BY DOUG FERGUSON
The Associated Press
HOYLAKE, England – With a blast of hot wind at his back, Stuart Appleby sent a 6-iron towering into the blue sky over Royal Liverpool and toward the 14th green, squinting in search of a puff of smoke on the ground that would indicate his shot came back to earth.
“Follow the bouncing ball,” Appleby said under his breath.
Then, turning to his Australian coach and his New Jersey caddie more out of amazement than frustration, he said, “That ball could wind up 6 feet right of the flag and you’d never know it until you got there.”
“You can only be sure it’s not next to the pitch mark,” coach Steve Bann said.
“That’s because there is no pitch mark,” replied Joe Damiano, the caddie.
No one was quite sure what to expect when they arrived at the 135th British Open, which starts Thursday, because it has not been at Royal Liverpool in 39 years. More puzzling than the links, however, are the fastest, firmest and crustiest conditions anyone can remember in years.
This is the brown British Open.
A heat wave in Britain – the temperature reached 91 degrees on Wednesday – has caused the rough to die, leaving wispy strands of native grasses and fairways that are a mixture of yellow and brown. Yellow is the color of the grass, brown is where the grass has died.
Phil Mickelson usually takes off the day before a major to escape the commotion and play a casual round at a nearby course. He didn’t see the point of that this time because “I can’t find a course as firm as this.”
Someone suggested going to nearby John Lennon Airport, which didn’t sound like a bad idea except for one thing:
“I’m pretty sure they won’t cut any holes in the runway,” Mickelson said.
The conditions are so crusty that the Royal & Ancient has asked players to be careful with their cigarettes (John Daly) and cigars (Darren Clarke). The Hoylake fire station is only two minutes away, but just to be safe, two fire engines are now stationed on the course.
The only smiles belong to R&A members in their white shirts and striped ties.
“You’ve heard quite often from the R&A that we like hard, fast links conditions,” chief executive Peter Dawson said.
“Well, I think this year we’ve got it in spades. The course is pretty fiery out there, just as we would want it.”
Players must make adjustments
A cold front expected overnight is supposed to slightly cool the conditions, perhaps giving the lonely man in the coffee stand some business. There might be some rain, although Dawson says it won’t be enough to fundamentally change the nature of the course.
Hot, fast and brown.
Defending champion Tiger Woods has put a 2-iron back in his bag for the first time in eight months, using it on nearly every par 4 to get the ball running along the fairways, away from the pot bunkers.
He took the day off, showing up in the late afternoon to putt. Woods arrived over the weekend, so he already has played four practice rounds to get acquainted with Royal Liverpool.
It isn’t St. Andrews, where he has twice won the claret jug. It’s not like other links courses on the rotation, with all the holes relatively plain in shape, and greens that are small and flat. The course doesn’t appear to have massive trouble that will lead to big numbers, and some believe if there isn’t much wind, Woods’ record 19 under at St. Andrews in 2000 could be in jeopardy.
All they have to do is figure out how far to hit the ball, and how far it will run.
David Duval gave an impromptu clinic from the first fairway. He was 119 yards from the front of the green. He estimated the ball would bounce about 10 yards, and he had a slight breeze at his back. He took sand wedge, played the shot as if it were 100 yards, and wound up 18 feet past the hole.
That was his tee shot. The first one went toward the right rough, and as he started to wander a few yards into the small wheat field, he saw a marshal standing over his ball. It had run through the rough, across the next fairway and was on a dirt path, almost off the property.
“It ran that far?” Duval said.
The course is plenty long at 7,258 yards, but it feels more like a pitch-and-putt. Chad Campbell typically hits his 3-iron 230 yards. During his final practice round, he hit a 3-iron that went 330 yards.
The key is to stay away from the bunkers, because they are so tiny that shots inevitably will land close to the sodden walls and leave no option but to hit a sand wedge out, effectively a one-shot penalty.
It’s great to be able to hit the ball for miles because it rolls so far. The trick is figuring out how far it will go to set up chances at birdie.
“It takes experience. It takes guesswork. And it takes a bit of luck,” Appleby said. “You know where to land it. But do you know whether that’s the right spot to land it? You’re having to make five or six calculations before you hit the shot.”
Perhaps the trickiest part of all is figuring out how fast the fairways run, and how slow the greens are.
“My guess is the fairways and the fringe around the greens are running about 20 on the Stimpmeter,” Appleby said. “And the greens are somewhere between 8 and 10.”
Ernie Els won a junior tournament here when he was a gangly 18-year-old. A few players competed in British Amateurs that have been held at Hoylake, including David Howell, one of a half-dozen British players who hope bring home a major for the first time in seven years.
Howell has done corporate outings at Hoylake, so he probably knows this links course as well as anyone.
But he doesn’t recall seeing it like this.
With a freshening wind in his face on the par-5 18th, he hit driver and a 3-wood to the green. When he played a week ago Sunday, he hit 3-wood off the tee and had a 9-iron to the green.
“You can hit 3-irons 290 yards, which is just hard to get your head around,” Howell said. “I guess as the week goes on, you learn each day. It becomes easier to remember that’s what is going to happen.
“It’s going to be a tricky test,” he said. “We’re going to have an interesting week.”