ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – Everybody’s talking about Friday. There are a million storylines leading into the Open Championship, ranging from Rory McIlroy’s soccer skills to Tiger Woods’ optimism to Dustin Johnson’s shot at redemption to Rickie Fowler’s momentum to the glorious history of the Old Course to what you would expect to be the biggest story: Jordan Spieth’s shot at golf history.
But every story at the moment is being eclipsed by an oncoming storm that, if you believe some of the more passionate of the weather-watchers, could be biblical. Listen to the dueling Watson weather reports.
“Are you ready for the gales?” Tom Watson asks.
“The way I like to move it, heavy winds is pretty difficult,” Bubba Watson says.
“Friday you’ll see a lot of scores in the 80s,” Tom Watson says.
“I don’t really play good in the rain,” Bubba Watson says.
“You’ll see this course takes its toll,” Tom Watson says.
“Lucky for me we don’t play every course like this,” Bubba Watson says.
This is the level of anxiousness, nervousness, excitement and panic people are having about the potential weather front coming in. At the moment – and it changes moment to moment – the forecast includes wind gusts of 25 mph late Thursday, “a spell of heavy rain” Friday morning and strengthening winds Friday afternoon that could gust up to 40 mph. Well, this is the Open Championship, and in the end, it’s all about the weather.
“How frustrating,” one reporter asked Jordan Spieth, “is it for a golfer to have something out of your control when you’re trying to do something special?”
“I think it’s fun,” Spieth said, and he was smiling big. This is the wonder of Jordan Spieth. Nothing seems to faze him. Nothing seems to frustrate him. He is, of course, trying to do something that has not been done since Ben Hogan in 1953: Win the first three major championships of the year. He won the Masters wire to wire and then showed mettle by winning the U.S. Open on the chewed-up greens and roller-coaster mounds of Chambers Bay. Now, he’s here at the Home of Golf, looking at a raging weather forecast, and he’s thinking it will be fun.
“We come over here because we want to embrace the opportunity of handling these conditions,” he says. “I understand that there’s a possibility for a lot of this tournament to be dependent on the draw the first few days, at least for a few strokes. … Going into it, you have to be as positive as can be.
“Friday looks like it's going to be brutal for everybody. Looks like rain and wind in the morning and then extreme winds in the afternoon. So I don't really have a preference on which one I'd rather see.”
He doesn’t get a choice. He will play Thursday morning and then again Friday afternoon, so he will likely be dealing with the high winds. Then again, he might be dealing with sideways rain. Then again, he might be dealing with bursts of sunshine and a quiet wind. In truth, he will likely be dealing with all three because that’s how it goes at St. Andrews, where locals like to say that you can get all four seasons in just 18 holes.
Spieth’s quest for his third straight major championship – and his quest to keep alive the potential for a Grand Slam – has given this Open Championship a buzz, but there remains a lingering disappointment because the world’s No. 1 player, Rory McIlroy, is not here. This seemed the perfect place to unleash a rivalry between Spieth and McIlroy, who at the moment own all four of golf’s major championship trophies. Golf really hasn’t had a competitive rivalry in a long time. But McIlroy badly injured his ankle while playing soccer with friends in early July. Throughout the week, people have contemplated sadly how dominant he might have been on a wet and windy course where, as a 21-year-old, he shot an opening-round 63.
Without McIlroy here, much of the non-Spieth attention has focused on Dustin Johnson, the bomber who three-putted the final hole at the U.S. Open and lost to Spieth. The two will be paired the first two days, which both say is a comfortable pairing even after the U.S. Open clash. Johnson’s immense talent has never been in question. He crushes his drives and has surprising touch for someone who hits the ball so far. He played in the 2010 Open at St. Andrews and played pretty well, working his way into the top 10 after the first three days and finished 14th. He says he is a much better player now than he was then.
“I think you’ve got to enjoy links golf,” Johnson says of the Old Course. “You’ve got to be able to use your imagination around here. It definitely helps the more times you play it to know the bounces, where to land the ball, where you want to be at in the fairway … I think the conditions now, they’re really good.”
Then, there’s Rickie Fowler, who is coming off victory at the Scottish Open and has moved up to No. 5 in the world. Fowler finished top 5 in all four major championships last year and he also played pretty well at the last British Open at St. Andrews five years ago. He senses this is a great opportunity for him because of his lifelong love of links golf.
And finally, there’s Tiger Woods, a two-time Open champion at St. Andrews, who has not won a major championship in more than seven years. He comes off perhaps his best round in two years – a bogey-free round at The Greenbrier two weeks ago – and he says that he’s hitting the ball beautifully on the driving range. Woods rather famously tends to put a positive spin on everything he does – he says negativity is bad for his golf – but there are numerous people around St. Andrews who believe that this time the positive talk is for real and that the Woods revival begins this week. He’s healthy, he’s hungry and he’s playing on a golf course he knows as well as anybody in the world.
“I think experience counts a lot with the varied wind conditions,” Woods says. “I think that’s where experience comes into play. You have to hit the ball well. You have to really lag putt well here. But if you haven’t seen the golf course in the various winds, bunkers that you don’t even see on the yardage book because you’re not playing it, with that wind all of a sudden they become apparent. … Over the years, this is my fifth Open here. And I’ve seen a lot of different winds.”
In other words, Woods will not dread what’s coming Friday the way some of the other golfers might. Then again, Jordan Spieth does not seem to be dreading it either. He did not arrive until Monday, after he had won the John Deere Classic. He had not had the chance to come visit the golf course this year; the closest he had come was when he played St. Andrews in the golf simulator he has in his home.
“I’m in no way saying that that's what I did to prepare for this Open,” Spieth said. “It was fun and it certainly was [valuable], just because it's so realistic. You can see kind of the start lines where you need to hit shots. But then you get out here, and it could change very much depending on the wind.”
Then Spieth smiled again. Fun? You bet.
“The course was a lot easier with 68 degrees and no breeze coming out of the air-conditioner in my room,” he said, breaking up the room. He does seem unflappable. When the wind comes, as it surely will come, we will find out of if he really is unflappable.