Golf: Woods finding fun in learning

A MONTH or so ago, at another troublesome moment in the turbulent life and times of John Daly, Mark O'Meara felt duty bound to phone golf's "Wild Thing" and check he was truly committed to America's cause at the Old Course.

O'Meara should not have worried. St Andrews brings out the competitive instincts like nowhere else. Daly led off the top of the order in the USA's dream team and, ironically enough, was the only member of the side to remain unbeaten.

Matchplay golf, albeit in the medal form employed by the Alfred Dunhill Cup, seems to suit Daly. His one objective is to return a score one lower than his opponent. This simple thought perhaps retains his interest over 18 holes better than in the midst of a four-round tournament.

By the time America were knocked out in the semi-finals by Spain, O'Meara and Tiger Woods appeared to be on a training exercise with the Millennium Open in mind. "Sure, Tiger is going to be tough to beat here in 2000," said Daly, the 1995 champion at the Old Course.

"Don't forget who is the current champion," added O'Meara, who went into the semi-finals with a record of 42 under par for his previous 12 rounds in St Andrews. Woods himself, in a mythical medal tournament, was on course to surpass Nick Faldo's 18-under- par score in the 1990 Open.

His first three rounds were 66, 70, 66 for 14 under. The two lower scores seemed effortlessly achieved and the 70 was not beaten by the rest of the field on a day when strong winds and heavy rain had to be overcome.

Then, on Sunday morning, Woods found himself in a match for the first time. On paper, Santiago Luna, at No 190 in the world, should have been no match for the player on top of the rankings. Thankfully, sport has no written script. Woods misjudged his lag putt at the 17th and bogeyed the hole. Then he missed from four feet at the last to force a play-off.

Luna, who was born at the Puerta de Hierro Golf Club in Madrid 35 years ago, joins a short list of those who have beaten Woods in head-to-head action. Paul Page, from Dartford, defeated the Californian in an early round of the US Amateur Championship in 1993 - Woods would win the title in each of the next three years; Gary Wolstenholme, the English amateur whose length off the tee, or lack of it, meant he would be unlikely to survive as a professional, won their singles match in the 1995 Walker Cup at Royal Porthcawl; two years later Costantino Rocca did similarly in the Ryder Cup at Valderrama.

The Rocca defeat - as will the Luna eclipse - helped dismiss the notion that Woods is unreachable, except off the tee. Woods says his game is more consistent this year and he could have added to his two tournament wins but has lost one play-off and been a shot away from being in three others, including The Open at Birkdale. These facts also show that while the 22-year-old is still the man to beat, he is beatable.

After this year's rain, the Old Course was far greener than when Woods first encountered the old lady as an amateur in 1995. The prevailing winds tend to be different than in the summer, as well as the temperature, so playing in this annual autumnal event does not replicate Open conditions exactly.

But it was Daly's performance at the Dunhill Cup in 1993 - in his two outings he has won eight of nine matches - that gave him the confidence he needed to win the 1995 Open. More importantly for Woods, he just needs experience of a course which provides a different test on every day of the year.

"It's fun learning," said Woods. "I love coming over and playing different courses and learning how to play in all conditions. When I played here as an amateur in 1995 I was 19 years old and hadn't played links golf. There are shots I know I need to play now, but I didn't then. The conditions change every day. We've had three different winds. At 19 I didn't know where to go in certain wind conditions. Playing more links golf I have got more of a strategy of how to play this course. I've always told people I love to create, which you don't get to do much at home."

Woods' education will continue at Wentworth this week. The tree-lined venue is a classic of the old school, the sort loved by Ernie Els, three times the World Match Play champion, and Colin Montgomerie. "You have to be long and straight," this year's PGA champion said.

It is no coincidence that Monty and Els have done well on the West Course and at the US Open, where the South African is a two-time winner. If he is to add that title to his 1997 Masters crown, Woods needs to keep learning this week.