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BRITISH OPEN : The Leader? It’s Elementary

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Tom Watson is one of the leaders of the British Open.

And there’s a cow in Texas, and the Pope is Catholic, there are bear tracks in the woods and the earth is round.

Tom Watson and the British Open are synonymous. Tom Watson has won eight major championships--and five of them were British Opens.

Only Harry Vardon has won more--by one.

It’s dog-bites-man stuff. Orange County goes Republican. Foregone conclusion.

Tom gets to Scotland and turns into Tom Watson again. The four-foot putts he can’t sink in Florida and California clatter right into the hole. He’s home again.

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Yup, that’s Bonnie Prince Tommy. He should get his own tartan.

But wait a minute! What’s a guy named Mark doing up there with him? Let’s see, which Mark is that again--Mark McCumber, Mark McNulty? Or Mark O’Meara?

This Mark--it’s McNulty--hasn’t won any five British Opens. He has finished fourth in the Danny Thomas Memphis Classic and the Sammy Davis Jr., is what he’s done. And that was 13 years ago. He hasn’t exactly put anybody in mind of Ben Hogan.

John Daly? Now you’re talking! Golf’s bad boy. Dempsey with a golf club. He doesn’t clinch with a course, he Sunday-punches it.

The public loves John the way, and for the same reasons, it loved Babe Ruth. Joe Louis. General Patton.

And Ben Crenshaw! There wasn’t a dry eye in the house when Ben tied for the lead with his 67. Gentle Ben. Everybody’s kid brother. Even the Brits love Ben. He was second in this event twice--here in ’78 and at Royal Lytham in ’79. But even though Seve Ballesteros won the latter one, the skycaps at the airport the next day cheered Ben and called out, “Shoulda won it, Benny!”

British Opens are not won in the first round. But the reality is, they are seldom won with a bad first round. Nick Price opened with a 69 last year and Greg Norman and Nick Faldo opened with 66s in 1992 and 1993.

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John Daly is not supposed to have the game for a British Open, where the emphasis is on cerebral golf. St. Andrews is not supposed to respond to brute strength.

But our John, who plays armored-tank golf, treated St. Andrews as if it were a rubber-mat municipal in East Texas. He drove the green on the 316-yard par-four 12th. He was hole-high on two other par fours. He reverted to John Daly at the 18th, snap-hooking a drive into the spectator fences 40 yards left of the hole. Then, he made a three anyway.

John, who has had two divorces, several speeding tickets, and a few stops in alcohol rehab, would be a strange addition to the portraits of Old and Young Tom Morris, Harry Vardon, Bobby Jones and the other elder statesmen of golf whose likenesses hang in the Royal & Ancient clubrooms.

He came into the interview room and revealed to the international media that:

--He never had a headache when he drank but he gets them all the time now.

--He has stopped walking in front of his playing partners off the tee and even waits for his caddie to catch up to him.

--He could have driven several more greens than he did.

--His doctor, or maybe it’s his therapist, wants him to give up caffeine, but “it’s too tough.” Like, one addiction at a time.

It was a curious exchange for this sedate old tournament. McNulty’s interview, for example, revealed he had gone to his swing guru, David Ledbetter, and had come up with a swing in which his body contorted into a “reverse C” at impact, which resulted in his spine being in perfect alignment to hit the ball squarely.

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John Daly didn’t bother with any of those refinements, he went right to the heart of the matter. He has gotten patience, he said. He has gotten couth.

And it’s working.

“I think I made more birdies today than I did all year--seven,” he said, surprised at the notion.

Fenway Park has its wall. Madison Square Garden its center ring, Wimbledon its Centre Court. But St. Andrews has its 17th hole. This is a 461-yard, par-four hall of horrors in which a golfer tees off not before a wide-open inviting fairway but looking at a two-story shed, an extension of the Old Course hotel, whose lettering is on the side of the structure. Local lore has it that you’re meant to hit your drive over the first O in the words Old Course Hotel. I guess if you hit it over the S, you’ve had it.

Most golfers would be lucky if they could hit it over a word, never mind a letter. But then, a lot of golfers couldn’t hit it over that shed at all. I couldn’t. The top shot would clang off the side. So would a short shot--which is my specialty.

There are a lot of “blind” greens in the game of golf, i.e., greens not visible from mid-fairway for one reason or another.

But a blind fairway is another matter. Even when you hit the ball over the proper letter--and word--you have to worry about the hotel, which is out of bounds on the right. And, even if you’re safe, you still have a long iron to a green, which is wide but not very deep. Even if your ball lands on it--instead of in a hotel room in a shower of glass--chances are, it will bounce off onto a paved road, rock-strewn, behind and beside the green.

If you miss the green on the left, there is a bunker deep enough to be a mine shaft. You take a nine-iron and a canary down with you.

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They call this sociopath, this serial killer, “the Road Hole,” which is about as euphemistic as you can get. The road to hell would be more like it. Puckishly, a sign alongside it reads, “Danger. Golf In Progress.”

What is in progress, usually, is a double bogey. The leader board would be far more crowded with 67s if golf weren’t in progress at the 17th. A golfer named Frank Nobilo reached it during a precocious round in which he was four under par. He left the “roadie” two under.

Phil Mickelson came up to it at three under and threatening, and left it two under.

It’s not a hole, it’s a punishment for our sins. They call the swale before the 18th, the “Valley of Sin,” but it’s a convent compared to the road hole.

It’s heartless, humorless, hostile. It is to golf what Jack the Ripper was to romance.

It will probably decide this tournament. Look at it this way: When Nick Faldo won in 1990, he deliberately played it for a bogey. But don’t expect John Daly to do that. He’s already got a headache.

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