July 29, 2008

Golf In My Favorite Town

As always in England, if Wednesday's sunny skies give way to Thursday's predicted wind, cold and rain, the golf story could end up being the weather

SUNNINGDALE, England -- When the curb leaped in front of my rental car at the 1999 men's British Open at Carnoustie, sending me into one of those quaint stonewalls that line Scottish driveways with about an inch to spare on each side, all while going at the breakneck speed of 5 mph, I decided to never again drive on what pretty much the rest of the world agrees is the wrong side of the road.

That, combined with the fact London is pretty close to my favorite city, has me staying in the capital for this week's Ricoh Women's British Open a delightful -- and safe -- 47-minute train ride from Suningdale Golf Club. One of the delightful things about Britain is that most of the great golf courses are reachable by train. The train line I take from Waterloo station not only goes to Sunningdale but also passes Wentworth in Virginia Water, longtime home of the European Tour mach play event, and the Berkshire Golf Club in Ascot, which many Brits think is the best of the lot in this area.

Using London as a base for a golf experience in England is both very practical and highly enjoyable. The trains run often and rarely deviate from their schedule. And then there is London itself. Beyond all the tourist stuff to do -- Tower of London, Buckingham Palace and slews of museums -- there is just the wacky lifestyle that is a joy to observe, as well as dip a toe into.

Go into a supermarket and walk down the dairy aisle. There are 35 kinds of yogurt, double cream, sour cream, clotted cream and 45 kinds of butter in addition to plain old milk. Truly, you learn a lot about a country in a supermarket. The dairy aisle in Britain is like the chips aisle in the United States -- way too many choices.

At the Tower of London I saw one of my favorite signs. A restroom there had a plaque on the wall celebrating the fact it was the "Loo of the Year" in 1995-96-97. That makes you wonder exactly how spectacular the loo was that stopped the three-year reign of the loo at the Tower of London. Makes it sort of the Notre Dame of loos, though the domination of the loo world by the Tower loo was not as lengthy as the 88-game winning streak in college basketball UCLA had snapped by the Fighting Irish in 1974.

And then there is the Golden Eagle pub, a tiny establishment in the London neighborhood of Marylebone that three nights a week has Eddie "Fingers" Pearson on the upright piano leading a sing-along. You've not truly experienced life until you've heard a dozen bitter ale-filled Brits sing the World War II song "There'll Be Bluebirds over the White Cliffs of Dover" and virtually the entire soundtrack of "My Fair Lady." That's the spirit that got London through the Blitz.

And that's why I'm voting for the Golden Eagle in the Pub of the Year contest, and I'm expecting you to do the same. Go to loveyourlocal.co.uk and cast your ballot for the Golden Eagle, Marylebone Lane in London. Better yet, go there the next time you are basing your British golf trip out of London.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, players practiced Wednesday under sunny skies at Sunningdale while casting a wary eye to the northern part of Britain, which was being battered by the kind of wind and rain Royal Birkdale got at the men's Open Championship. The early reviews of the course are overwhelmingly positive with most players are expecting the 6,408-yard Sunningdale Old Course designed by Willie Park Jr. to be pretty vulnerable.

The first two holes are par-5s that measure 485 yards and 489 yards respectively -- that's where Karen Stupples began the final round eagle, double eagle in winning in 2004 -- and the other two, the 459-yard tenth and the 503-yard 15th, are also reachable in two. "I think the scores are going to be low," Lorena Ochoa said Wednesday, as they were in 2004 when Stupples shot 19-under-par 269. "You have to birdie the par-5s and you have to be under par every day," Ochoa said.

If rain does come in for Thursday's first round it is supposed to arrive in the afternoon, which is good news for Ochoa, Morgan, Pressel, Karrie Webb, Annika Sorenstam, Cristie Kerr and Helen Alfredsson -- all of whom tee off before 8 a.m. for the first round. Those getting the afternoon draw include Natalie Gulbis, Suzann Pettersen, Paula Creamer and Yani Tseng.

Ochoa, two won the Ricoh Women's British Open last year on the Old Course at St. Andrews, shed a little light on her secret weapon: A sweet tooth. "The better I play the more dessert I allow myself to have," she said Wednesday. "I set a goal for the day. If it is good conditions tomorrow I might say I need to shoot six under par. If it is windy I'll say one under. If I shoot that I get desert."

As tasty as that is, I'll leave you with this delicious bit of golf trivia. What non-American -- male or female -- has won the most professional major championships? If you guessed a woman because this is the Ricoh Women's British Open and if you guessed Sorenstam because this is her last major, you are correct.

Jack Nicklaus (18) has won the most professional majors, followed by Patty Berg (15), Tiger Woods (14), Mickey Wright (13), Walter Hagen (11) and Babe Zaharias (10). As for those born outside the United States, there is Sorenstam (10) followed by Gary Player (9), Harry Vardon and Karrie Webb (7) and Nick Faldo (6). Pretty cool stat. Cheers mate.