By DOUG FERGUSON
SOUTHPORT, England – For a tournament built on tradition, change was everywhere at Royal Birkdale on Monday.
Typical of the first full day of practice at the British Open, one of the biggest names in the field was among the first to tee off under leaden skies as fans scurried over sand dunes to call out his name, ask for an autograph or simply watch him create shots.
Only it wasn’t Tiger Woods, out for the rest of the year with a bad knee.
And instead of the gallery growing by the hour until more than a thousand circled every green, only about 75 people chased after Justin Rose, the 27-year-old from England who might be the best chance for Royal Birkdale to finally crown a champion from Britain.
Mark O’Meara, who won the Claret Jug 10 years ago on this links course, again took on the role of pied piper by playing a practice round with a rising star barely older than his son. That would be 23-year-old Anthony Kim, who has won twice since May on two of the toughest tracks on the PGA Tour.
“I need all the help I can get,” said Kim, who is playing links golf for the first time.
But perhaps the biggest change was the color of this British Open.
No other major is more influenced by weather, and not just during the four days of competition. Players arriving on the Lancashire coast only needed to look at the grass to see what kind of year it has been in Britain.
When the weather is dry in spring and early summer, the links are brown and yellow, firm and fast, with wispy native grasses that look like wheat fields. When it’s a wet spring, the course is green and lush, grass so thick in some spots that it’s difficult to find a golf ball.
“This is seriously green,” Scott Verplank said Monday. “As green as you’ll ever see.”
Carnoustie also was green last year, when Padraig Harrington outlasted Sergio Garcia in a playoff, but Royal & Ancient officials found the keys to the lawn mowers and kept the rough at minimal length, still smarting over the ‘99 debacle that was “Car-Nasty.”
The previous five years, the British Open mainly went brown.
Geoff Ogilvy slowly made his way to Royal Birkdale, stopping along the way to get acclimated to this brand of golf by playing at Royal Liverpool, West Lancashire and Formby. It was the same everywhere.
“This is the healthiest rough we’ve had in quite awhile,” Ogilvy said.
O’Meara finished at even-par 280 in 1998, beating Brian Watts in a playoff, and that score might be a good target this week if the stiff breeze off the Irish Sea prevails, as it did Monday morning when it was a steady 15 to 20 mph.
Birkdale isn’t terribly long at 7,173 yards, but its fairways are plenty tight considering what awaits beyond their borders.
“It’s almost like a U.S. Open in that you’ve got 10 yards off the fairway to play with, and if you miss it beyond that, then good luck trying to find it,” former British Open champion Ben Curtis said. “I think you’ll see more big numbers than the other Opens. If you’re 15 yards off line, you’ll see some 6s and 7s.
Verplank and Steve Stricker, a successful team at the Presidents Cup last September, played a match against John Rollins and former British Open champion Justin Leonard, and they had an idea what to expect this week.
Verplank hit a tee shot on No. 5 that traveled only 150 yards into the wind — it wasn’t entirely his fault, as it clipped the netting covering the front portion of the tee box — then hit a 3-iron right of the green. For the next several minutes, he walked in circles in the high grass, hands on hips, looking for his ball.
From the right rough, some 15 yards off the fairway, Rollins swung with all his might and let go of the club with his right hand after the thick stuff twisted the blade at impact.
“It starts getting thick a little closer to the green,” Verplank said. “The course is not overly long, but when the wind starts ripping, it’s a little tight. And if the wind gets going, it’s going to be a real struggle.”
Furyk likes it when the Open is brown, preferring fast conditions that require precision over power, since the crusty ground will help tee shots roll an additional 40 or 50 yards.
But he has learned to take what the British Open gives, and that means lush grass this year.
“When we went to Muirfield (in 2002), we come here, you know it’s been raining,” Furyk said. “When you go to Liverpool (in 2006), you know it’s been dry. You look at the golf course, and the weather for the past couple of months will dictate how the course plays. If I had it my way, I’d want it to play as firm and as fast as possible.”
Birkdale has gone through some moderate changes in the past 10 years aimed at making it play a little tighter. Some fairways have been moved to alter the angle of attack. The most significant change was the 17th green, pushed farther back into the dunes, with severe contours and a steep change in elevation from the back of the green to the front.
This has not been well-received by most players, including Stephen Ames, who said, “It goes with a Pete Dye course.”
It was all new to Kim, who took last week off following his victory at Congressional. He played the front nine Sunday afternoon when he arrived from Dallas to help get over the jet lag, and those two hours made him feel even more tired.
“It beat me up,” he said. “Everything is tiny here. The fairways are tiny. The hole may be smaller, for all I know.”
O’Meara spent early Monday evening guiding him around, looking after Kim the way he once took Woods under his wing as a young pro.