Still aglow from a scorching 64 that had carried him to victory at
the Advil Western Open, Scott Hoch was asked on Sunday what kind
of reception he expects next week at the British Open, which he
has entered for only the fourth time in his 22-year career.
"Pretty cold, I imagine," said the game's hottest player. The
iconoclastic Hoch's antipathy toward golf's oldest championship
has long been the source of controversy, but he will arrive at
Royal Lytham and St. Annes as more than the tabloids' Public
Enemy No. 1. Hoch goes into the tournament in the unlikely role
of contender. At the prospect of winning the claret jug, Hoch
once said, "If I win, it'll prove that God has a sense of humor."
Could there be a better cosmic joke than a British Open champion
who abhors wind and rain? Although Hoch has famously likened the
Old Course at St. Andrews to a cow pasture (which no doubt had
his Scottish grandmother spinning in her grave), he insists his
beef with the British Open is not about the courses but the
climate. "I hate cold weather," says Hoch, a native of North
Carolina who makes his home in Orlando. "The single biggest
criterion I use in selecting tournaments is the climate. I'm
serious. I almost didn't play the U.S. Open last year because
it's always cold at Pebble Beach. That kind of weather affects
me. My hands get cold quicker than anybody else's I know."
That might seem like another blast of hot air from golf's
geyserlike oracle, but Hoch even had tests done in the early
'80s to see if he suffers from a circulatory disorder. (He
doesn't.) At the Western he showed up for the second round
wearing a sweater, this on a humid day in Lemont, Ill., that had
a recorded high of 73[degrees]. What makes Hoch such a heat
junkie is the convalescent effect it has on his brittle body. He
had shoulder surgery in 1992 and this year has endured a
seriously sprained left ankle and two cortisone shots to
alleviate the pain from a mysterious injury to his left wrist.
Through it all this 45-year-old war horse has not only soldiered
on, but also produced the best golf of a fine career.
Over his last nine tournaments, beginning with April's Houston
Open, Hoch has finished no worse than 16th, a torrid stretch that
includes two victories, a second and three other top 10 finishes.
However, it isn't the hot streak that has compelled Hoch to
journey to England. A clause in his endorsement deal with Yonex
demands that he go. Still, his frosty feelings toward the British
Open are sure to melt once he lays eyes on Lytham. A quirky
little bandbox of a course, Lytham is the narrowest layout in the
Open rota, and it sets up perfectly for Hoch. Peter Thomson, who
won the 1958 British Open at Lytham, has written, "It is the
ultimate test of driving skill, strategic planning and nerve
Hoch displayed all three traits during his stirring triumph at
the Western, the 10th victory of his career. Long considered one
of the game's premier iron players, Hoch attributes his success
this year to driving and putting, and the stats bear him out. He
ranks seventh in driving accuracy and is tied for first in
putting. During his first-round 69 Hoch hit 14 of 14 fairways on
Cog Hill's long, twisty Dubsdread course. He followed with a 68,
which put him in third place, four back of the midway leader,
Davis Love III, who has overcome injuries of his own.
Slowed by a bulging disk in his neck, Love didn't play 18 holes
even once in the two months between the final round at Harbour
Town in April and the first round of the U.S. Open. When a
reinvigorated Love birdied the 15th hole last Saturday, he was 15
under for the tournament and leading by five strokes. But Hoch
finished with a flourish, birdieing the final four holes to trim
the lead to one.
Sunday's round was the best mano a mano of the season. Over the
first 15 holes Love and Hoch combined for 14 birdies--many of them
spectacular--and no bogeys. "It looked as if whoever cracked first
was going to lose," said Love, who blew 54-hole leads this season
at San Diego and Los Angeles. "That turned out to be me."
Clinging to a one-shot lead on 16, Love hooked a seven-iron way
left of the green, then flushed the ensuing chip over the green
and into a bunker and took a bogey. Tie ball game. On 18 both
players bunkered their approach shots, but only Hoch got up and
down. His 21-under 267 established a tournament record.
The Western has always served as a precursor to the British Open,
and this year, for the first time, the relationship was
formalized. Fifteen players at the Western earned invitations to
Lytham through a new set of qualifying criteria, while those
already exempt strained to generate momentum. Or not, in the case
of Tiger Woods. His uninspired showing at the U.S. Open was
followed by an opening 75 at Westchester, and when Woods began
the Western in similarly lackluster fashion, he finally
snapped--his wedge, that is, after dumping his approach to Cog
Hill's 18th green into a pond.
