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Tiger doesn't own Muirfield golf course -- yet

Posted: Tuesday, July 16, 2002

GULLANE, Scotland -- Tiger Woods already met his match at the British Open.

After finishing a practice round Monday morning before the wind began to whip off the Firth of Forth, Woods headed directly to the driving range. But he ran into a security guard who didn't recognize him and didn't see his credentials.

She threw her arms out and blocked him from going any farther until a member of Woods' entourage intervened.

If only the rest of the field at Muirfield could stop him so easily.

Woods has breezed to victory in the first two major championships of the year, winning the Masters by three strokes when no one mounted a charge, and winning the U.S. Open by the same margin despite closing with a 2-over-par 72.

That made him the first player since Jack Nicklaus in 1972 to win the first two legs of the Grand Slam, and a big favorite to win all four majors in the same year.

The next test -- if one even unfolds -- starts Thursday at Muirfield, the East Lothian links which is short by modern championship standards (7,034 yards) but is regarded as one of the most complete tests among courses in the British Open rotation.

''It's a fair test,'' said Nick Faldo, who won the silver claret jug in 1987 and 1992, the last two times the British Open was played at Muirfield. ''If you play well, you'll score well.''

That's what is expected from Woods, who hasn't hit a competitive shot since he tapped in a bogey putt on the 72nd hole at Bethpage Black in New York last month.

Still, there are no guarantees in golf, and Woods was taking nothing for granted.

He has spent two days at Muirfield, working on a variety of shots and paying close attention from the tee. He rarely hit a driver Monday, even on the par 5s, and concentrated on how far the ball would roll and what was required to avoid the bunkers.

Players complain about the driver being taken out of their hands at American majors. Here, they expect it. The British Open has always been more about position and course management than hitting the ball a mile for a short iron into the green.

An example of that came on the 448-yard 14th hole that played into a stiff breeze. Driver brings the deep, sodden-faced bunkers into play, so Woods hit a 2-iron off the tee and had a 3-iron for his second shot.

With a low, piercing trajectory, the ball rolled onto and through the green.

Woods dropped another ball.

''How about this time I hold it against the wind,'' he said to caddie Steve Williams. The ball climbed against overcast skies and landed some 15 feet next to the hole.

As his second practice ended, Woods marveled at Muirfield.

''The bunkers here are so strategically placed,'' he said of a links course that first held a British Open in 1892. He motioned to the large cross bunkers 120 yards short of the green on the 546-yard 17th hole, which didn't appear to be in play with the wind behind his back.

''They are if you hit it over there,'' he said, pointing to the thick rough to the right. ''Then you can't just run it up to the green. And if the wind comes out of the other direction, you might not be able to clear them with your second shot.''

It is for these reasons that the British Open could allow for more players to contend than at Augusta National, which had been stretched by nearly 300 yards in a massive redesign, and Bethpage Black, the longest U.S. Open course in history at 7,214 yards.

Length isn't everything.

''I can reach the fairways. I couldn't always say that at the U.S. Open,'' said Jim Furyk, playing for the first time since his first child was born three weeks ago. ''It's very straightforward for a links course. It gives you a lot of options. You can take as much club as you choose, but I think it eventually will bite you.''

Most links have relatively flat greens, although some of the greens at Muirfield are heavily contoured.

The fairway bunkers can be so severe that the best shot is anything back in the fairway. And while the wind is always the best defense at a British Open, the rough is no picnic. Scotland has had an unusually wet spring, and the thin strands of knee-high heather have a base of grass so thick that it's easy to lose a ball.

''It's probably thicker than Carnoustie,'' Furyk said. ''But I haven't found any places where the fairway is only 9 1/2 yards wide. This is fair.''



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