If it's a major, Tiger Woods is favored, so there's the convenient theme for the 130th British Open Championship at quaint, quirky Royal Lytham & St. Annes, about a stone's throw from the pebbles that pass for sand on the beach at Blackpool, England.
Woods prepared for the second of his three major title defenses this year by going fishing in Ireland. This angling expedition followed quickly after his post-U.S. Open fishing trip in Alaska.
Tiger apparently has been a lot more successful jerking fish out of streams than putting trophies on his mantel lately. In fact, Woods has been out of the top 10 in his last three events, his driest spell in three years.
Not that it matters much, of course. Woods is still the favorite when the British Open begins today.
There are other contenders, of course, probably led by the suddenly resilient Retief Goosen. The South African beat Woods, and everyone else, at the U.S. Open, then won again last week in the Scottish Open. If he's just as good this week, Goosen can complete the rare U.S.-Scottish-British trifecta.
Because the funky course hard by the Irish Sea is tight, the rough high, the wind unpredictable, the bunkers many and the chances for disaster great, Lytham very well may be that it's not the kind of course Woods will play well. (See Southern Hills.)
On the other hand, does anyone count him out?
There are obvious real contenders. There are also not-so-obvious contenders and obvious noncontenders. These are the areas we're interested in.
1. Mark Brooks: He hits it straight, he likes the British Open and he plays well in the wind. U.S. Open playoffs are different.
2. Darren Clarke: He could belong in the obvious contender group, except that he has had only two top-10 finishes in the Open in 10 years.
3. Robert Allenby: Cannot be frazzled. Also, his shades will come in handy for blocking out blowing sand and sideways rain.
4. Mike Weir: A Canadian, won't be confused by usual winter weather in July.
5. Andrew Coltart: Wouldn't it be ironic if he beat fellow Scot Colin Montgomerie to his first major title?
1. Ernie Els: He has a weak back. He tweaked it about a week back.
2. John Daly: With Lytham's tight fairways, if he uses a driver, he may never find his golf ball.
3. Scott Hoch: He believes traditional links courses are like a certain TV quiz show . . . our weakest links.
4. Montgomerie: Come on, this is the British Open--one top-10 finish in 11 years and none since 1994.
5. Lee Westwood: Lately he can't find the fairway with a map.
The PGA Tour's new four-year, $850-million TV package that begins in 2003 isn't going to impact the local tournaments all that much, except to move the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic to the January dates it prefers so as not to conflict with the NFL playoffs.
Because ABC has the Super Bowl in 2003, CBS will take the Hope, but ABC gets it back in 2004 for the last three years of the contract.
As for the Nissan Open, the major news is that the tournament is moving from CBS to ABC, but it's keeping its mid-February dates at Riviera.
The Buick Invitational at Torrey Pines is on CBS, except in 2005 when ABC takes it because CBS has the Super Bowl.
In each of the four years of the contract, the Accenture Match Play event follows the Nissan Open. That's good news for Riviera, which figures to attract a strong field if the Match Play is played close by.
The big loser in the deal? Has to be the Phoenix Open, which is stuck with the dates opposite the Super Bowl. And if Ford comes on as title sponsor, the Phoenix Open can also probably say goodbye to Woods, who endorses General Motors' Buick Division. It's the same reason Woods, who endorses American Express, doesn't play the MasterCard Colonial.
Expect tournament purses to rise dramatically, from the $4-million minimum level in 2002 to
$5 million in 2003. Insiders expect most of the increase to come from the tour coffers, not the sponsors.
However, the sponsors aren't getting off lightly. There are indications the tab for the average tournament title sponsorship will increase 50% to $6 million a year in 2003, and from there they're only going to get higher.
News item: Cheyenne Woods, 10, from Scottsdale, Ariz., niece of Tiger, attracts four television crews to her Monday practice round for the Junior World at Pine Glen at Singing Hills.
Reaction: When she's 11, there will be twice as many.
For what it's worth, if the Ryder Cup were starting this week (and Sam Torrance is extremely relieved it isn't), American captain Curtis Strange would be missing only four semi-big names from his top 10 qualifiers--Jim Furyk, Brad Faxon, Paul Azinger and Justin Leonard. He could pick two from that list and probably be all right.
European captain Torrance's problem would be much more severe. He has two captain's picks, which means he would have to choose among Jose Maria Olazabal, Sergio Garcia, Bernhard Langer, Miguel Angel Jimenez, Jesper Parnevik, Robert Karlsson, Nick Faldo and Paul Lawrie.
News item: Peter Thomson says Royal Lytham is the toughest of all the courses in the British Open rotation.
Reaction: Sure it is, Peter. After all, he won the fourth of his five Open Championships at Lytham in 1958. Would he pick someplace where he didn't win, such as Carnoustie or Troon or Muirfield? Players never do that. They always triumph at the toughest venues.
And while we're on the subject, it's clear that any Tom, Dick or Harry can win the British Open. There have been 17 Toms, eight Harrys and one Dick (Burton in 1939) who have won the Claret Jug.
The last Tom to do it was Lehman, five years ago at Lytham.
What it all means is unclear, although it could be bad news for anybody named Sergio.
The Long of It
News item: Emilee Klein, who is 64 inches tall, uses a Callaway Big Bertha Hawk Eye VFT driver with a 45-inch shaft to win the LPGA's Michelob Light Classic last week.
Reaction: If she were standing any farther away from her ball, she would be on the next tee.
News item: Casey Martin misses his fifth cut in his last six events, last week at the Buy.com Tour event in Wichita, Kan.
Reaction: Few are hitting it farther, although almost everyone is hitting it straighter, not to mention putting it better. Martin says he isn't having a lot of fun. Here's hoping the fun quotient increases at the Siouxland Open this week in South Dakota.
Hell Freezes Over
News item: New Zealander Michael Campbell hints he may boycott the New Zealand Open in January in protest of weeklong ticket prices going up from $25 to $205--to help pay a $2.25-million guarantee to Tiger.
Reaction: Watch, this is going to happen in baseball any day now. Yes, some player will sit out a game in protest because tickets are too expensive for the fans. Is this hilarious or what?
The LPGA is happy about its latest television numbers, showing that over the last 12 months, average viewership on ESPN and ESPN2 for the 18-34 demographic is up 36%--and 78% for the adult female category.
Which is the bigger upset in the LPGA's statistics on driving distance . . . that Akiko Fukushima is the leader or that Laura Davies isn't in the top 10?
Here is the latest example of how-you-know-you're-in-trouble: Overnight Nielsen ratings for NBC's NASCAR pre-race coverage of the Tropicana 400 were higher--2.9-2.6--than ABC's Senior Players Championship, a major.