Along with Claret Jug, a curse


ST. ANDREWS, Scotland - It's not easy becoming a British Open champion, but it shouldn't endanger the lives of bystanders.

It did 10 years ago at the Old Course, when Ian Baker-Finch teed it up on perhaps the widest expanse of golfing grass on Earth. The shot should have been easier than hitting a ball into St. Andrews Bay.

Finch missed the water, but he also missed the first fairway, the adjoining 18th fairway and Arnold Palmer coming up the latter fairway before the ball rolled next to a building and stopped.

The curse of the British Open had struck again.

As the 134th version begins today, everybody is wondering who will take home the Claret Jug. A more pertinent question is why anyone would want to.

When it comes to career moves, winning the British Open is like marrying Bobby Brown. The champs tend to fall off the charts, or worse.

The past two jug winners, Todd Hamilton and Ben Curtis, haven't come close to winning since. Things got so bad for 1991 champ Baker-Finch that he quit the game. Some think 2001 titlist David Duval should do the same before a gallery member files a wrongful death suit.

Whatever happened to 1999 champion Paul Lawrie? There are other gloomy examples stretching all the way back to 1875, when four-time champ Young Tom Morris died at age 24.

The good news for this year's contenders is St. Andrews seems to be a haven from the Claret Twilight Zone.

The past five winners have 40 majors between them. Since his previous appearance on the Old Course, Tiger Woods has picked up four more majors.

Bookies have made him a 3-1 favorite to win this year as St. Andrews braces for what could be another historic weekend. That's partially assured by Jack Nicklaus, who swears this will be his final competition.

The Old Course may also be in for a New Age scoring blitz. The Royal and Ancient Golf Club has lengthened the layout by 164 yards, hoping to take some of the punch out of today's high-tech sluggers.

But the forecast calls for reasonably clear and calm conditions for the Scottish coast. And unless the wind starts blowing, St. Andrews may be so helpless it could take a ridiculously low score to win.

"Seventy-two under par," Woods said.

He was kidding, though none of the old chaps at the R&A; probably found it very funny. Majors aren't supposed to turn into birdie shootouts, and the British Open has prided itself on grinding the world's best players into golf haggis.

It's partially the courses, but mostly The Perfect Storm conditions that tend to blow in from the North Sea. Woods is still trying thaw out the clothes he wore while shooting an 81 in the 2002 Open at Muirfield.

He was trying to win the third leg of the Grand Slam that year. Woods couldn't catch Michael Campbell in the U.S. Open last month, but he won this year's Masters and destroyed the Old Course in 2000.

His 19-under-par total five years ago was a tournament record and showed what can happen when a hot golfer meets good conditions at St. Andrews. It's probably the least devilish course in the British Open rotation. If the wind and mist don't roll in, its major defense is 112 pot bunkers. Woods somehow managed to avoid all of them in 2000.

"I hit it well, and I got lucky a few times," he said. "There's no doubt about that."

He believes he's hitting it better now, and his recent run of top-five finishes backs that up.

Ernie Els is listed at 8-1, while no other golfer is better than 14-1. For the long-shot sentimentalists, Nicklaus is 250-1 to win and 8-1 to make the cut.

The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Tournament data

What: 134th British Open

Where: Old Course at St. Andrews in Scotland

Yardage: 7,279 yards

Par: 72

Purse: $7.3 million ($1.3 million to winner)

When: Today to Sunday

TV today: TNT, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Defending champion: Todd Hamilton

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