For viewers accustomed to the American look in golf courses, televised coverage of the British Open often comes as a shock to the senses. Especially at a seaside course like Scotland's Royal Troon, the site of this week's Open.
Beginning Thursday and ending Sunday, an international field of more than 100 golfers will attempt to tame a spare, wind-swept landscape fit for a Mars rover. Muscle may help, but the club's motto - "As much as by skill as by strength" - makes clear the premium placed on deft shotmaking.
One of the best shotmakers is Scotsman, Colin Montgomerie, who very nearly won the US Open a month ago and will be on familiar turf for the year's third "major." The PGA Championship at Winged Foot in Mamaroneck, N.Y., in August completes the Big Four, led off each spring by the Masters tournament.
Montgomerie - Europe's leading player - hasn't yet won a major and must avoid overanxiousness. A lot of golfers come poised for victory, including Englishman Nick Faldo, a three-time winner.
Certainly American Tom Lehman, the defending champion, has reason for confidence, having just secured a five-shot victory in the Gulfstream World Invitational played in Loch Lomond, Scotland. Last year, his two-shot triumph at Royal Lytham & St. Annes in England placed him among the game's premier players.
If there's a mental gremlin in the Minnesotan's bag it may be the frustration of squandering golden opportunities on other occasions. At last month's US Open, he was the 54-hole leader for a record third straight year, only to finish third when his approach shot on the next-to-last hole landed in the water.
Tiger Woods fell out of contention at the US Open, but snapped out of a short-lived slump 10 days ago by winning the Western Open near Chicago. The huge galleries expected to follow him could be a bigger distraction than usual to other players, since at treeless Troon the galleries will be less isolated. To accommodate young fans likely to follow Woods, the tournament is allowing those under 18 in free when accompanied by a "responsible adult."
Woods regained his top spot in the world rankings by winning the Western Open. At press time, Greg Norman, reigning US Open champion Ernie Els, and Montgomerie were right behind.
Els, who tied for second in last year's British Open and was the runner-up to Lehman at Loch Lomond, isn't focusing on Woods. "My goal is to try and beat the golf course and the field, not just Tiger Woods," he says. Although Norman has been stymied in his efforts to win other majors, namely the Masters, US Open, and PGA Championship, he has enjoyed his best success at the British Open. He prevailed in 1986 and 1993 and finished tied for second in 1990, the last time Royal Troon hosted the tournament. In June, he scored his first victory in more than a year when he birdied the last three holes to win the FedEx St. Jude Classic in Memphis, Tenn.
Jack Nicklaus, a three-time champion, debated whether or not to enter his 36th straight Open and has decided to have a go. His presence should please the tradition-loving crowds, whose support helped elevate his game a year ago. Midway through the tournament, Nicklaus was only one shot off the lead. He eventually finished 12 shots behind Lehman. John Daly, the '95 British Open champion, has elected not to play while he continues to address personal matters after undergoing alcohol rehabilitation.