Stewart hopes Scottish 'vacation' is link to good British Open


SOUTHPORT, England -- There he was, just being a tourist. Like hundreds of guys who sign up for golf packages in Scotland, the U.S. Open champion took a week to travel a bit with the boys, play golf in the daytime, wager a few shillings in a nassau then down a pint of bitters in the evening.

So golf isn't totally a job for Payne Stewart. He can indeed play it for business, as he did last month at Hazeltine when he won the U.S. Open -- or as he will do today when he begins play in the British Open. But golf also can be just golf, as it was last week when he, his caddie Mike Hicks, his swing guru Chuck Cook and his sports psychologist Richard Coop barnstormed Scotland.

There was some business involved -- Stewart wanted to get a feel for the type of golf he will be playing at Royal Birkdale this week. But more than anything, it was a time to decompress, to escape the demands that come with being the U.S. Open champion.

"It was the first time I had a chance to totally unwind," Stewart said.

"The week after the Open, I played the Irish Open. Then I went back home to Orlando for a week, but it wasn't real relaxing -- a lot of phone calls, lot of mail. It was really pretty frantic.

"Then I flew back to Europe to play the Monte Carlo Open. So last week was the first chance I have had to totally get away, with absolutely no demands on my time, to do just what I wanted to do."

Lake Nona pro Greigor Jamieson's father is the head pro at Turnberry, and he set up the itinerary -- Troon, Prestwick, Turnberry, Carnoustie and Gullane. Jamieson called Muirfield and asked if Stewart could come with a foursome. Muirfield declined -- not even the U.S. Open champ is welcome everywhere.

"But the places we played were outstanding," Stewart said. "We played six-hole robins -- I played scratch, Chuck was a 4 and the other two guys 14. The low net each day had his handicap cut in half. I only won one day, and then I had to let the other three guys add two strokes to their handicaps.

"But we had a great time. It was just a lot of 'fun golf' -- but with a purpose. It has given me a taste again of what links play is like in this country."

He wasn't totally a tourist. At each stop, when word circulated that Payne Stewart, Open champion, was on the grounds, crowds gathered to follow the foursome. At Carnoustie, 100 of the townspeople tagged along, an entourage Stewart found not at all intruding.

"They were extremely nice people," he said. "What I really liked was it intimidated my playing partners."

This week, of course, his playing partners won't be intimidated. The forecast for today's first round is heavy rain, with winds gusting to 35 mph. The European tour play ers who make up most of the field figure the weather will be a much more intimidating factor than Stewart. Stewart agrees the elements will play a big part.

"We just don't play in conditions like this back in the States," Stewart said. "But everyone is going to have problems here if this blows like it has been blowing in practice rounds.

"If they use the back tees at No. 16, for example, a lot of guys aren't going to reach the fairway. It's a carry of about 230 yards over heavy rough that you can't play out of. On Monday I played it head-on into a pretty stiff wind, and I hit a solid drive and only made the fairway by about five yards.

"The guys who don't hit it a long way -- I don't know what they are going to do. It looks like their only option would be to bail out over toward the No. 15 green, then try to get back to 16 fairway from there."

Nick Faldo said this week that he believes Stewart is his most serious threat to prevent him from repeating the title he won at St. Andrews last year. Stewart wasn't so confident that he would encourage a friend to back him at the local bet shops at 14-to-1 odds, but inwardly he thinks he can win here.

"Links golf requires imagination and the ability to work the ball, and I think I possess both those characteristics," he said. He has played in the British Open every year since 1984 after playing the first time in 1981, and he says he has mastered the low, run-up shot demanded by the firm turf around the greens.

"Anybody at our level can put the ball into the air, but bumping it along the ground takes some imagination, and that's something I think I'm good at," he said.

"I wouldn't like a steady diet of playing shots that way, but I enjoy it from time to time. We're not given the option of that shot in the States because of the way our courses are designed."

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