it was in Scotland. Actually, this year it was held at Royal Lytham and St. Anne's Golf Club, which is on the west coast of England, hard by the Irish Sea. Royal Lytham is one of several sites that host The Open on what they call a "rota," or rotation, that includes the most famous and historic, the Royal and Ancient of St. Andrews, as well as Muirfield, Carnoustie, Sandwich (really!), Royal Troon and the Isle of Langerhan (just kidding).

Royal Lytham, like all The Open courses, is a links course. (I have found links courses defined on a couple of web sites as a golf course within four miles of the coast, but I'm sure all you golf fans knew that.) It is about half a mile from the coast, so you don't have that dramatic look of the breakers crashing around you, but you do get that wild coastal weather of wind and rain.

It certainly has a different look from the lush courses I have worked on around back here at home. I have always felt our courses have a phony look, and often smell funny from all the chemicals poured on to fertilize the grass and kill the pesky weeds and insects. Royal Lytham is wide open and wild, without a lot of trees.

Royal Lytham seems carved from the environment, both natural and human. The rough is tall grass, sometimes waist high, that sways in the brisk breeze. On my first early morning on the course, I saw an owl hunting above the second fairway. He literally hovered like a helicopter, lowering in stages, before flying off to look elsewhere. I guess all the tasty prey had moved out for the duration of the tournament.

Photo by H. Darr Beiser/USA TODAY

Photo by H. Darr Beiser/USA TODAY
As the community of Lytham St. Annes (the town so great it needed two names) and the golf course have grown up together, they have interwoven. Houses are visible from some holes, and I don't mean the lavish country club homes we see at Avenel. I mean row houses and simple English Tudor abodes. A commuter rail line runs along one long side of the vaguely triangle-shaped course, and train whistles frequently interrupt play.

My trip began with a flight to Manchester, which is less than a two-hour drive from Lytham. When I went to pick up my rental car I was disappointed to open the door and find the steering wheel missing. After roundly chastising the Hertz agent for trying to rent me a defective auto, I was reminded that the wacky Brits drive on the left. This was a source of consternation to me, so it was with great care that I ventured out onto the motorways and roundabouts. The ever-genial English drivers welcomed me with friendly blasts from their car horns and hand gestures that I interpreted to mean, Right On Yank, Welcome to Jolly Old England.

The drive through the English countryside was beautiful. The land is a patchwork of fields and farms, decorated with sturdy horses and mad cows. Wisps of smoke curled from the incineration of livestock afflicted with foot and mouth disease.

I stayed at a tidy house, which our Sports department had rented, sharing it with two of our writers. The owners, an older Scottish couple, maintain a fabulous garden around two sidesof the house. On a couple of occasions, after a long day of work, I enjoyed sitting in that little bit of heaven and quaffing a Guinness.

Making my way to the course was easy, everyone there being friendly and helpful. The only problem was I could barely understand them. I had to have everything anyone said to me repeated, sometimes more than once. They probably thought I was hard of hearing.

My work began with shooting three days of practice rounds, illustrating budgeted stories and looking for photos that captured the look and feel of the course. And, of course, watching Tiger Woods.

Photo by H. Darr Beiser/USA TODAY

Photo by H. Darr Beiser/USA TODAY
(El Tigre brings both blessings and curses to golf coverage. The blessings are that he creates great interest for the game, and he gives us a focus to the coverage. But having to watch his every move makes for lots of extra work. If he does well, it's a big story. If he does poorly, it's a big story. You can't ignore him. The hardest part is that he likes to practice really early, as in teeing off around six a.m., to minimize the crowds and attention he draws.)

At most courses, I wish I could have a golf cart to get around. Over there I would have liked a ride-on lawn mower. Tromping through that high grass, up and down the hillocks, wears you down. I thought of adding a scythe to my equipment.

After three days of practice I was beat, and then the tournament began. Fortunately by that time paths were worn in the grass, especially along the ropes. And the course marshals were lax about enforcing rules against walking on the fairways at some points where there was just no other way around.

In fact I found all the officials to be friendly and helpful, in contrast to the officious jerks you run into at sports events in the states. When someone was out of line they issued friendly reminders of the rules and guidelines. Even the security guards and local police constables surrounding Woods were relatively amiable.

Day one of the tournament turned out to be easier than I expected because Colin Montgomerie jumped out to a big lead and held onto it. You know how those early rounds can be hell as golfers take leads and then fall back. So basically I had to get Tiger, Monty and a couple of other contenders.

Days two and three were a little crazier as Monty began to slide and others rose up. By the end of the third day there were four golfers tied for the lead. Naturally there was much talk of a playoff, which would be the last four holes played immediately after the end of the regulation 72 holes. As it turned out, it was unnecessary.

Rain had been a threat the whole week, but never came too much. It was overcast most of the time and there were sprinkles, but after a big downpour Tuesday afternoon, in which I of course shot weather features, it stayed pretty dry. The sun broke out Sunday afternoon and I ended up hauling the rain gear around when I needed sunscreen.

Photo by H. Darr Beiser/USA TODAY

Photo by H. Darr Beiser/USA TODAY
Sunday, since there were so many golfers in contention, my plan was to get the top twenty or so teeing off, follow David Duval in the last group (since he was one of the four tied for the lead and seemed like a likely winner) and then see what else developed. Except for a brief side trip to get some guy named Niclas Fasth, who made a move for the lead, I stayed with Duval for most of his round. He is The Ice Man. No emotion. But he played great, solid golf all day and won it.

After shooting Duval making his second shot on eighteen, with photogs, police and gallery pressing from behind, I was hoping for a triumphant march up to the green. Instead the crowd swallowed him up and for a while I wondered if he would ever emerge.

After tapping in his last putt for par he took off his cap and glasses and I was shocked to actually see Duval for the first time. He doesn't look like himself. If I had met him off the course I would not have recognized him. I thought, he better put the cap and glasses back on or no one will believe my photos are actually of him.

And so ended my excellent education at the B.O. If you get to go, take my advice: go easy on the bangers and mashed (that's sausages and mashed potatoes, blokes) and remember to drive on the left.

(H. Darr Beiser is a staff photographer with USA TODAY, based in Arlington, VA.)


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