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The Two Faces of Royal Troon

TROON, Scotland -- Tiger Woods played one practice round on what seemed like two courses Monday.

He walked to the 10th tee at the far end of Royal Troon and turned to face a fresh breeze off the Irish Sea. Glancing back at the first nine holes he played, Woods grinned and said, 'That was a nice little course, wasn't it?'

Then, staring ahead at a blind tee shot over mounds of prickly gorse bushes on a 438-yard hole that begins one of the most daunting back nines in the British Open, Woods said sternly, 'This is where it starts.

'That was the JV,' he added. 'This is the varsity.'

Perhaps no other links in the British Open has two nines that are more diverse.

The outward nine plays with the prevailing wind and is only 3,462 yards with two par 5s, one of them reachable in two with as little as a 7-iron. The inward nine is 3,713 yards and plays into the teeth of the wind, yet it has only one par 5.

'You're going to see a lot of birdies and sure enough some eagles on the front nine,' Mark Calcavecchia said. 'But then you get to the 10th tee, and the fun starts. If the wind is blowing pretty good, which I hope it does, I've got to believe the back nine will play ... five shots harder.'

It was blowing hard late Sunday evening when Mark O'Meara came to the 457-yard closing hole and barely reached the fairway with one of his best drives. It was blowing moderately Monday morning when Woods cracked a 3-iron toward the 222-yard 17th hole and watched it barely creep up to the putting surface.

'I can't get there with that,' he said under his breath.

This Jekyll & Hyde links will holds its eighth British Open starting Thursday, with the focus on Woods trying to end his 0-for-8 drought in the major championships, Phil Mickelson attempting to add to an illustrious season that already includes a green jacket, and Ernie Els with another outside chance to become No. 1 in the world.

Mostly, the attention will be directed to the crackle of flags atop the clubhouse. After all, the official club history is titled 'The Breezy Links 'O' Troon.'

'You try to make your score going out,' said Lee Westwood, whose best finish in a British Open was a tie for 10th at Royal Troon in 1997. 'I remember last time there were a lot of guys who were 4 and 5 under par on the first eight holes. And then you try to hang on.'

Not all the first nine holes play like a local municipal course. The shortest hole in Open history is also one of the most punishing, the 123-yard 'Postage Stamp' that can turn fortunes quickly.

The green is narrow with two pot bunkers to the left, one in front and two to the right. O'Meara tossed a ball in the soft, brown sand during his practice round early Monday, blasted it out and watched it roll across the green toward another bunker.

Herman Tissies, a German amateur, was bunkered left of the green in the 1950 British Open. It took him five shots to get out -- to a bunker on the right. He eventually made 15. Woods was trying to get back into contention in the final round in 1997 until taking a triple bogey on the Postage Stamp hole.

Just the sight of it can be intimidating.

'I was nervous today and it was a practice round, and it was a 9-iron and the wind wasn't blowing very hard,' Calcavecchia said. 'It's an awesome little hole.'

The rest of the front nine is relatively easy. Players routinely try to drive the green on the 370-yard opening hole and the 379-yard third hole, and Woods gave passing thought to trying to drive the 405-yard fourth.

That's not technology talking -- that's a wee breeze at Royal Troon, not to mention the firm fairways of a links that require landing the ball some 30 yards short of the green and bouncing onto the green.

But while the holes aren't particularly long, some skill is required.

Calcavecchia had 240 yards left to the front of the 560-yard fourth hole and decided to hit 5-iron.

'I normally fly my 5-iron about 195 to 200, so I figure I needed to fly it 30 or 40 yards short of the green,' he said. 'I hit a good shot, landed 30, 40 yards short the green and went over. So it was your stock 270-yard 5-iron. And I'm not one of the longer guys with my irons.'

Still, the back nine is what separates the contenders.

Tee shots are into the wind, so any errant shot is exaggerated, and there are gorse bushes lining some of the fairways. Those are like shrubs full of tiny thorns, which essentially serves as a one-shot penalty. And at 3,713 yards, the back nine plays significantly longer.

Calcavecchia, who hit that 'stock 5-iron' that went 270 yards on the downwind fourth, had about 200 yards on the 13th and pounded a 3-iron that just reached the green.

'It's all about the wind,' he said.

Calcavecchia won at Royal Troon in 1989 with one of the best shots of his life, a 5-iron from 201 yards in the first cut of rough into about 15 feet on the 18th hole to win a four-hole playoff against Greg Norman and Wayne Grady.

Justin Leonard won in 1997 with a brilliant performance on the greens, which are among the purest in Britain. Also back in a rare appearance is Tom Weiskopf, the last wire-to-wire winner in the British Open who captured his only major at Royal Troon in 1973.

'There's a few changes, some new bunkers, some tees and some news angles,' Weiskopf said. 'But the course basically plays the same. There's some opportunities on the front nine. And then the back nine, it's long and demanding and difficult.'
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