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Spieth needs to know the Old Course ... quickly

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ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – Tiger Woods loved the Old Course as soon as he saw it in 1995 – all of the history, all of the strategy, all of the creativity. He was drawn to the challenge.

Bernhard Langer’s relationship with the venerable links started in 1978 and was a bit more complicated.

“I didn’t like it at all,” he said Tuesday while standing next to the 18th green. “I thought, ‘This is not golf.’”

Granted, in those days, his task of learning the course was even more difficult. Langer had to create his own yardage book; he couldn’t just flip through detailed pages with yardages to pot bunkers and out-of-bounds stakes.

In the ’78 Open, Langer was 19 years old, and he had never played links golf before: “I’m going, ‘What the heck is this?’ I’m looking and I can’t see a thing but a couple of bushes.”

Langer missed the cut that year, but it wasn’t long before he came to appreciate the design of the craggy old links that overlooks the North Sea.

He came to understand why there are certain humps and bumps in front of the massive greens.  

He came to understand how bunkers that seem as though they’re out in the middle of nowhere all of a sudden come into play.

He came to understand why the greens are shaped the way they are, with subtle slopes that kick the ball away from the hole instead of funneling toward it.   

He came to understand why sometimes it’s wise to play down an adjacent fairway, not just because it lops off some yardage but also because it might be the best angle of attack.  

“It didn’t take me long to catch on,” Langer said, “and now I love it.”

How long it takes Jordan Spieth to catch on is the major storyline heading into the 144th Open Championship.

The 21-year-old is the oddsmakers’ favorite at St. Andrews, but never have there been so many question marks about a player gunning for his third consecutive major.

This is just his third Open start, and other than a Walker Cup appearance at Royal Aberdeen in 2011, Spieth doesn’t have much links golf experience. Of more concern this week: Prior to Monday’s evening spin around St. Andrews, he had seen the course only once in person. He spent the past few weeks playing the Old Course on his home simulator, the kind of new-school move you’d expect from a player born in 1993. 

When Woods won here in 2000 and ’05, he played practice rounds with experienced players to pick their brains about how to attack St. Andrews. Spieth has adopted a different approach, at least so far, after going out alone late Monday and then playing alongside Ryan Palmer and amateur Ollie Schniederjans (part of the heralded high school class of 2011) in Tuesday’s three-ball.

Part of the Old Course’s unique challenge is that it’s a shifting target, and what Woods pays attention to most during practice rounds is the wind direction. On Monday, it came out of the north. On Tuesday, it blew out of the west. The rest of the week, it’s expected to vary from the east to the west to the northwest to the southeast. The thinking goes that the more rounds a player has logged on the Old Course, the more prepared he is for when the wind inevitably shifts direction.  

“A five-degree wind change here changes the whole golf course completely,” Woods said.

Players anticipate that one nine-hole stretch will play easier while the other is more difficult – they just don’t know whether they’ll be able to score going out or coming home. They try to make as many birdies as they can on the holes when the wind is helping, then hang on for dear life when it turns back against them.

“Playing in the different winds and having to hit the different shots, shaping shots completely different from one day to the next on the same hole, it does help seeing the golf course under different winds,” Woods said.  

Added Justin Rose: “The more you go around, you do get to know those little nuances.”

Which is why these three practice-round days are so significant for Spieth, who is developing a game plan with caddie Michael Greller and swing coach Cameron McCormick. It’s information overload, trying to process wind direction and angles and slope, all with the relentless hype of potentially capturing the third leg of the Grand Slam swirling around him.

When asked what guidance he would give to players touring the Old Course for the first time in a competitive setting,Langer said to expect drastically different hole locations than what they’d practiced for, and that they’re never fully prepared for how dramatically the course changes with a simple shift in wind direction.

“But they’re all experienced players and caddies here,” Langer said. “It doesn’t take them long to figure out a place. It might take them a little longer to figure this place out, but not too long. That’s what we do. That’s what we do for a living.”

We’ll soon find out how well Spieth has crammed for an Open exam at St. Andrews.