ST. ANNES ON SEA, England — Faces gathered in the clubhouse windows and locals huddled on the back of the first tee to get a glimpse of Bubba Watson goofing off with his friends.
It’s not every day in the UK that the reigning Masters Tournament champion stops by for a casual round.
“I just want to play a couple rounds with these guys,” said Watson when asked why he was teeing off on the St. Annes Old Links on Saturday evening with his agent and caddie instead of practicing a mile down the road at Royal Lytham & St. Annes where the Open Championship will be staged this week.
Watson seemed perfectly in his element with gawkers politely watching him ham it up on the practice chipping area. He was certainly more comfortable than a year ago before he owned a green jacket and was getting barbecued by the British press as an “ugly American” heading into the Open at Royal St. Georges over his lack of worldly ways. Watson had to go on an apology parade for flippant comments about not knowing the names of famous landmarks in Paris during the French Open and stating his desires to get back to the simple comforts of home.
The truth is, Watson enjoys coming to the United Kingdom to play a major on famous links. He’ll tee it up with his pals again at Royal Birkdale today before beginning his examination of Lytham.
“You have to hit so many different shots and play it on the ground – it kind of brings the fun back into golf like when we were kids,” Watson said.
The links game with its unusual demands for creative shotmaking in all manner of weather conditions would seem perfectly suited to Watson’s brand of game.
“You’d think that, wouldn’t you,” Watson said on Saturday.
But the left-hander who carved that massive hook from the trees to win the Masters in April has never really fared well in three British Open appearances, missing the cut twice and tying for 30th last year.
“The putting has been the problem,” he said of the typically slower greens played on the links than PGA Tour pros are accustomed to putting on in the states. “I’ve never seemed to putt well over here.”
How Watson will fare in this major after missing the cut at June’s U.S. Open is one of many questions golf fans will be curious to see answered this week at Royal Lytham.
• Will the assembly line of different major winners continue?
The past 15 majors have been won by 15 different players, 12 of the past 13 being first-time major winners.
Some of them seemed destined for bigger things while others have largely disappeared since their breakout triumphs.
Paul Azinger, who won the 1993 PGA Championship, says it’s not always easy for players to follow up what he calls a “mountaintop experience.”
“When you climb Mount Everest, I don’t think you’re going to go rush over and climb Mount Rainier,” Azinger said. “It’s just one of those things. And maybe that Mount Everest experience causes those guys to just let down just a little bit as they get older.”
• Will England’s top duo of No. 1 Luke Donald and No. 3 Lee Westwood finally reach that mountaintop?
For the second consecutive year the Open is being played in England while two native sons are perched near the very top of the world charts. Last year Donald and Westwood became the first No. 1 and 2 combo to miss the cut in a major at St. George’s.
Donald, who also missed the cut at June’s U.S. Open, has never played a professional event at Royal Lytham. Westwood tied for 47th when the Open was last played at Lytham in 2001.
Could this be the year for one of them when Lytham is expected to get its fair share of rain during the wettest summer in England since 1912.
“Let’s remember one thing about the Open Championship,” said two-time U.S. Open winner Curtis Strange. “You can lose it just because of your tee times if the weather turns badly in your favor, OK. So if (Tiger Woods) doesn’t do well, if Phil (Mickelson) doesn’t do well, if Westwood doesn’t do well, Luke Donald, whoever it might be, it might not be because of their play. It might be because they’re behind the eight ball to start with. They might play well, finish well, but really have an impossible task of winning.”
• Will Tiger Woods end his major drought?
This is the big question that is on everyone’s mind. Woods has won three times already this season, each win coming at seemingly the right time as he prepares for the majors.
He’s had some top-four finishes, held a piece of the Sunday lead at Augusta and was a 36-hole co-leader at Olympic in June, but the game’s ultimate closer has been unable to close the deal on a 15th major since getting his 14th at the 2008 U.S. Open.
“I think there’s one person that’s been a little impatient about Tiger winning a major championship, and that’s Tiger himself,” said Andy North, another two-time U.S. Open winner.
There is a growing sentiment that Woods might be trying “too hard” to shut up his critics and get back to the task of trying to catch Jack Nicklaus’ standard of 18 majors. Even Woods isn’t immune to that common flaw.
“I think it’s just gotten to the point where he was so good, you don’t even look at Tiger as human anymore,” said Strange. “But he still feels the pressure like everybody else. He got more comfortable with it because he’s in contention more often, but it’s real pressure and he feels it. He’s human.”
What Woods has going for him in potentially being the guy who extend the streak of different major winners to 16 in a row is Lytham. The course has a pedigree of revealing the game’s all-time greats with past Open champions here including Hall of Famers Bobby Jones, Bobby Locke, Peter Thomson, Tony Jacklin, Gary Player and Seve Ballesteros (twice) as well as former world No. 1s Tom Lehman and David Duval.
So the best bet to answer all the questions might be a prominent and established name player.
But then again, it’s the Open.
“Something weird and bizarre always seems to happen at the Open Championship over these last 15 years,” said ESPN broadcaster Mike Tirico. “So we’re looking forward to seeing which way the wind blows this year.”