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Weather or Not at Birkdale?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

One of these years, somebody is going to wise up and they’re going to play this British Open tournament in the summer. On Tuesday at Royal Birkdale, a chill wind blew so hard off the Irish Sea, even the whitecaps had whitecaps.

It was a perfectly wonderful day, if you happen to be a virus. Lee Janzen played a practice round and lost five balls. Tom Lehman lost six. Tom Kite, Phil Mickelson, Corey Pavin and Mark Calcavecchia played together and nobody hit a green until the third hole.

The sky was the color of mud, it was cold enough to cause shivers and it sprinkled rain from time to time.

Tiger Woods was asked how he found the course.

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“I found it very windy, very cold,” he said.

Yes, it’s British Open weather, all right, and just in time. To be totally honest, the weather here has not been a factor the last three years, unless you count the chances of sunstroke.

Warm weather and golf courses drier than Justin Leonard’s sense of humor have been the norm since John Daly won at St. Andrews in 1995. Lehman enjoyed the same sunny conditions at Royal Lytham in 1996 and Leonard won at Royal Troon on a weekend that would have made Palm Springs jealous.

This is the 127th edition of the British Open, which has been played in lousy weather, oh, probably about 119 times. And if you believe the forecast, always a risky bet, chances are good that the weather will be bad.

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With its rough and its semi-narrow fairways, Royal Birkdale is tough enough without wind and cold and showers. It’s quite a combination, said Janzen, who couldn’t come up with anything to compare.

“We do not play on golf courses like this with this kind of bad weather,” he said.

Maybe this is why many believe the chances of a fourth consecutive British Open title being won by a U.S. player will be blown away. That’s the conventional wisdom, anyway.

“When the wind blows, there’s no question that it might be a bit of advantage toward the European side, because they’re much more accustomed to playing that type of golf,” Mark O’Meara said.

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Then that would be good news for the European players, who are led by Lee Westwood, the 25-year-old from England who won last weekend’s Loch Lochmond tournament. Westwood comes from Worksop, a town near Nottingham in the English Midlands, which used to be famous for its sheriff.

Westwood may ultimately wind up the bigger name. Touted as the successor to Nick Faldo, who has taken him under his arm, Westwood already is a member of the victorious Ryder Cup team that defeated the U.S. in Spain and he won his first PGA Tour event in April in New Orleans.

There are 44 U.S. players in the field of 156 that includes Ernie Els, Colin Montgomerie, Jesper Parnevik, David Duval, Thomas Bjorn, Fred Couples, Jose Maria Olazabal, Costantino Rocca, Daly, Faldo and Mickelson.

Faldo played a practice round with Gary Player and David Frost and didn’t have any problems with the right elbow he injured before the Loch Lomond event.

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There are also two soon-to-be pros entered--21-year-old Matt Kuchar from Georgia Tech and 20-year-old British Amateur champion Sergio Garcia from Spain. Kuchar said he’s weary of talking about whether he would turn pro.

“That’s been the hot topic,” Kuchar said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do. Right now, I’m dead in the middle. But that’s all anybody wants to talk about. I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

He could have been talking about the weather.

British Open at a Glance

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* Where: Royal Birkdale Golf Club (7,018 yards)

* When: Thursday through Sunday.

* Par: 34-36--70

* Format: 72 holes, stroke play

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* Playoff, if necessary: Stroke play over four holes

* Purse: $2.9 million (Winner’s share: $498,000)

* Defending champion: Justin Leonard.

* TV: Thursday-Friday, 6-11 a.m., ESPN; Saturday 7-11 a.m., ABC. Sunday, 6:30-10:30 a.m., 2-3 p.m. (recap), ABC

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