The unsung gains of old Glory

The 129th Open: America's journeymen have prospered despite missing the links experience
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The Independent Online

The Millennium Open, St Andrews. This is golf's perfect marriage. Even the British summer entered the historic stage on cue. And the winner is? Barring an earthquake, Tiger Woods, so no surprises there. What is surprising, however, is the supporting cast.

The Millennium Open, St Andrews. This is golf's perfect marriage. Even the British summer entered the historic stage on cue. And the winner is? Barring an earthquake, Tiger Woods, so no surprises there. What is surprising, however, is the supporting cast.

The leaderboard was dominated not just by the world No 1 but by a host of Americans. Apart from Ernie Els, Thomas Bjorn and Darren Clarke, the flag flying over the Old Course was Old Glory. Tiger had only played eight competitive rounds at St Andrews before the 129th Open but was treating the ancient links as if to the manor born. Most observers expected nothing less.

But David Toms, Steve Flesch, Loren Roberts? They were never in the script but last night they remained on the leaderboard, even though it seemed certain they were playing for second place. The British, particularly the Scots, were expected to show the world the art of playing links golf. Thus far there has been little mystery for a posse of anonymous Americans.

Take Toms, a 33-year-old journeyman from Louisiana. This is his first visit to the home of golf, his first appearance in The Open. "I've just been trying to figure out how to play the holes," Toms said. "It's funny. I was in France last weekend playing in a little pro-am and I flew in with Fred Couples. He was telling me all about the course. On Monday we went out and played and the wind was blowing. I had to ask him where to go. Freddie said, 'I really don't know. The wind is a little different to normal and I don't know what to tell you.'

"The wind was different on the first three practice rounds which was nice. I had somewhat of a clue how the holes would play."

Toms gained his first exemption to The Open by virtue of his form in America. "I haven't won but I've contended a few times. I felt good about my game but did not really know what to expect from the golf course or the whole place in general. My first goal was to survive to the weekend and enjoy the experience. I guess the only reason a lot of people haven't heard of me is because of you guys. You make or break people, which is fine."

Toms had never even tried to qualify for an Open. "Looking at the whole experience I guess I was a little cheap over the years. I didn't want to come over here and spend the money in trying to qualify. Looking back I wish I had, just to have the opportunity to have played it before.

"The course and the history and being able to hit a different shot is something we never do. In the States we bomb the drive as hard as possible, then you hit the next one as high as you can to stop it on the green and then you try to make a putt on a perfectsurface. That's the way we play golf. This is totally different so it's a nice change of pace. It's fun."

It hasn't been fun for many of the players here, including the defending champion Paul Lawrie who missed the halfway cut. Roberts, who appeared on the leaderboard with rounds of 69 and 68, said: "I like this style of golf. I kinda bumble it along anyway, even on our tour. I am not a high-ball hitter. I kinda keep the ball down and punch it around. This kinda suits my game."

Roberts is of the view that to stand any chance of catching Tiger the conditions would have to remain benign. "If the weather gets bad then it would be tough to catch him because he's such a strong player. To put some heat on Tiger we need good weather. It would enable me to play more aggressively and have a better chance to put some birdies on the board and make Woods think about it."

Like Toms, Flesch has been winning a lot of money on the US Tour. "I had a great start to the year and I'm very confident right now," he said. "I fully expected to play well coming over here so I'm not really surprised. More than anything I want to try to stay patient out there. I hate the cliché one hole at a time, but I think that really suits this golf course. If you don't stay aware of what's going on out there, it is going to get you. One shot at a time, one hole at a time. That is all I'm trying to do.

"I prepared well. I had a lot of practice rounds and Mark Brooks showed me a lot in the two rounds I played with him. The wind can change so much. It is hard to believe that one day you will hit a driver on a hole to be short of a bunker and the next you hit a four-iron and you end up in exactly the same spot.

"I like this style of golf. There's more than one way to play this course. You don't have to hit it a mile off the tee. This brings more players into the mix because it doesn't require the same kind of shot on every hole. I've learnt one thing -I've got to quit being so hard on myself."

Aside from the general poor showing of the Europeans, there was another missing link. In the absence of a gale, the old course's last line of defence is its bunkers. But Hell bunker on the 14th hole has been rendered redundant.

The Royal and Ancient has spent a fortune rebuilding this trap but nobody goes in it. On the par five it is supposed to catch the second shot but, in the absence of a significant wind, Hell hath no fury.

Only 148 bunkers were found during the opening round, an average of less than one per player. In the second round 164 bunkers were found, bringing the total to 312, 100 fewer than the two-day total for the Open here in 1995. This is an extremely low figure for a course which boasts 112 bunkers.

Of the holes with sand the one that caused the fewest problems was the eighth. It failed to snare a single victim in the first round while its fellow par three, the 11th, trapped only one player. It is possible that the sands of time have caught up with St Andrews.