ST. ANDREWS, SCOTLAND — ST. ANDREWS, Scotland - The day before last month's U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, there was a touching ceremony to honor defending champion Payne Stewart, who died tragically in a plane crash in October. It ended with 40 players hitting golf balls into Stillwater Cove.
Yesterday, on the eve of the 129th British Open at the Old Course, there was an uplifting exhibition to honor the tournament's living champions. There were 22 of them, including 88-year-old Sam Snead. Making his first trip back here since winning the Open in 1946, Snead received the loudest ovation.
He then hit his opening drive 200 yards or so down the middle of the first fairway.
"It's good to get out, but I'm looking forward to going home," said Snead, who planned to return to Hot Springs, Va., today. "I'm going to get a Coke, put my feet up and watch these guys on television."
Tom Weiskopf is not entertaining any thoughts of a comeback, not even for the Senior Tour. The 1973 British Open champion had not played in a month, and it showed as he opened the competition by hooking his tee shot. He admitted to having a bad case of nerves.
"I've never been so nervous," he said. "I don't remember ever playing in front of as many people. I didn't even care when it [the first shot] went just as long as I didn't top it."
It was golf's answer to Old-Timer's Day at Yankee Stadium, except some of these guys can still play. Roberto De Vicenzo of Argentina, who is more famous for losing the 1968 Masters after signing an incorrect scorecard than he was for winning the previous year's British Open, nearly drove the 357-yard finishing hole.
"It was nice to play with [Tom] Watson and [Jack] Nicklaus, I'd like to play with them tomorrow too," said De Vicenzo, 77. "I'm sorry I can't play the whole week. But when you're old, people send you home."
The only thing to damper yesterday's four-hole match was the absence of two-time champion Arnold Palmer.
There have been mixed reports as to why Palmer stayed away.
Some said it was because he had already made his farewell appearance here five years ago. Others attributed it to the death of his wife last year. There was some thought of giving Palmer, who turned 70 earlier this year, an exemption.
But yesterday was certainly a celebration of sorts. As he walked over the Swilken Bridge late yesterday afternoon, Snead did a little jig.
"I love music," he said.
Garcia in slump
When Sergio Garcia nearly beat Tiger Woods in last year's PGA Championship, there was talk of the then 19-year-old Spaniard being a possible rival. But Garcia has struggled this year, both on the PGA and European tours. His best finish was third place at last month's Buick Classic, but there he blew a three-shot lead on the back nine in the final round.
Garcia has not been a factor in either of the season's first two majors, finishing tied for 40th at Augusta and tied for 46th at Pebble Beach.
Asked when he expects again to contend, Garcia said, "I would say starting tomorrow."
Cheering the moment
Weiskopf told a story at the banquet Tuesday night to honor the living champions about what it's like to play in front of Scottish golf fans. They are not quite as boisterous as their American - or even English - counterparts.
Playing a practice round with Nicklaus at Carnoustie years ago, Weiskopf hit what he thought was a good tee shot on the par-3 eighth hole. There was a smattering of applause, except from two gentleman who Weiskopf used as directional markers to play his line off the tee.
"I get there and only Jack's ball is on the green," Weiskopf said. "I look in the bunker and there isn't a ball. Jack goes on the green and sees that my ball is in the cup. I walked over to these two guys and say, "Don't you react to a hole in one?"
One of the men answered.
"Aye laddie, but it's only practice."