ST. ANDREWS, Scotland -- The British Open is the confessional of golf. The game's greats spill their guts here as they do nowhere else. Maybe it's the tradition that loosens lips. Or perhaps the world focus does it. This is not only the home of golf but it's center stage, too.
From Tiger Woods to Jack Nicklaus, with David Duval and Nick Faldo in between, everybody has his best joke, most personal anecdote or saddest tale ready for public consumption. If you can't win the four days of golf, at least win the three days of tale-telling, lie-swapping and gamesmanship that precedes it.
The leader in the clubhouse, as might be expected, is Woods. At most events, he keeps his guard high. Even this week, asked if this glorious period of his life had thrown up any hardships, he said, ''Do I care to share them? I think that's something I am going to keep right here inside me.''
Yet, within minutes, he was talking about how much it troubles him to see small children trampled by adults who stampede at him for autographs. ''The adults don't care about the kids, they run right over them,'' he said, recalling an Irish boy last week who was left knocked down and bleeding in front of him and ''a whole fence'' that crashed under the weight of fans at Carnoustie where ''kids were crying.''
St. Andrews itself may serve as the truth serum at this Open.
Tiger often brushes away touchy subjects. Yet here, asked if the flow of hate mail to him had diminished with the years, he said flatly, ''Nothing has changed.''
St. Andrews, in particular, tends to bring generations together, spark memories and inspire comparisons. Perhaps the ancient walls running by the course, or the old town peering down, makes the mind run in deeper channels than, say, the National Car Rental Golf Classic at Walt Disney World Resort.
The sight of Sam Snead, now 88, brought back a memory for Tiger of their first meeting -- when Woods was ''5 or 6.'' In a charity format, Woods was one of many who got to play two holes with Snead. On his first shot -- a par-3 -- young Tiger knew he couldn't clear the creek, so he tried to bounce a shot across a cart path. He missed. Splash. Undaunted, he marched into the rocky creek to play on.
''What are you doing?'' yelled Snead. ''You can't play that. Just pick it up and drop it. Let's go on.''
''Well, I did not really like that very much,'' said Tiger. ''I looked at my ball and (thought), 'I gotta hit it. I don't want to drop. It is a penalty.' ''
So, the young prodigy -- the golf equivalent of a Mozart in music or Fischer in chess who can dazzle adults when they're little more than toddlers -- slogged into the water and smacked a 7-iron shot up onto the green.
How does Woods remember that day? ''I made bogey, bogey and Sam beat me by two -- par, par.'' Snead is lucky the kid didn't demand a press.
St. Andrews itself may serve as the truth serum at this Open. The place opens the hearts of golfers. ''Just so neat,'' Woods gushed about his first visit to the golf museum here a few years ago. ''I never thought I could love the game more than I did as a kid. But as I've gotten older the love is there probably a little bit more. I think my appreciation and understanding of the game has increased.''
St. Andrews itself is a symbol of the way golf reveals itself slowly, by degrees, even to its most ardent converts. To come here for the first time is to be bitterly disappointed. Then, eventually, the veil lifts.
In 1959, Jack Nicklaus' dad came home from a visit here with rotten news for his son -- the same awful first impression that so may of us carry back with us. Golf was born in a flat, ugly field of scrubby grass with a bunch of bumps and holes in it. The sky is flat and gray. The ocean is flat and gray. It's cold. It rains. This is ''heaven?'' The Old Course, the elder Nicklaus reported, was ''the worst golf course I have never (sic) seen in my life. ... You don't have any idea where you are going. ... It doesn't look like they ever cut the grass ... and the greens are terrible.''
Father Nicklaus then recounted how his entire group, made up of ''good putters,'' had three-putted a dozen greens apiece. In 1964, when Jack himself set foot on the Firth of Forth he knew within minutes that, ''Dad, you're all wet. ... He wasn't a tournament golfer. He was the average guy who comes from the States looking for lush green grass and big tall trees. ... I came and I had a love affair from the first time I saw it.''
In this Open setting, golfers reveal their deepest tendencies the instant they open their mouths. Woods is no workaholic son of a stage father, but rather a profoundly dedicated man who has found his true passion and his rightful art. Nicklaus's self-critical honesty flows to the surface just as quickly. Asked about his 40th wedding anniversary Sunday, he makes it clear the gratitude is on his side.
''I am sure how she'll phrase it,'' he said. 'It's been a wonderful two weeks.' That's about how as much as she's seen me in 40 years.''
Legend after legend comes clean here. Nick Faldo talked about how his game disintegrated so badly in recent years that he tried to re-learn ''the feel'' of the sport by working with blind golfers. They were his teachers, not visa versa. Now, Faldo stands on the practice tee with his eyes closed, trying to involve more of his six senses. And his form has actually begun to come back in recent months.
Once the iciest of Hoganesque competitors, Faldo now reaches out to others. At the sight of Seve Ballesteros, only 40 but hacking like a duffer off the tee, Faldo said, ''I can sort him out. Seriously, I could. I will give him half an hour. I will go and tell him. I am sure there is a way, unless he is physically gone (from a bad back). I am sure I can clear (away) a few layers of dust.''
David Duval, still ranked second in the world, virtually put himself on the shrink's couch in his interview session. He has been ''so upset'' that his frustration has ''seeped everywhere through my game. ... It seeps backwards, like a virus, not good for your golf or for your attitude or for your anything.'' Eventually, he seemed so relieved by the therapeutic effects of the Open podium that he volunteered, ''I appreciate having this news conference.''
Perhaps the sweetest self-revelation this week has been Jean Van de Velde, who blew the '99 Open in what is generally thought the worst collapse in golf history. The Frenchman has brought such grace to defeat that you almost want to become a famous ''loser.''
Not much has changed for him, he claims. ''I still go home and get shouted at by my wife.'' The one exception is ''a few thousand interviews. ... I figure I'll only have to talk about it for 10 years. ... Nine more to go, then no one will care.''
Will it be a relief that his year as The Man Who Couldn't Even Make a Double Bogey is finally over?
''Yes, it is a relief,'' he said, ''As long as I don't come (to the last hole) three ahead and hit it straight in the hotel on 18.''
After his self-deprecating one-liners come to an end, however, you see the pride of a man whose response to disaster has been to win $350,000 already this year and establish himself as a solid member of the PGA Tour.
''You can rewrite history as you wish,'' said Van de Velde, dismissing all the various strategies or different breaks that might have changed his Carnasty fate. ''That's life, you know. Get a handkerchief and cry some place else.''
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