SOUTHPORT, England - Adam Scott and Justin Rose, friends since they were teenagers and top contenders in this British Open without Tiger Woods, passed each other on the putting green yesterday and stopped to discuss their final day of preparation.
"Did you play?" Rose said.
"Nine holes," Scott said with a smile, his hand on the bill of his cap to keep it from blowing off. "Not much point today."
That was more than Rose had on his agenda - four closing holes at Royal Birkdale that was all he would need to experience the relentless, 25 mph wind off the Irish Sea. The loop includes the 439-yard 16th, where some players struggled to reach the fairway that is only about 210 yards from the tee. It concludes with the 473-yard 18th, where Geoff Ogilvy hit sand wedge for his second shot.
Throw in the other holes, and a links course known as being the most fair has become a real beast.
"It's just survival, anyway," Rose said. "There's not a whole bunch you can learn out there. It is just brutally tough, and you've just got to go out there and deal with it on the day."
For all the bluster about this British Open being easier without Woods around, the difficulty has nothing to do with the absence of any one player. The real threat arrived yesterday in the strongest wind of the week, with no evidence it is leaving anytime soon.
"The wind is affecting the ball 20, 30, 40 yards at times," Scott said. "It's hard at the best of times."
Steve Stricker played his first practice round Sunday in a gentle breeze and hit 8-iron into the 421-yard second hole. In his final nine holes of practice yesterday, he hit a 3-wood.
Then came the sixth hole, a severe dogleg to the right at 499 yards that turns toward the sea. Stricker studied his yardage book, felt the wind blasting into his face, and felt his only chance was to hit driver off the deck. And he still couldn't reach the green.
"That's what I mean by challenging," Stricker said. "The way it's blowing, there's not a lot of opportunities to make birdies."
Hunter Mahan, longer off the tee than Stricker, had to rip a 3-wood to reach the sixth green.
"I told Hunter that it's a good thing he transferred to Oklahoma State from USC," said fellow Cowboy alum Scott Verplank. "Because you learn to keep the ball down in the wind. And that's going to help you this week."
The British Open gets under way today at Royal Birkdale and rarely has it been this wide open.
Woods is out for the rest of the year after reconstructive surgery on his left knee, and Padraig Harrington might have withdrawn with his ailing right wrist if this weren't the British Open and he wasn't the defending champion.
"I'll be apprehensive hitting any shot," Harrington said.
The betting favorites are Sergio Garcia and Ernie Els, who have been threats at golf's oldest championship most of the decade, with Rose the sentimental favorite as he tries to become the first English winner on an English links since Tony Jacklin in 1969.
Rose was a 17-year-old amateur in 1998 when he chipped in for birdie on the final hole to tie for fourth. Mark O'Meara won that year in a playoff over Brian Watts, after both finished an even-par 280 during a week or rain and wind that might not be much different.
The Royal & Ancient sounded delighted by the forecast.
"I think all is set for tomorrow for perhaps a windier championship than we've had in recent years," R&A chief executive Peter Dawson said. "The forecast seems to be moving the wind speeds up slowly but surely, and I think we're going to have a bit of breeze for once, which is good to look forward to."
Try telling that to Paul Goydos, who couldn't reach the 11th fairway yesterday morning. He wasn't the only player who stopped a few yards short of the fairway to search in the wispy rough for their tee shots.
Dawson said officials might play the front of some of the tees, but they would not move the markers to forward tees. He figures these guys really are good, and a bit of wind never hurt anything.
"I'm usually answering questions about the ball going too far," he said.
The wind might explain why there was so little activity on the course or on the practice range on the eve of this championship. This was no time for anyone to be searching for a swing key, and there wasn't much to gain, anyway.
"You work on the one shot you might have - straight into the wind at 40 mph," Verplank said.
The downwind holes present their own set of problems. Verplank has moderate length at best, and it was rare for him to try to carry a pot bunker some 320 yards off the tee with a 3-wood, which is what he attempted.
And if all that isn't enough to toy with their minds, players have to wait until the 15th hole before the first par 5. The hole is only 544 yards, but into this wind, Craig Parry hit driver for his second shot simply to stay short of the greenside bunkers.
"This is the toughest golf course I've played on the Open rotation," said Masters champion Trevor Immelman, who has played five other links courses in this major. "This is going to be a great test this week, especially with some of the weather that's been forecast. The guy who wins this tournament on Sunday is going to be very deserving of it.
"This golf course is going to give you everything you want."