Woods came back from his 73 with a 68 on Friday but was more
excited about what happened at the range after the latter round.
"I figured out something with my swing," he said. "I started
hitting my shots the way I used to, and started getting the
normal distances." Over the past month Woods had mysteriously
lost a bit of distance with his irons--"not that much, three to
five yards," he said, but enough to take the precision out of his
On Saturday, Woods took his recalibrated swing from the range to
the course, and the result was one of the wildest rounds of his
career, including a stretch on the front nine during which he
went eagle, double bogey, birdie, double bogey, birdie. He
finally got a handle on his distance control over the final five
holes, playing them in five under and making another eagle. "It
was like driving a race car," Woods's caddie, Steve Williams,
said following the 68. "Hit the gas, hit the wall, hit the gas,
hit the wall...."
On Sunday the wheels fell off completely, as Woods hit more
bunkers (nine) than greens (eight). With a scrappy 71 he finished
a distant 20th, the first time since June 1998 that he has gone
three straight tournaments without a top 10. Ever the optimist,
Woods said, "The good thing is that I putted great today. It's
one or the other. Either I'm hitting it good and not putting
worth a darn or I'm making everything and hitting it all over the
lot. I need to get them going at the same time, and I'll be all
If Woods sounds relaxed, it is because he has good vibes from his
last visit to Lytham, in 1996. (Also, he finished 23rd at last
year's Western before storming to an eight-shot victory at St.
Andrews.) As a skinny 20-year-old at Lytham, Woods set an Open
record for an amateur with a 66 in the second round that included
a run of eight birdies in 11 holes, and came in 22nd. "That was
when I realized I could play with the big boys," he says. A month
later he turned pro.
Woods may find the experience less fulfilling this time around.
Unlike the wide-open Old Course at St. Andrews, which favors
length like no other Grand Slam venue, Lytham, a par-71 that
plays a mere 6,905 yards, "rewards finesse more than power," says
Tom Lehman, who won there in '96. "You don't have to be long to
score well, but you do have to be accurate."
A couple of blocks from the sea, Lytham is not a classic links.
When it was founded in 1886, George Lowe, the club's first pro,
and a crew of workers molded the sand hills and hollows on land
that had been as flat as a pool table. They also planted 8,000
poplars, many of which are still standing. Lehman calls Lytham "a
unique hybrid that poses the challenges of both links and
parkland courses. You've got fast, bumpy fairways, sloped dunes
and grass mounds, gorse and trees." Oh, and did we mention the
bunkers? There are 196 of them.
So if accuracy and creativity are the keys at Lytham, the course
favors not only Hoch but also the player who outdueled him at
Westchester--Sergio Garcia. Though a tender 21, Garcia has some
history at Lytham. He was also there in '96 and went one under on
his first nine before fading and missing the cut by six shots.
Garcia has developed into one of the best drivers in the game.
He's ranked fifth on the Tour in total driving. After being
paired with the young Spaniard for four rounds at Westchester,
Hoch said, "Sergio is as good a driver of the ball as Greg Norman
was in his prime. Tiger is very good with the driver, but he's
not as accurate as Sergio."
If it comes as a surprise to hear Hoch be so gracious, well, he
has mellowed. At the Western he was a wisecracking delight, and
he took pains to clear up a few misconceptions. Hoch, you should
know, is not a xenophobic Ugly American. He loves to travel, and
after Lytham he and his wife, Sally, will vacation in Italy. He
has six international victories spanning two decades of
globe-trotting, at such far-flung events as the 1982 Pacific
Masters in Japan, the '90 Korean Open and the '95 Dutch Open.
Despite all his bluster about the weather, the real reason Hoch
didn't play the British Open in the '80s was a quirk in the
calendar. As a rookie, in 1980, he won the Quad Cities Open,
which was played opposite the British. He won Quad Cities again
in '84 and felt an allegiance to the tournament that launched his
Maybe Hoch has been avoiding the British Open because he thought
he didn't belong. "I'm not a major player," he says, despite all
the evidence to the contrary. "I don't plan my season around
them. That's for players who are far better than I am, who have
won big tournaments and who have won majors, which I have not.
I'm a good player who has enjoyed some longevity and consistency.
That's not the same as being an elite player."
Hoch could make that quantum leap next week, but his dreams are
more modest than that. "I'm hoping it's not too cold over there,"
consistency," says Hoch. "That's not the same as being an elite