ST. ANDREWS, Scotland -
Things a player could conceivably have learned from playing one last British Open practice round Wednesday at the Old Course:
1. Why no one wears glasses on the PGA Tour any more.
2. Whether the human eye can blink away raindrops coming in sideways faster than the wind can throw them.
3. How accurate his rainwear manufacturer's extravagant promises are, regarding its waterproof qualities.
4. How far a golf ball will travel in dense fog before it disappears god-knows-where.
5. Whether one layer of that skin-tight long-sleeved underwear is really enough on a Scottish day in high summer when you can see your breath at mid-day.
"We always joke around that they should try playing the British Open in the summer some year," said U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell, who grew up in Portrush, on the tip of Northern Ireland.
"It's funny, when the wind blows and it starts raining, people always say to me, 'Jeez, you must love this.' I hate it the same as everyone else does."
Yes, the same championship which in its last two editions at the cradle of golf has been mocked as the St. Andrews Desert Classic because it's been hot, dry and hardpan, showed its nasty side Wednesday to those brave, or foolhardy, enough to attempt to turn a day of guaranteed misery into a learning experience.
"The forecast for the championship is changeable, blustery, showery conditions - pretty good for links golf," said Peter Dawson, the chief executive of the Royal & Ancient, not exactly gloating but clearly delighted that this week, no one is going home with the Claret Jug without some suffering first.
"I think we're pleased with getting the winds from a number of different directions."
The R&A was not so pleased having to cancel the much-ballyhooed Champions Challenge due to "adverse weather conditions" an hour before 26 former Open winners were scheduled to begin a four-hole, team-format exhibition. But nothing in the forecast is so dire that the 156-man field is going to get that kind of mulligan on the weather.
It's the British Open. Get over it.
There are four new tee boxes on the Old Course this time - a 40-yard stretching of No. 17, the Road Hole, being the most discussed - but Dawson said the only chance of making adjustments in the tee locations would be "if the wind was so strong that we'd probably have to abandon play anyway" due to balls moving on the green.
"How much do they need to . . .?" a reporter began.
"If they're moving almost at all, you stop play," Dawson said.
"So if it's not moving at all but it's absolutely howling it down, you're still playing?"
"Still playing," said Dawson.
The worse the weather gets, the more experience will factor into the equation, assuming it isn't severe enough to cause those experienced old muscles to seize up. In theory, only the really excellent ball strikers, who can move the ball both ways and hold it against a wind blowing from either side, need apply.
But there's another school of thought that goes like this: on a not overlong course, where the ball runs for miles and there are multiple ways of getting the ball onto the green, and where you can basically hit it left off almost every tee box and end up in a parallel fairway with a clear - just differently-angled - shot to your green . . . well, no one's a lock because the Old Course lets everyone attack in his own way.
The usual suspects - Ernie Els, Padraig Harrington, Lee Westwood, Tiger Woods, et al - probably have a slightly better chance of being in the hunt Sunday than your basic no-name, but not overwhelmingly better.
"I think if you're running the ball in, a lot of the slopes are kicking you away from the hole, but you can keep yourself out of trouble," said Justin Rose, who has to be considered a threat, having won twice and nearly three times in a scorching run in the U.S. over the past month.
"It does give you the option to just bunt it around and keep it somewhat in play, and that's the great thing about links golf," said Rose, who's paired in the first two rounds with Woods. "You're never really going to gain too much or take the course on, you're never going to make birdies that way. But even on a terrible day you have that option of just scuttling it along the ground."
"St. Andrews is about dodging the bunkers off the tee and just pace-putting really, really well," said McDowell. "That could sort of bring anyone into the equation."
You hate to keep leaning on Old Tom Watson to supply the sentimental-favourite element, but considering he's played brilliant rounds of golf in both the Masters and U.S. Open this year, after having an eight-foot putt to win last year's British at Turnberry, you can't totally discount a five-time winner, even at age 60.
The bookies have Woods favoured to win, at odds of 5-to-1 or 6-to-1 in some shops, but heck, if the world's (still) No. 1 ranked golfer, playing a course on which he has already won two British Opens, isn't the favourite, something's wrong.
And, of course, plenty is, with Tiger.
But despite the British tabloid media's obsession with his private life - beating that dead horse over and over in news conferences, with exactly zero chance of getting any kind of response - all anyone knows for sure is that Woods is here, and therefore he has a chance to go where no man has gone before: three Open wins at St. Andrews, and consecutive, no less.
"I think he's going to play well here, because he has a lot of heart, an incredible short game, and he hits the ball a long ways," said Phil Mickelson, who has been tantalizingly close to overtaking Woods for the No. 1 world ranking but never seems to seize it, and rarely plays well on this side of the pond.
"He's gutted out two fourth-place finishes in majors, being in contention when he probably didn't have his best stuff, and this course sets up very well for him. So he will be in contention on Sunday, I don't know how anybody can question that."
Sorry, Phil, but in these conditions, on a course as democratic as St. Andrews, anybody can question anything.